Maintaining Social Cohesion in a Hybrid Working World

How cohesive is your team? Do you know each other as people? Do you know what each other knows – i.e. what skills and experience you each have? Are you supportive of each other? Do you get along? When you have different opinions, can you work together without falling out? All of these questions point to a single team characteristic – social cohesion.

Social cohesion is the essential glue that binds a team together. It is very strongly correlated with team performance – this is so for co-located and hybrid working teams alike – meaning that when social cohesion is achieved, teams work better.

But unfortunately, social cohesion is something that can come under particular strain when we are working remotely, which is why it’s so important that hybrid workers take steps to protect and sustain the relationships that deliver cohesion.

Why is Social Cohesion Important?

Social cohesion and trust are closely linked. Together they ensure that we are happy to share our expertise with colleagues and to work collaboratively and generously to meet shared goals.

Social cohesion also extends beyond the boundaries of our immediate team. If we know people in other teams well, then we feel able to reach out and share expertise and knowledge – to the benefit of their objectives or of those we share.

Don’t Neglect Social Cohesion

Relationships between colleagues essentially oil the wheels of work – but they don’t maintain themselves. When people first started to work from home in March 2020, many did not realise that their relationships needed to be consciously maintained.

But over time, less strong relationships – and even the strong ones, actually – need more intentional maintenance. As we embrace different hybrid work models, we need to adapt our practices to keep those relationships in the front of our minds.

What Does ‘Maintenance’ Mean?

Essentially, we need to think about all of our colleagues and consciously:

  • stay connected to them (contact them, sometimes just to catch up/be social)
  • let them know we care about them (ask how they are, listen carefully and offer support)
  • share things we are doing that might be helpful to them
  • let them know we are there for them (ask “how can I help?”)
  • adapt our approach to accommodate their needs and preferences

And I don’t mean in a false way. If we care about people, we naturally want to reach out to them. Anything that isn’t authentic won’t do the trick and will be seen as a box ticker. Having a check in at the start of a meeting to see how people are doing will be seen as inauthentic if people are rushed and not listened to, for example.

We may think that social cohesion is more easily achieved in an office, when team members share a common space, but physical proximity is no guarantee of social cohesion – not everyone looks out for their colleagues or tries to support them even when they are co-located.

Social cohesion often requires conscious effort, and this is especially true when we’re working apart. If we don’t see people in the office, maybe they won’t come to our minds. This means we need to be more intentional – maybe diarising to catch up with a couple of people from the team each week – or whatever feels natural.

Management support for cohesion

Often, company culture encourages a focus on getting down to business, which effectively discourages social activities or focus. Anything that distracts from work tasks and objectives/goals is therefore not supported. But knowing that cohesion is the most strongly correlated aspect of team performance should reinforce the fact that it isn’t just ‘nice-to-have’ – it’s business critical. Management support and encouragement for maintaining strong relationships and developing healthy team empowerment is essential.

Cohesion is the social glue that binds a team together – it can’t be allowed to become brittle through lack of attention.

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