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Social capital: The new currency of the workplace

Socializing at work isn’t overrated; instead, it’s the nation’s building block, says a study from the Survey Center of American Life

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Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

Americans are known to work. 

And work.

And work ... until burnout and quiet quitting have taken their toll.

So what’s causing this workplace dissatisfaction?

A study from the Survey Center on American Life found that it could be the lack of social connection employees are experiencing in their workplaces. The workplace is the single best place for Americans to create social capital.

For decades, the workplace has been a hub of conversation where employees can problem-solve together and work as a team — and in turn, where relationships are made between co-workers and mentors and mentees. 

These social and professional connections are a healthy part of an individual’s identity. It not only reduces anxiety, loneliness and stress but creates a sense of belonging and accomplishment among workers, the study says. 

It’s easy to blame the COVID-19 pandemic for feelings of isolation and loneliness, but those feelings are due to a decadelong declining trend in American sociability, according to Daniel Cox, the director of the Survey Center on American Life. 

“We’re seeing a rise in loneliness and the number of friendships people have is smaller than it used to be,” Cox told Deseret News.

The world has been feeling it. Quarantining, isolating and working remotely sped up the decay of the workplace as the largest port of connection building.

In the study, three authors — including Cox, Brent Orrell and Jessie Wall — explored questions about what employees want out of their work environment, what it means to have a social workplace, and why being sociable in the workplace is important in defining America’s future.

“We’re highlighting — in a very specific way — the critical role that workplaces play in developing social capital by allowing and providing people social outlets,” Cox said. “This is important not just in our work lives but for our entire lives.”

What employees want from workplace

Employees are looking for flexibility, said Cox.

Robin Cardoso, vice president of WeWork’s central and west territories, agrees.

WeWork was built to create an interactive space for all types of companies, with or without a space of their own. They lease office spaces ranging from one desk to whole floors while promoting a workspace that’s in-person and rich in relationships. It’s a model that screams flexibility.

“The pandemic has changed how we work and has accelerated a new way of working that would otherwise have taken decades to unfold,” said Cardoso. “Flexibility has been pushed to the forefront, as companies rethink their workplace strategies and real estate footprint.”

But flexibility is often confused with working from home, not in an office, said Orrell, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and one of the workplace study’s authors.

Someone can want to work in person and have a flexible schedule; it’s not just one or the other.

“Younger workers say they want flexibility, but it’s a very low priority for hybrid or remote work,” Orell said. “When you’re younger and starting out in the workforce, you want more exposure to the norms of the workplace … and so you place a higher priority on in-person work.”

The study from the Survey Center on American Life found that 52% of remote workers reported that they don’t interact with co-workers, with 6% stating they don’t have any co-workers at all. This hurts a worker’s sense of connection to the company and the ability to find mentorship to learn the trade. 

Flexibility means something different to more seasoned workers who understand their job and don’t need to be mentored. Their other priorities — in some cases, raising a family —may require them to have a malleable work schedule that’s easiest to do from home.

In either case, flexibility doesn’t have to equal remote work but can be seen as balanced work/life no matter what stage of life an individual is in. Which is what flexibility allows. It changes the emphasis on work to an emphasis on life and well-being.

As Americans found they didn’t like this emphasis on work with little regard for balance, the “great resignation” happened, and employees quit their jobs in droves searching for “greener pastures” elsewhere, says the study.

The top three reasons that Generation Z and millennials chose to quit their jobs and work for a different company during the “great resignation” include better work/life balance, more opportunities to grow, and higher pay for their work, per The Deloitte Global 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey.

“People need to be recognized, seen and understood as human beings that have multidimensional lives,” said Orrell. “They need to be invested in and recognized as people.”

Investing in people means that employers are willing to offer support and encouragement as employees work to grow their unique abilities, which leads to more job satisfaction and fulfillment. 

Orrell used the psychological term “flow” to describe this relationship between employees and their job.

By investing time, energy and resources into employees for their personal growth, employers are investing in something more valuable: job satisfaction and deeper work, meaning that employees will be fully engaged and “bring their best” to be used at work, Orrell said.  

This is the way to fight phenomena such as “quiet quitting” and “imposter syndrome” — or feeling inadequate at a job you’ve been trained for — according to the study.

Why make the workplace social?

Companies that invested in their employees had the edge over companies that didn’t, as the results of the Deloitte study showed. 

“What I’m trying to do with this is pull that stuff in the back of our minds to the front,” Orrell said. “It’s there, it’s real and it has an effect on your operations, turnover rates, spending money on (human resource) activities and recruiting, all of that. There’s an actual business case for devoting some resources to (building social capital).”

Employees are more likely to stay at a job if they feel balanced and happy, and social connection is a big part of that.

The Survey Center on American Life poll acknowledged that as workers find friends and build relationships, they are less likely to leave the company because more connections make for a happier and more productive employee.

“The connection within a work community plays a vital part in the environment,” said Cardoso, of WeWork. “We’ve seen that community is crucial to both employee happiness and workplace productivity. It’s become apparent that people need interaction to feel fulfilled in a way that can’t be replicated over Zoom — that’s why we see a giant push toward a return to work.”

The new currency of the workplace isn’t just about a paycheck anymore; it’s about creating a social place where employees can create connections.

Creating a work environment with social capital has a chain reaction that helps the whole nation connect while encouraging economic processes such as trade and business partnerships.

Coming back to work and socializing is the first step in creating a stronger, happier, more interconnected nation, these experts say. They plan to further explore this topic in two upcoming reports.