Plenty of research is demonstrating all the reasons people want to get back to the office. While there are things people love about working from home, they are also reporting the desire to come back. And one of the biggest reasons they want to return: socializing.
But socializing sounds awfully fluffy. Any good leader knows productivity doesn’t come from standing around the coffee bar chatting about last night’s game or your coworker’s upcoming wedding.
Not so fast. Socializing may be a bit of a misnomer—because it’s really not just about comparing notes on the best apps for meditation or yoga. It’s about so much more—contributing to performance, engagement, innovation, happiness and fulfillment.
Reasons to Return
Social aspects of work contribute to all kinds of reasons people want to come back to the office. People want a greater sense of purpose, to focus more effectively, and to have greater access to tools or technology that help them collaborate. They even just want to get out of the house.
Work is fundamentally social, Whether you’re a social butterfly or a confirmed introvert, you need some level of connection with others to be happy and healthy. Aspects of work which link you with others can help you achieve this.
It’s All About the People
Beyond needs for purpose, performance and variety, one of the most important things people want is their people—colleagues, coworkers and teammates. We miss them for lots of good reasons—all of them social and none of them fluffy. Here are all the ways social time contributes to positive outcomes for people and businesses:
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Social Identity. For many, the way we contribute to society and community is through our work—and this contributes to identity. Coming together with people for a common goal is an aspect of how we understand ourselves. Interestingly, this trend toward people feeling a positive sense of themselves from their work and colleagues originated when people began migrating to cities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. People’s ties with their extended families and neighbors were reduced in favor of the time they spent with those at their places of business—and they began to identify to a greater extent with co-workers and based on their vocational expertise. This holds true today—we can have a positive sense of ourselves based on the way we express our talents through our work.
Social Norms. Another element of being together is developing an understanding of the norms, behaviors and values of an organization—its culture. Culture is always evolving, and employees make an ongoing contribution to it through their choices and the ways their behaviors reinforce it (or don’t). When people connect, culture is strengthened as people are reminded of ‘what is accepted and ‘how things get done around here’. In addition, when people understand the unwritten rules of an organization through regular interactions with others, they can feel more included and welcomed into the fabric of the organization—no matter how long they’ve worked for the company.
Social Learning. Learning is fundamental to growth and it typically occurs among and between people. Even if you’re learning from a book or a video, you’re collecting new information from an author or a presenter. Most powerful is learning you can do is while participating and being actively engaged with others. When you are in a meeting and roll up sleeves with teammates, you build on each other’s ideas and learn new ways to get something done.
When you run into people informally at the office you may learn about an update on the business or an issue with a customer. Or when a colleague shares an idea or an innovation, you may learn about a new way of looking at something or solving a problem. Of course there’s formal learning as well, and classic learning theory suggests the person in the class who learns the most is often the one who interacts most with colleagues. They are testing ideas, reflecting and rehearsing them with others and therefore deepening understanding through their exchanges with colleagues.
Social growth. Individuals develop over time, but so do teams and organizations. Our connections with others foster this growth. When individuals learn independently, that is good for them and the company, but it’s also powerful to consider how teams move forward. Teams with a collective understanding of a problem or shared empathy for a user can achieve better results. This kind of growth happens together—through connecting and investing time collaborating, communicating and coordinating.
Social Support. When people feel supported and valued, they are more likely to take risks and be creative because they feel confident with a safety net of solid relationships. Connecting with colleagues provides the opportunity to build relationships which offer this kind of support.
Social fabric. Another element that fulfills people and strengthens companies is social fabric. When people are able to connect and build relationships, they learn about each other’s struggles and successes. They are more likely to care about each other by appreciating the details of their lives. Knowing a colleague is challenged with childcare or concerned about an elder in their lives matters. Realizing a teammate is uncertain about his work or a coworker is ruminating about a challenging customer matters. These are raw material for increasing levels of trust and compassion across the organization. Of course, not every relationship will include sharing more intimate details, but when there are greater bonds among greater numbers of employees, it broadens and strengthens commitment within the organization.
Social capital. Ultimately, social capital describes the webbing of connections across an organization through which we can learn, stretch, grow and cooperate. The opportunity to tap into your network to ask for advice and test ideas is rewarding for you, but also for the company. Your network of your closest relationships is likely how you get support and coaching. Your network of secondary and tertiary relationships is (statistically) most likely to yield new opportunities for jobs or novel solutions. This broader network is made up of individuals who have access to new people and thinking you don’t. By definition, your more distant connections link you to what you don’t already have access to. Social capital also describes reciprocity—the social dynamic in which humans want to give back as a result of others giving to them. This give and take is scaffolding for strong relationships and strong culture.
While ‘socialization’ may seem like a superficial concern, it is anything but. In fact, social connections—and all they yield for employees and for companies are the future of work. Since the pandemic, relationships have become more distant and connections have become more limited—so a return to all kinds of social systems will be a relief—not just as we’re chatting about the game or the wedding, but as we contribute to our preferences to be together and to perform effectively.