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Connecting the Workspace for Social Capital


Motivated workforce
Image: kentoh -
In previous articles, I have referred to the organizational outcomes — human, organization, and social capital — that IT, real estate/facilities, and HR work together to create. This is achieved by aligning the digital and physical workspaces and the people working in these around common needs and objectives.
I have also suggested that social capital is often the most important of these outcomes. Here, the connected workspace is not just about ensuring each of the different elements of the workspace link together, but also that the workspace promotes broader connection and therefore a more collaborative organization too.
The issue with a social capital-oriented focus is that this type of workspace is rather more difficult to develop than one focusing on the other potential outcomes. A human capital-oriented workspace requires a focus on individuals: offices or cubicles for individuals, productivity tools for individuals, and HR processes supporting individuals — all creating the human capital a business needs. An organization capital-oriented approach just needs to ensure the digital and physical workspaces align with the broader organization that a business needs, and that this alignment remains intact as things change.
A focus on social capital brings with it a much higher level of complexity. Social capital focuses on the relationships between people, and emotions and intuitions can impact these. In addition, the number of relationships in a system increases exponentially faster than the number of participants. (The equation behind this is: r = p (p-1) / 2, where r = the number of relationships and p the number of people.)
All of this means that while we can often think about human capital-oriented approaches in simple cause and effect terms and organization capital approaches through basic systems thinking, social capital-oriented approaches need to reflect the nature of organizations as complex adaptive systems.
Despite this being the case, IT and real estate/facilities management activities directed at creating social capital remain fairly straightforward, focusing on the use of meeting rooms/spaces and collaborative tools. For example, see my suggestions on using asynchronous, social and synchronous technologies, and various meeting rooms and spaces to enable the effective return to the office. (We know, however, that gaining adoption of these spaces and tools can be a more complex challenge.)
This connected approach also may require involvement from other disciplines. For example, analytics teams may play an important role in conducting organization or social network analyses to identify areas of improvement for connections between individuals and groups. But again, these activities are fairly straightforward to undertake.
Developing Human Relationships in Collaborative Organizations
HR, however, needs to tie its activities very closely to people’s relationships. As such, increased complexity of these relationships can greatly impact HR activities. Therefore, the heart of the issue about a social capital-oriented workspace is that the HR activities needed here (and might perhaps be better named “human relationships” rather than “human resources”) are often quite difficult to make work in the way we might like.
Actually, even many of the activities HR undertakes to improve an individual’s performance and better leverage their talent are difficult to get right. For example, individual bonuses can stimulate focus and productivity, but can also block creativity and the pro-social behaviors that lie at the heart of connectedness.
But when looking at the relationships between people, and within teams and networks, the issues are even more pronounced. For example, team level bonuses can resolve some of the issues with individual bonuses listed above, but can reduce line of sight, encourage social loafing, and lead to perceptions of unfairness. In turn, all of these can lead to lower engagement and performance.
Understandably, many HR teams decide, consciously or unconsciously, not to pursue team-level activities. However, as teams and teaming become still more popular, supporting the increasing importance of social capital, this reticence is increasingly untenable. Organizations need HR teams to focus on creating social capital and collaboration even if this is hard to do, rather than just developing human capital simply because doing that is easier.
In addition, HR can quite easily take valuable actions that will help create the connected workspaces organizations need these days. Here are my suggestions for five top priorities:
  1. Organization design – Informal connections are worth influencing, but the most important connections are often the ones provided by the formal organization architecture — i.e., within a functional department or an agile team. That makes it imperative that people are organized appropriately. HR often tends not to involve itself in organization design, and can treat this too transactionally and reactively. This can mean that by the time HR gets to participate, there is often little alternative to traditional restructuring — that is, moving from one functional organization architecture to another. However, options for more innovative ways to organize are growing. These include bringing people together into new organizational arrangements such as pods, circles, communities, and networks that provide the types of connections organizations really need.
  2. Management and leadership development – The growing focus on reducing organizational hierarchy and introducing self-management can be appropriate, but a good manager is one of the most important enablers organizations can provide to improve individual and team effectiveness. Collaboration can be enabled by ensuring managers focus on the people they manage, not just on their tasks, as well as on the relationships within and between teams. This is why research firm Gartner suggests the most effective management style is usually that of the “connector manager”; this involves connecting employees to others, within a team or elsewhere in the organization, who are best able to address an employee’s specific needs.
  3. Recruitment for propensity to collaborate – Teaming skills are difficult to develop so organizations are often best off recruiting people who will value and engage naturally in teaming and then training them in required technical skills — rather than recruiting for these skills and then trying to train for collaboration. This might mean involving a whole team in a new team member’s selection in order to ensure the addition of the individual will create value for the team. It is also important to use recruitment to increase diversity, so that, alongside other benefits, the overall workforce is able to provide as many different insights and perspectives as possible.
  4. Focusing other HR activities at team level – This does not need to include reward — simply stopping paying individual bonuses may be enough here. But performance management and other processes can often be undertaken at a team level fairly easily. Opportunities include cascading objectives (particularly objectives and key results, or OKRs) openly across a team. People can also be supported to give and receive feedback within the team. These actions then enable teams to identify and recognize high performers, and coach, develop or take other appropriate actions with those performing less well.
  5. Organization development interventions – Additional interventions may also be necessary to improve team and network relationships and conversations. For example, many organizations tend to overlook unhelpful and unnecessary conflict, but since this can significantly impact both team and individual performance it needs to be addressed. Other interventions may be required to build trust and psychological safety, as well as to promote inclusion across the organization. Interventions can be used to improve both the formal organization architecture, and the informal connections that may have been identified through organization network analyses
Beyond these five organization priorities, HR teams working in collaborative organizations also need to ensure their activities link with and support those of IT, and real estate/facilities. This might include, for example, developing staff to use new communication technologies introduced by IT, or nudging them to make appropriate use of the spaces provided by real estate/facilities.
Focusing on these activities will enable HR to play a major role in the connected workspace. Doing this then makes it more likely that HR will be able to deliver on its overall accountability for the connected workspace, too.