In case you missed my recent post on why friendships at work matter, we discussed how humans are a social species who crave connection, and how a wealth of evidence now proves how strong connections lead to better mental and physical health, better workplace relationships and better overall performance and business outcomes. The “social fabric” of an organisation or a society describes the degree of interconnectedness that exists between people in a given community, as a result of the social interactions, relationships and networks they are successfully able to create and maintain.
Unsurprisingly, the impact of the Covid pandemic at every level of society, due to the extreme restrictions it placed on people’s ability to mix and interact, was (and continues to be) profound, in ways that we are all still trying to come to terms with and move beyond. Organisations that understand and respond to the scale and nature of damage to our social fabric due to Covid are arguably best placed to rebuild it in a way that benefits everyone.
Why is social fabric in the workplace important
An organisation’s culture is based upon a set of shared beliefs, values, attitudes and behaviours which define the tone and character of a business for its staff, partners and customers. A positive organisational culture requires a healthy social fabric that is dependent on how well employees perceive, interact and communicate with each other. The quality of the social interactions that occur and whether these form into meaningful, lasting relationships and networks all determine the strength (or not) of an organisation’s social fabric.
When colleagues trust, respect and appreciate one another, they are more likely to support each other and to experience a healthier and more inclusive culture. They are also more likely to experience a boost in productivity and results (I outline the importance and powerful benefits of approaching our work relationships with the same mindset as we do our friendships here). A strong social fabric in a workplace can foster a positive sense of community, which encourages teamwork, promotes collaboration and improves employee morale, health and productivity. On the other hand, a weak social fabric can lead to individual isolation, widespread mistrust, a lack of engagement, increased sickness absence and reduced productivity among employees.
Covid and its impact on social cohesion
In some ways, the impact of the Covid pandemic on social cohesion has been profoundly obvious, whilst in other ways the consequences may be less obvious and more far-reaching. Lockdowns clearly cut off our access to most of the face-to-face daily social contact and interactions we’d previously taken for granted. Coupled with this, individual reactions to the pandemic included depression, stress, hopelessness and heightened anxiety related to fear of Covid, broken routines, loneliness and social isolation. For those people who also caught and recovered from Covid, ongoing symptoms of fatigue and difficulty concentrating are also reported to affect people’s ability to work productively, which will include their ability to interact well with others. So whilst for many of us, fortunately, the initial shock and inconvenience of ‘peak Covid’ was quickly mitigated by technology that enabled social connectivity in spite of remote working, there may be a lag in people’s ability to bring back ‘business as usual’ confidence and their best selves into their interactions with others at work.
Important too, to remember, is that not everyone’s experience of Covid will have been mitigated by technology, by the welcome loss of a commute or by our reduced opportunities to spend, which actually boosted the sense of prosperity and work-life balance for some. The ability to earn uninterrupted (and in relative comfort at home) strongly depended on your background, the nature of your role, the industry you worked in and where it was located. It has become clear through data, that people who were already disadvantaged due to socioeconomic factors like background, education, gender and race, also turned out to be the hardest hit during the pandemic. Staff in different parts of a business may well have had an extremely different experience of the Covid pandemic. For example, imagine a large organisation with ‘white collar’ corporate functions and leadership headquartered in the UK’s Southeast and production or logistics facilities, in other parts of the UK, with lesser-skilled workers from more disadvantaged backgrounds who were either not able to work from home or worse were not able to work at all. The evident disconnect between how these different groups experienced the pandemic could directly influence their respective sense of worth and fairness in the organisation and harm the overall social fabric within this workplace.
The Covid pandemic was undoubtedly traumatic for different people in different ways, to the degree that most of us have an increased recognition of the value of meaningful emotional and social support. If there is any good news to be had, it is perhaps how the Covid pandemic has absolutely raised the profile of the importance of stronger social cohesion and a positive social fabric in our communities.
Tips for improving the social fabric of your workplace
Quick scan the nature and profile of your workforce.
Understand that different parts of your workforce may experience deeper and more far-reaching consequences to their lives than others as a result of Covid, due to factors including socioeconomic background, gender and race.
Reviewing and reassessing who might be affected (and how) can help you better anticipate the risk of harm to the social fabric of your workplace, which can help you design responses and solutions that unite and bring out the best in everyone.
Prioritise the development of stronger social networks.
Consider cohort-based people development, which reduces conflict and builds trust in smaller learning groups that reinforce new and stronger connections. At Liminal Consulting, we can help with this.
Take a strategic approach to health and wellbeing. Healthier and more inclusive work cultures embed and reinforce mutual respect, recognition and effective communication in a way that develop the trust needed to build a positive social fabric in organisations.
Pause and think bigger picture.
Prior to the pandemic two-thirds of people surveyed already felt that society is becoming more divided and individualistic. If this has been compounded by the Covid pandemic, then this is likely to lead to an even greater sense of division and reduced social cohesion, especially since increased government debt (caused by an unstable economy and higher borrowing) will disproportionately harm those who most need support through investment in public health, education and welfare services – the very structures designed to fuel stronger long-term employment and business success.
This has important implications for businesses and their approach to staff wellbeing as a key driver for workplace engagement and productivity, since people rarely leave their real lives and concerns at the door when they turn up for work.
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