Hybrid working and workplace networks – how are these things connected, and why should we care?

Socio-Technical Centre
Workplace Behaviour Research Centre

Dr Helen Hughes is an Associate Professor at Leeds University Business School, and a Chartered Occupational Psychologist. She has expertise in workplace collaboration, studying the social dynamics of workplace relationships and the ways that these can be harnessed by organizations to improve both their performance and efficiency, and the wellbeing and satisfaction of their employees. Currently, she is a Co-Investigator on an ESRC-funded project: “Adapting Offices for the Future of Work”, which is looking to support economic recovery by identifying effective office design and work practice adaptations that also support remote and hybrid working.

Four office workers sat apart at two desks with tape on the floor, marking out the distance

What are social networks and why should we care about them?

What do you miss most – if anything – about working in an office? Maybe it’s the fancy coffee machine? Perhaps it’s the double-screen on your office desktop computer? For many people though, it’s simply the hustle and bustle that comes with being in an office environment. It’s having a chat about our weekend plans with the colleagues sitting near us, or being able to quickly gather in a meeting space and collaborate around a whiteboard as we resolve an urgent problem.

Social interactions are ‘the heart’ of the workplace for many people. Workplace friendships help to cultivate a sense of belonging and commitment that can help to reduce turnover, while strong advice networks can help organisations to solve problems more quickly, improve innovation, and more effectively capture and manage knowledge. In other words, workplace networks are vital to an organisation’s performance.

How do workspaces help employees network?

Traditionally, our workplace has played an important role in helping to build and maintain networks. We speak to people in corridors and staff rooms, in the kitchen as we make our lunch, or in the queue of the work canteen.

Sometimes those conversations are just small talk – “How was your weekend?”, “Did you watch the tennis yesterday?” – but they matter. They help us find ‘our people’ - those who share our interests, and our world views, and those whose company just helps make work that bit more enjoyable. Sometimes they lead to deeper conversations about projects we are working on and can lead to us to think about the same thing in a different way, or to new opportunities and connections – “I must put you in touch with…”.

Not only do workplaces provide environments that facilitate unscheduled and incidental conversations, they are also rich with cues about how to communicate and build these networks. Workspaces provide clues to the hierarchy, whether it is through the fact that some people’s offices are hidden away or access is restricted through secretaries or other gatekeepers, or because the spaces reserved for some people are bigger or grander than others.

We also get cues about who and how we should approach people – we see the people who always seem rushed, or who others seem nervous around, as well as those who seem welcoming and approachable.

The online workplace is not like this though, and in the Covid era, these are a key aspect that employees are reporting to miss. As one participant in our research told me during an interview: “Almost every conversation I have now is planned. I’m coming to this conversation with something to inform you, or I need something. Whereas, I see you at the coffee machine, I don’t have an agenda… and we can talk freely. That’s not really happening [in 2021] because you join an online meeting and I need to communicate X, Y, and Z in half an hour.”

Of course, many employers have noticed this. Talk to almost any organisation or read a LinkedIn thread, and you find people sharing their concerns that employees feel isolated, feel that they cannot reach out to people for a ‘quick call’ unless they know them well enough, or feel that break-out rooms are too prescribed.

Through our own research we are finding that employers are working incredibly hard to find new ways to promote unexpected conversations, be it through “coffee roulette” where you agree to call an employee at random with no agenda once a week, through online team socials and quizzes that use break-out rooms and games, or simply by encouraging employees to use the phone to make an impromptu call, rather than organise a scheduled meeting.

Is everyone feeling the same?

There is clearly not a single solution to this problem. In fact, we are hearing plenty of organisations who feel that teams are doing well at supporting each other, keeping in touch, and promoting within-team networks. There are certainly benefits too, with some employees reporting to us that they have been able to attend international meetings that they may not have had access to previously, or can sit in on a video call in a way that would have been previously impossible due to the room size available on site. All of which is great for network building and managing knowledge.

However, in a purely remote world of work, truly serendipitous conversations can be harder to find, and this is one of the key aspects that a number of organisations are hoping to improve on as they move to hybrid working, through some kind of combination of remote and workplace-based work.

What do organisations need to think about to help networks work for them?

Organisational hierarchies and charts are useful. They are an employer’s way of showing you who you need to speak to, and about what, and they clarify where responsibilities lie. But these formal networks are just one part of the communication puzzle. While it is unrealistic to expect organisations to ever be able to manage their employees’ networks (and nor should we encourage this!), there are things that employers can think through to harness the benefits of social networks within their workforce:

  1. Understand the different needs of your workforce.
    What kinds of network are valuable to your employees – Friendship? Information sharing? Advice seeking? Different jobs might need networks for different reasons. For instance, an analyst in a very technical role might not need to collaborate as regularly to get their work done, but might find their network crucial for social support or feeling part of the organisation (important if you want to nurture employee retention!). For a worker whose role is to bring in new customers or build business collaborations, getting access to the right people, at the right time is crucial. Each type of network is important, but might operate differently.
  2. What is the purpose of the space and how will it support your networks?
    If workspace is at a premium, and rotas are going to be essential, then employers need to think about who is coming in, and when. Are you encouraging communications that would have happened online anyway, because people know each other well enough to make a phone call, or should the workspace be used to encourage people to meet who would not have otherwise?
  3. How can you bring in your ‘out groups’?
    As well as the people we gravitate to, there are also people who we feel make our work that bit harder, who we have less in common with, and who we only go to when we really have to! Often that means we get closer to those in our ‘in group’ and spend less time with our ‘out group’. But this can be problematic, and can encourage cliques and create echo chambers, which are damaging to innovation and performance. Online working can make ‘out groups’ less visible, and cliques more prevalent, so employers should think about how to use the workspace to maximise the potential of the whole business.
  4. Creating inclusive workplaces.
    If some types of worker, such as those with caring responsibilities, would prefer to work from home more often, how can technology be enhanced to provide them with the same opportunities for ad hoc conversations? Care needs to be taken so that the benefits of office presence do not to perpetuate disadvantage by reinforcing office factions.

The people around you in your personal network are important and affect your experience of work – whether you feel supported, stressed, or encouraged. Who you know, who those people know, and who you have access to, will also affect who you go to when you need advice or support.

We tend to go back to ‘good’ sources – people that we trust, believe are competent or have good integrity – and we avoid others. So, the quality of our informal networks really does matter for innovation, performance, knowledge management, and worker satisfaction. As we move towards new models of hybrid working, networks should be top of the agenda for discussion.

This project - Adapting offices to support COVID-19 secure workplaces and emerging work patterns - is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19.

Related content

Contact us

If you would like to get in touch regarding any of these blog entries, or are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact:

Email: research.lubs@leeds.ac.uk
Phone: +44 (0)113 343 8754

Click here to view our privacy statement. You can repost this blog article, following the terms listed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.