27 September 2023

Socio-emotional ties: A secret ingredient to success

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Jacqueline Brassey, Aaron De Smet, Bonnie Dowling and Jane Qu* say bolstering socio-emotional ties can help rebuild close and supportive personal connections among employees in the hybrid world of work.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led employees to step back and re-evaluate their organisation, career, and relationship to work itself.

Instead of traditional, more transactional retention tactics (e.g., compensation), employees now seek a more personalized, flexible, and human experience on the job, including stronger relationships with leaders, colleagues, and teams.

While online, technology-supported communication has skyrocketed during the pandemic, we’ve simultaneously lost in-person connection and so-called “weak” socio-emotional ties.

Socio-emotional ties are the relational connections between people in society.

In some ways, they work like the synapses that connect neurons in the brain.

As neurons fire in connection with one another, they develop and strengthen the neural pathways between them.

Similarly, formal and organic touch points between colleagues can help create strong relationship networks in organisations, which naturally evolve and change as the business changes.

These relationships support organisational structure; fuel innovation, culture, and the spread of information; enable strategy; and often help make change “work.” The socio-emotional ties that create the right connections for impact have taken a hit during the pandemic.

As many organisations plan for a hybrid future, leaders should take these three actions to rebuild organic socio-emotional ties, spark collaborative and innovative business outcomes, and help support disillusioned and exhausted colleagues.

  • Inject more apprenticeship.

Apprenticeship happens more easily, naturally, and organically in a fully “in-person” work environment; it can be harder, and require more intentionality and planning, in a virtual or hybrid world.

Teams become more diverse and geographically distributed as remote work increases, and team members’ roles and needs quickly evolve.

Leaders must focus on connecting the dots in the teams around them and identify informal leaders to do the same.

Practicing intentional apprenticeship helps nurture and reinforce the relational ties that bind, thus creating a virtuous cycle.

Because a good apprenticeship relationship is highly functional and high value for the employee—and because it reinforces a socio-emotional and individualized connection—it can be helpful in addressing the Great Attrition.

  • Develop “inclusive” tailored solutions.

Unique approaches for specific groups will be key to rebuilding organic connections, as the pandemic has influenced different groups in different ways.

Younger workers, new employees, and introverts have reported more difficulty in contributing to the team, and in feeling engaged and creative, due to the loss of spontaneous connections and interactions.

To increase the emphasis on human centricity, one technology corporation is leveraging real-time data to iterate approaches that work for specific groups around office re-entry, facilities management, workplace safety, and contact tracing and care management.

Strategies are updated based on daily public health data and employee sentiment analyses via pulse surveys, allowing the company to tailor its recommendations for working parents and younger employee groups alike.

  • Pursue both virtual and in-person solutions as a powerful complement (versus a substitute).

Do not forget how much has been achieved virtually.

People have built the muscle to reconnect previously lapsed connections with long-distance family and friends online during the pandemic; virtual hangouts and other creative ways have emerged to meet social connection needs.

While many employers may be ready to return to significant in-person presence, we found that nearly three-quarters of employees surveyed would like to work from home two or more days per week.

Organisations should expect and prepare for a mix of virtual and in-person teams.

One consumer products firm is tackling this through an activity-based policy.

The company focuses exclusively on whether the work is getting done, empowering employees to have full control over how and where.

This enables different employee groups, such as younger workers or parents, to tailor their working model to their preferences and needs.

Our Great Attrition research has shown that creating a sense of belonging and strengthening relational ties can hold the key to attracting and retaining talent.

By using these three strategies to bolster socio-emotional ties—through purposeful in-person interactions and thoughtful virtual interactions—organisations are more likely to rebuild close and supportive personal connections among employees in the hybrid world of work.

*Jacqueline Brassey is core researcher and practitioner in the field of sustainable human performance at McKinsey. Aaron De Smet delivers growth, innovation, and organisational agility at McKinsey. Bonnie Dowling partners with clients to achieve and sustain their strategic priorities at McKinsey. Jane Qu partners with organisations to drive analytics-led transformation at McKinsey.

This article first appeared at mckinsey.com.

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