By Katherine C. Kellogg, Erin L. Kelly, and Constance N. Hadley
Hybrid work is here to stay in many organizations. Employees value the flexibility of remote work so much that many have resisted mandates to spend more time in the office. But managers face special challenges leading teams whose members mix time in the office with remote work. Leaders of distributed teams need to pay attention to an often-overlooked dimension of work: network ties. Research suggests that the move to hybrid work has diminished some of employees’ connections to their networks of contacts at work.
Studies indicate these network ties play a huge role in innovation, work-life balance, job satisfaction, and productivity. Here’s why these working relationships are so important—and what teams can do to strengthen them.
The importance of “weak” network ties
In a work setting, “weak ties” are contacts who do not work closely together (for example, people in different departments) and have relatively infrequent interactions—maybe only several times a year. Research has shown that weak ties are key for innovation because in an employee’s network, they often offer access to a variety of information that can spark new ideas and insights.
Distributed work can jeopardize those weak ties. A study of 61,000 Microsoft employees from before and after they switched to remote working during the pandemic found that remote workers spent 25% less time collaborating across groups. A natural consequence of the less-full office associated with hybrid work is that the chances for spontaneous interactions among employees—in hallways or the company cafeteria, for instance—are reduced. In response, many companies are trying to facilitate more opportunities for these types of interactions by coordinating employees’ in-office days. But simply getting employees in a room together may not be enough to generate the kind of innovation that flows through valuable connections with weak ties.
Fortunately, there are many ways managers can encourage such connections. One is to orchestrate short bursts of innovation activity involving people from faraway corners of the organization through activities like hackathons, for example. The key is making sure employees have a clear shared goal (such as finding ways to reduce client wait time) and a structured process to follow.
Managers can also set up short in–person rotations of employees across sites. Research finds that physical proximity promotes idea generation and the exchange of valuable knowledge. For example, at Eleos Health, a behavioral health technology company that provides clinicians with augmented intelligence tools, product managers travel to do one-week rotations with customer-success managers who have clinical backgrounds. During one of those rotations, the teams generated ideas that led to the development of a new clinical documentation product for therapists.
How team ties help fight burnout
Team ties are also extremely important. Coordination can be more difficult in distributed teams, particularly on new teams that lack established routines. On a hybrid team, it can be hard to know who is handling what, or how to communicate when questions arise. Managers and employees alike fear uncertainty, and their default response is often to shift to being “always on” by monitoring work communications at all hours. That, in turn, increases the risks of burnout and exhaustion.
Strong team ties are built on a robust pipeline of information and well-developed norms for communicating and coordinating. Employees can then spend less time and energy defensively checking in or promoting their contributions, because they trust that the rest of the team sees the value of each person’s work and will do their part, too.
When employees are not physically together as often, team ties must be deliberately cultivated. Managers can help strengthen team ties by conveying their interest in and support for their team members, including interest in their personal lives. Managers also can foster team discussions about processes, expectations, and how to work more effectively as a group, while conveying that the team can solve these challenges together.
Building friendships at work
Studies have shown that having close friends at work can increase job satisfaction and productivity. Unfortunately, rates of workplace friendships have declined as remote work has increased. A 2022 survey by JobSage found that fully remote employees had 33% fewer friends at work.
To mitigate the loneliness that can accompany hybrid work, managers need to help employees build deep ties characterized by trust, respect, and empathy. Studies have found that a workplace culture characterized by affection, caring, and compassion is critical to forming authentic and supportive workplace relationships. Those sentiments are more difficult to cultivate under the logistical strains of hybrid work.
Managers can help create the conditions for strong friendship ties by creating opportunities for employees to spend regular time together and providing structures and tools to help them grow closer. One approach is to modify team designs to supplement or replace agile teams focused on short-term projects with longer-lasting “home teams” in which people can repeatedly interact with one another. Another option is to carve out blocks of calendar time for facilitated discussions among small groups of employees. One experiment found that setting aside two hours a month for physicians across a hospital to talk to each other provided greater benefit to their well-being and work than simply giving them two hours to catch up on work independently.
By giving more attention to cultivating employee relationships and network ties at work, leaders can help create a hybrid workplace that offers the best of both worlds.
Katherine C. Kellogg is a professor of management and innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management and head of its work and organization studies department. Erin L. Kelly is a professor of work and organization studies at MIT Sloan and codirector of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research. Constance N. Hadley founded the Institute for Life at Work and is a lecturer at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.