If asked who the most important people in your life are, you would probably cite your friends and family, followed by your colleagues. But what about the barista who always gets your order right? Or the woman from accounting that always arrives at the elevator at the same time as you? The IT person who never minds re-explaining how to fix something to you? The waiter at your favorite restaurant or the guy at the convenience store with whom you talk about sports? Sociologists refer to these people as “weak ties,” and they’re surprisingly important.
But what happens to these casual relationships in a remote work environment?
Why Weak Ties Matter
Weak ties are important to both individuals and organizations. Studies find that weak ties are actually more helpful in finding a new job than strong ties. On a recent episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain, psychologist Gillian Sandstrom revealed research showing that small, daily interactions with people we don’t know well actually make people happier.
For an organization, weak ties allow knowledge sharing, prevent siloed thinking, and lead to a great sense of belonging. The sense of connection you feel when you talk about a TV show or sports event with a colleague you don’t work with regularly makes you both feel closer to the organization.
What Happens to Weak Ties in Remote Organizations
There is growing concern that in remote organizations, weak ties are lost. If you aren’t in accounts payable and don’t have a problem, you probably aren’t speaking to anyone in that department. It’s much harder for different teams to interact with each other. This can lead to a disconnect in information.
On a personal level, employees who don’t leave their houses for work are missing out on those casual interactions with strangers. We’ve all had the experience of getting a great idea by talking to someone new, but that can’t happen if you don’t talk to new people.
How to Strengthen Weak Ties
While weak ties happen somewhat naturally in person, they need to be built intentionally in a remote environment.
Yes, it could have been an email, but regular meetings have a purpose. For smaller teams, a brief weekly meeting where everyone in the organization comes together can be helpful. For larger organizations, company-wide updates can provide a sense of transparency and provide an opportunity for team members who don’t regularly interact to learn about each other’s work.
Virtual coffees or happy hours can be a great way for team members to meet each other and form bonds outside of their jobs. Leaders may need to create structured or thematic events to get the ball rolling, but people at all levels should be encouraged to suggest ideas.
Replacing water cooler talk
No one wants to be on a never-ending group chat about someone else weekend, but gossip has surprising benefits for organizations. Slack and other Intranet programs can provide a place for employees to “talk” about lighter things. At Brighter Strategies, our team has several work-related Slack channels, but we also have a “random” channel for people to share jokes or non-work-related information and a channel for people who want to talk about personal goals. Find out what hobbies your employees have and encourage them to create spaces to talk about them.
While relationships with a mentor are often stronger than weak ties, encouraging inter-departmental mentor relationships can help both the mentor and mentee form new relationships and break down silos.
Encourage employees to leave the house
While many remote workers enjoy the lack of a formal schedule, it can also put people in a rut. Employees should be encouraged to find ways to socialize outside of the virtual office. Whether it’s taking a class or just walking a child to school and chatting with other parents on the playground, these casual interactions are important for creativity and mental health.