As we knuckle down to a second Lockdown and the debate about the virtues or otherwise of home working, one factor, recently referred to in a speech by Andy Haldane, Chief Economist of the Bank of England was the harm to “social capital”. 

Social capital is defined by the OECD as “networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups”. In this definition, networks are real-world links between groups or individuals. The new pandemic life – which for many is being holed up in what, for me is the ‘back bedroom’ – is not recreating ‘real world-links’ with real people.

For many lawyers social capital, business networks or contact diaries have been built up over decades through contacts at conferences, seminars, evening events, lunches, chance conversations in lifts or on the street and in recent years a natter over ‘a coffee’. Whilst in the past lunches were synonymous with booze and the remainder of the afternoon out of the office, the modern day lunch became a light meal with sparkling water and a coffee, with a genuine aim to build relationships and promote business opportunities. Some contacts are ‘actual’ friends, but many are professional friends to catch up with adhoc during the working week. For me now, in front of a screen, with my bum on a chair for 7-8 hours (or longer), my social capital is dwindling – in fact I’m worried it has disappeared.  I’m not alone.

I’m not the first person to say my heart sank when entering my ‘home office’ (‘back bedroom)’. It’s been particularly bad some Monday mornings when I have really loathed the room. Hardly conducive to creativity and inspiration.  Now 7-8 months in, those feelings have been tempered by a ridiculously expensive Scandi-design ‘rocking’ office chair that has cured neck ache and ditching the MacBook for a modestly priced dual monitor Windows desktop and ‘computer glasses’ – but is it enough?

Of course we now have virtual networking. There have been several Zoom ‘virtual coffees’- but it is easy for lawyers to sometimes feel paranoid that they not been invited to many or that they’ve been left off the list for virtual wine-tastings and quiz nights. The reality is most of the time my heart sinks when I am actually invited to one – what I want is a real barista coffee or a glass of something sparkling face to face- not my luke-warm mug of instant. I did a brilliant Halloween pumpkin event on Zoom -but I carved the jack-o-lantern for an hour in silence.

We are told do ‘webinars’. Often there is an impressive numbers of attendees – more than would have filled a room in pre-pandemic life -and these are great profile raising for the presenters. But how many guests are physically or mentally present during that webinar? Increasingly you can see the video turned off but just a name- someone with half an ear on the webinar whilst scrolling the inbox. And despite listening to some brilliant discussions, it is often difficult to ask questions or worse see people you know but can’t talk to as we are on ‘mute’. I’ve tried the ‘chat’ button to message them but by the time I’ve worked out how to do they’ve left, don’t reply or their video has been turned off. A ‘how are you?’ is hardly satisfying. I’m reluctant to ‘private’ chat in case I get it wrong and end up saying something embarrassing to everyone. Our host ends a webinar saying how brilliant it was – and may be for him it was.

I followed some advice to treat the WFH day as the same as your office day. So, I’ve started to go out at lunchtime. But it’s not the same a stroll in the City or Gray’s Inn Road. You are unlikely to “bump” into someone that’s a professional contact. Even if you manage to recognise anyone with a mask on! 

I personally hope social capital will return. Let’s hope as rapidly as everything shrunk on 23 March, it will bounce back as rapidly as the markets shot up with the vaccine announcement. So for now we need to utilize what we have to hand. I’m trying a LinkedIn Love-In to revitalise my business network. Let’s see the payback on that one!