The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and heightened many business challenges, from supply chain resilience to technology infrastructure soundness and remote workforce management. With circumstances still shifting rapidly and dramatically as some parts of the world reopen and begin again while some aspects of life will never be the same, it is clear that the businesses best positioned to navigate the pandemic and what happens next are those that have invested in innovation, adaptability, and a culture of curiosity and experimentation.
This trend is likely to persist after the pandemic ends, as long foreseen but greatly accelerated structural changes to the nature of work and business take root. As companies look to their next chapters and think through how their workplaces will operate in the future, it is therefore imperative that they prioritize fostering the culture of innovation that has proven beneficial to so many this past year.
The question is, how can business leaders ensure that innovation thrives in their future of work plan, particularly those that feature remote or hybrid models? How can they transition their staff to their “new normal” equitably and effectively—empowering employees to collaborate, think creatively, and grow—while remaining flexible enough to operate on the edge of change?
The answer may lie in the theory of weak social ties.
Weak Social Ties: An Engine of Innovation
First identified by sociologist Mark Granovetter—who has been called “one of the pioneers of social network theory”—in a 1973 academic paper, strong and weak ties represent the two main forms of social connection. Strong ties are direct, personal relationships with one’s closest contacts, including family, friends, and immediate coworkers. Weak ties are more tenuous connections to extended family members, acquaintances, and more distant colleagues. Within social networks, “the strength of these ties can substantially affect interactions, outcomes and well-being.”
In workplace settings, strong ties are essential to team cohesion and productivity: retaining close links to core team members keeps critical functions running smoothly and the company moving forward. From an innovation standpoint, however, it is the weak ties that matter more—while people in strong-tie networks tend to be relatively homogeneous in their thinking, interacting with (or “bridging to”) colleagues in their weak-tie networks can expose them to new ideas, information, and perspectives that can spark novel lines of thought. By bringing together diverse points of view and compelling employees to think differently about problems and opportunities, weak ties represent a powerful engine of innovation.
Fostering Weak Ties in the Future of Work
The challenge, of course, is that weak ties are best developed in person. While videoconferencing and other remote-work tools can help core teams stay connected and move the line, they are less effective means of meeting new people and exchanging new ideas. Within a traditional workplace, weak ties often form through casual “watercooler chats” and innovative projects can emerge from overheard conversations—unplanned moments of kismet that are nearly impossible to replicate remotely.
Companies that seek to build or maintain a culture of innovation in the future of work must therefore find ways to establish weak ties between their employees, particularly those who haven’t had the opportunity to do so themselves. How companies choose to do this will depend on myriad factors including their mission, structure, size, but could include:
- Remote networking events, happy hours, and/or speed dating-style meet and greets
- Regular, formalized check-ins between teams to share projects and brainstorm ideas
- Interdisciplinary conversations on emerging trends, key themes, and/or pain points
- Shared databases of relevant information
- Offering opportunities to meet in person, when it is safe and people feel comfortable
These are not one-size-fits-all solutions, and any mandated solution will likely need to provide some optionality to ensure that all employees and ideas are being heard. In the spirit of innovation and adaptation, we suggest experimenting with different methods to see which ones gain traction and demonstrate impact over time.
Regardless of which networking and collaboration solutions work best for your company and staff, the first and most important step is to acknowledge the importance of weak ties and set a clear intention to foster them. For companies seeking to innovate in the future of work, weak ties are a must-have, not a nice-to-have—the better acquainted your employees are with each other and the more information can flow between them, the better your chances of hitting on the next world-changing idea. Creating spaces where weak ties can form should therefore be a key part of your company’s post-pandemic strategy, and should be a primary goal of senior executives and people managers across your organization. Only by actively working to diversify your teams’ thinking and connect different strong-tie networks to each other can you ensure that your company will remain cohesive and innovative regardless of how the future of work unfolds.
Embracing the Unknown and Making the Most of Now
If there is one thing this health crisis has taught business leaders, it is to expect the unexpected. Little has gone according to plan over the past year, and even with an end to the pandemic in sight for some countries, there is likely more disruption still to come.
As they develop plans for the future of work and networking, therefore, leaders should also look to “make the most of now,” finding ways to stimulate innovation and conversation immediately. Until the dust truly settles, we encourage leaders to give up the myth of control and strive simply to do the “next right thing” for your people and firms. Innovation and growth will surely follow.