Social networks and teleworking

The autumn 2010 issue of the RSA Journal has got two articles in it about social networking which make for useful and interesting reading as I get to grips with questions about how people establish and maintain social contacts and a sense of work community if they are working predominantly away from an office base and not seeing colleagues face to face.

The article "Nudge plus Networks" notes that "We have made great strides in developing our scientific knowledge about behavioural economics and network effects over the past couple of decades." And goes on to ask "But how far has this actually shaped our approach to public policy?" This question can usefully be asked about organizational policy. We are learning a lot about social networks and how work gets done outside the lines. (See Leading Outside the Lines) but not yet applying what we know about social network effects to career development, ways of working, or management of diffuse teams.

As the article writer points out

"This is despite a rapidly growing body of research telling us more about their considerable potential to complicate, disrupt and deliver policy intentions. Meanwhile, new technologies, global communications and challenges such as climate change suggest that network effects are becoming ever more important.

Some – such as peer influence – are likely to be relatively direct, obvious and familiar to us. Likewise, most of us are aware that the way in which people affect us varies according to context: the people who sway our choice of pension are unlikely to be the same as those whose behaviour encourages us to binge drink. The policymaker's challenge is to translate this commonsense understanding of the power of networks into workable interventions and to be able to factor in much more complex effects."

This article led me to wonder how we can develop innovative organisational policies based around social network effects that nudge people further in the direction of teleworking – one of the objectives of the organization I am currently working with.

A second article in the same Journal, titled Human Resources suggests that "Traditional methods of inspiring community involvement collapse in the face of tight schedules and reluctance to participate in enforced social activity." Many employees when asked why they resist the idea of teleworking say that the fear it is a career limiter – 'out of sight, out of mind'. They feel if they are not physically visible they will get passed over.

This raises the challenge of helping employees develop on-line visibility, credibility, and obvious high performance when they are working 'alone' i.e. not surrounded by physically present co-workers. In other words despite having work schedules and performance targets to meet they must have the capability to develop the social contact and community involvement essential to demonstrating rounded work performance.

However building community and team involvement on-line is not straightforward. As the author points out

"We rarely form true, lasting friendships or communities by trying to 'network' more. We do so from repeated interactions with the parent in the centre, the worker in the office, the believer in the church, the stylist at the salon, the student in the lecture or the patron at the gym – provided that those organisations, unwittingly or otherwise, make it easy for us to form friendships."

Teleworking does not make it inherently easy for workers to form friendships – note that all the examples in the quote relate to face to face contact. Thus I'm thinking that teleworking management must include methods and approaches of encouraging people to form communities of involvement as they would if they were face to face.

If teleworking management cannot do this we fact the prospect that no teleworker will be able to confidently and positively respond to the Gallup Q12 employee satisfaction statement "I have a best friend at work", which would not only reduce our satisfaction scores, but lead us to run the risk of losing staff who felt isolated.

So two articles and two related lines of enquiry for me to pursue as I help develop the teleworking strategy – how can social networking effects drive usefully teleworking policy and effective teleworking practice?