Social contact

I've just been looking at the stuff I've collected this week in relation to the value of social contact in the workplace. It's a topic of interest to me right now as in the project we are currently working on the requirement to help the workforce develop skills in sustaining healthy social interactions amongst their virtual team members as well as face to face ones is beginning to loom large.

There's no doubt that healthy social interaction is positively related to productivity and organizational commitment . Additionally close friendships in general prove good for people's physiological health. As the Gallup organization reports "Relationships serve as a buffer during tough times, which in turn improves our cardiovascular functioning and decreases stress levels. On the other hand, people with very few social ties have nearly twice the risk of dying from heart disease and are twice as likely to catch colds – even though they are less likely to have the exposure to germs that comes from frequent social contact." And beyond that having a network of supportive relationships contributes to psychological well-being. Specifically a network gives people a sense of belonging, feelings of self-worth, and the comfort of security.

So, strong social interactions are known to be important contributors to individual productivity, and to physiological and psychological health, while denying social interaction, as in the practice of putting prisoners into solitary confinement as a punishment has been shown to cause serious psychological and sometimes physiological ill effects, sometimes within a matter of days. (International Psychological Trauma Symposium, 2008).

Much of the research talks about 'strong social interactions' without specifying what strong looks and feels like. But after some digging around and comparisons of ideas it seems reasonable to say that strong social interactions are characterized by the parties involved having the skills and abilities to:

• Accept that people are different and that a diversity of views and opinions builds organizational strength
• Co-operate with others in matters of work or social activity
• Sensitively assert their real thoughts and opinions in a way that respects others
• Be open and confident about themselves, their vulnerabilities and their strengths
• Listen attentively to others and respond without judgment or harshness
• Empathize with colleagues – be able to understand how they are feeling
• Respect and trust other people regardless of differences of opinion

The Gallup piece suggests that developing these strong ties requires proximity and time noting that "the sheer amount of time we spend socializing matters. The data suggest that to have a thriving day, we need six hours of social time. When we get at least six hours of daily social time, it increases our wellbeing and minimizes stress and worry. Just so you don't think that six hours of social time is unattainable in one day, it's important to note that the six hours includes time at work, at home, on the telephone, talking to friends, sending e-mail, and other communication."

This notion of hours of time spent in social interaction is kind of echoed in a piece I came across by Luc Galoppin Social Architecture (a manifesto). He is intriguing on the topic of types of literacy, ranging them in a hierarchy from speech to text to image to moving image to navigation to collaboration. He says that:

"Collaboration is the new literacy. But it requires managers to replace systems of control with platforms of trust. The internet is the first medium to honor multiple intelligences. For instance, let's have a look at literacy. In our narrow view of the world literacy involves only text, but there is also image and screen literacy.

On the next level we find the ability to "read" multimedia texts. The new literacy, triggered by the internet, is one of information navigation. Information Navigation is a new layer of literacy that adds itself to our multiple intelligence. No need to be afraid of unlearning any previously acquired literacy. My ability to watch TV does not exclude my reading abilities, just as my ability to tweet does not exclude my ability to have a decent conversation at the dinner table."

I am not clear (yet) whether collaboration is a new form of social interaction, or a different form, or what it always has been but has finally arrived at the top of the hierarchy with a new and snazzy label. I'm hazarding a guess that it's the last and has a different label because it's no longer just face to face but includes all sorts of social media and digital interaction. However I'm assuming that it retains the same productivity, physiological and psychological benefits. So I'm left with the original challenge – but it's turned into a question. What do we need to do differently to develop strong social relationships as we live, learn and work in the collaborative digital world in order to avoid the pitfalls outlined in Sherry Turkle's book, Alone Together?

If you have any ideas let me know.