Beware the Long-Term Trend of Social Distancing

By now, your company probably has implemented some form of “social distancing” in response to the rapid spread of COVID-19. In addition to requiring employees to work remotely, companies have moved to virtual meetings, restricting travel, and limiting the number of designated on-site personnel who are necessary to fulfill critical tasks at the office.

Such precautions are prudent in protecting people from, and mitigating the spread of, this rapidly spreading strain of coronavirus.

I’ve spent considerable time these past weeks thinking about our own approach to social distancing. I feel that we had no choice but to take the measures we took, and I’m proud of our rapid, thorough response. But I’ve been particularly focused on the costs of late. I’m not referring to the financial costs. Those can be quantified, accounted for in budgeting exercises, and adjusted over time.

No, I’m talking about something far more serious and far less measurable. I’m referring to the relationship costs. In one of my favorite TED talks, Forget the Pecking Order at Work, Margaret Heffernan speaks lucidly about what really fuels great companies and allows them to get the most from their people. It’s actually not money. It’s social capital.

I entered this term into and got the following definition: “the interpersonal relationships, institutions, and other social assets of a society or group that can be used to gain advantage.” That’s a good definition. In the workplace, social capital describes the bonds that we form with our coworkers over time – bonds that enable us to work most effectively and efficiently on a collaborative basis.

But here’s the thing about building and maintaining social capital. It generally requires that we work together. Companies that have the highest levels of social capital are ones in which team members have worked together for long periods of time, see each other often, like each other, and work together physically.

Ms. Heffernan acknowledges this truism in her talk, referring to companies that make extraordinary efforts to bring their people together on a regular basis and create environments in which regular proximity becomes the norm. She goes so far as to mention companies that ban coffee cups in offices just to ensure that employees are congregating and socializing as much as possible, including while they drink their coffee.

So what happens to social capital now? I’m concerned. Social distancing is necessary right now, but, if it goes on long enough, will it have a detrimental impact on social capital? And what about the companies that are now talking about the coronavirus crisis creating a new norm – one in which virtual meetings and working remotely replace the need for physical proximity? Many are openly talking about this possibility and how it could be a “silver lining” in the current crisis because it will change behaviors and ultimately enable companies to cut back on expenses such as travel, entertainment, rent, and office furnishings.

A relatively short period of social distancing is necessary and unavoidable, but a long-term trend of social distancing does not bode well for social capital. Now I know, some people reading this may be thinking that I’m being old-fashioned and that I’m in denial about the advance of technology and the advent of virtual communication. I’m not. I advocate for these things as important advances for businesses and society.

For now, however, there is no substitute for regular physical proximity among employees when it comes to social capital. After the current crisis is over, consider carefully the real cost of any long-term policies of encouraging social distancing. While you may think you are saving money, you may also be damaging the very bonds on which your company was built and has thrived.