The widespread use of working from home in recent months and its undeniable continuation points towards major changes in the way people build and sustain their professional networks - especially for young recruits or those beginning a new job. How can we maintain relationships that will help our career trajectory in these unprecedented times?
"An employee's network of personal relationships plays a key role in contributing to his or her career path in a variety of ways. This network consists of colleagues, employees from other companies (former colleagues and clients), or simply friends and family. All of them can bring something: they give advice on career choices, inform you about opportunities, or, in the case of particularly influential relationships, enable you to acquire rewarding assignments or support you towards a promotion. They are also sources of emotional support, making it possible to cope with difficult situations, to make work more pleasant, and even to help people "forget" about work, and ultimately reduce professional stress," explains Barthelemy Chollet, professor in the Management, Technology and Strategy department at Grenoble Ecole de Management and a specialist in interpersonal networks.
However, he points out: "We often overestimate our ability to create this network ourselves. Since it is essentially the environment in which we develop that determines most of our relationships. As a result, the formation of our relationships is influenced by two main principles:
- Transitivity (my friends' friends become my friends): we meet many people by being introduced by others;
- Homophily (similarities attract people): it is easier to form bonds with people with whom you have something in common. "
The effects of working remotely on interpersonal relationships
These two fundamental principles which allow for the renewal of relationships are hampered when working remotely. Why?
- Transitivity: it is often by chance, in corridors, at the café, etc., that we meet someone we know and are introduced to a third person we did not know before. Working remotely means these situations are much rarer and/or artificial.
- Homophily: to realize that you have something in common with a stranger and to build a relationship, you need a certain amount of informal discussions or "small talk" not about the task at hand but about more personal topics. And, we know that this type of discussion occurs much less frequently when working remotely.
These circumstances are particularly penalizing for young people starting out in their professional lives, or for those who have just been recruited.
Managers have a key role to play
Managers must be very aware of these categories of people and help them build their network," says Barthelemy Chollet.
- Ideally, recently hired people should work remotely less often than others.
- If face-to-face meetings cannot be regular, we must try to assign these newcomers to a variety of projects. Through projects and work meetings, these colleagues will change their relationships at the same time as they change their assignments, despite the distance.
- If face-to-face meetings cannot be regular, care must be taken to ensure that at least some of the work is done during real-time meetings. Being in the office allows us to have synchronous contacts (two people interacting at the same time). When working remotely, there is often a drift towards asynchronous work (email exchanges, Teams chats, etc.), which certainly allows for greater flexibility, but considerably reduces the informal part of exchanges and the possibility of establishing relationships. It is the "unity of time" (being together at the same time) that enables relationships to be established more than the "unity of place" (being together in the same place). "
What do you recommend to employees?
"The challenge for employees is to maintain the network that comes naturally to us through work situations and life experiences. Maintaining your network by checking in, making suggestions, etc. will help you maintain and strengthen your relationships. This keeps options open and preserves relationships that we may not necessarily see as useful today, but that will benefit us one day," says Barthelemy Chollet.
In fact, studies on the subject show that spending time thinking about those people we want to make new connections with generates fewer career benefits than spending time thinking about those people with whom our existing connection might be weakened i.e. those who we want to maintain a relationship with. Maintain rather than create. It is much easier to maintain a network remotely than to build a brand new one. "
The digitalization of social relationships: an opportunity to diversify your network
"The digitalization of social relationships and the emergence of social networks offer new possibilities. Through the creation of multiple, more or less structured, communities of experts belonging to various companies organized around social networks such as Linkedin, for example, it is now possible to rekindle one's relationships and to connect to people from very different backgrounds. This will mainly lead to what we call "weak ties", i.e. people we don't know very well, but who generally develop within very different spheres from our own, and therefore give us access to unique and original information. But of course, this type of tie is not enough", concludes Barthelemy Chollet