As we redesign work for the hybrid future, it is vital to understand the ways that information flows and networks form within organizations.

Our collective experience in the pandemic created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink what we want from work and our working lives. We had a chance to question many fundamental assumptions, adopt new habits, and form new narratives about how work gets done. The experience also confronted corporate leadership teams with the challenge of how they would respond. Would they stay with their old ways or embrace the opportunity to be bold and redesign systems to make working a more purposeful, productive, agile, and flexible activity? 

This effort to redesign work is well underway. And as we confront a new hybrid future, it is important that we take the valuable lessons learned during the pandemic with us. One of those lessons, which I’ve observed based on my research and advisory work, surrounds the topic of connections and networks—and their importance in building culture and getting work done.

To begin to reimagine work, you have to create a deep understanding of how your company works. And that involves developing an understanding of the different types of jobs within the business, the tasks that they involve, and the behaviors and capabilities that support productivity. But the classic description of job tasks and the related element of productivity assume an almost static process, which is essentially about the individual. In reality, people, the tasks they perform, and the jobs they do are embedded within networks of human connections. Through these connections flow knowledge, insight, and innovation. One of the major insights from the experience of the pandemic is how important these often-overlooked human connections are to organizational health and vitality. In general, networks shrank. That’s because people working from home spent more time with those they already knew well and less time with people they knew less well, and they created far fewer new friendships.

It is also important to understand networks and knowledge flows because any redesign of work can inadvertently disrupt them. It is no surprise that the potential disruption of networks and knowledge flows is at the heart of two major concerns about the redesign of work: the socialization of the young and the possibility of serendipitous encounters. We learned that lack of face-to-face connectivity was particularly tough for young people as they joined companies without being around people in an office environment. And there is widespread fear that young joiners to a firm will suffer if they work from home, as they will not be able to observe and network with more experienced members of the firm.

In addition, there’s anxiety that the watercooler conversations and serendipitous encounters that happen when people simply bump into each other will be diminished. Andy Haldane, former chief economist at the Bank of England, explained to me: “Exposure to new and different experiences—sounds, smells, environments, ideas, people—is a key source of creative spark. These external stimuli are fuel for our imaginations, and the imagined, made real, is what we typically mean by creativity. Home-working can starve us of many of these creative raw ingredients—the chance conversation, the new person or idea or environment. Home-working means serendipity is supplanted by scheduling, face-to-face by Zoom.”

These concerns are real and valid—and so, before decisions about the redesign of work are made, you need to have a view of the current structure of networks and knowledge flows and use it to consider how the models of the redesign of work will change them.

Tacit vs. explicit knowledge

Not all knowledge is the same. Some knowledge is explicit and objective: it’s easy to write down and access, and it moves with ease across your business. It’s carried by manuals, websites, and handbooks. In companies with a history of working virtually, much of the design of work is about making explicit as much knowledge as possible. That benefits new joiners and new team members, who can quickly get up to speed on how projects work and the skills of their colleagues.

Yet much of the valuable knowledge that resides within a company is tacit knowledge: the insights, know-how, mental models, and ways of framing that are held in the minds of individuals and are part of how they see and interact with the world. Because this knowledge is held in the minds of individuals, it is much more difficult than explicit knowledge to express and codify. Indeed, there is a view that you can only really access another’s tacit knowledge when you know them and when you trust each other. So, while explicit knowledge stands outside of relationships and is codified in manuals and websites, tacit knowledge fundamentally resides within relationships.

If the nature, extent, or depth of these relationships is changed by the redesign of work, then the fear is that this precious commodity will suffer. So in the jobs that you are looking at, consider what knowledge is important to be productive in that job—how much is explicit in the sense that a new joiner could easily find this knowledge, and how much is implicit. If your proposed model of work will require more virtual working, then you need to consider investing in more knowledge-capture processes to create more explicit knowledge.

Strong ties

By the spring of 2020, still early in the pandemic, it became apparent that changing work patterns, and particularly working from home, were impacting the development and maintenance of human connections and networks. We quickly learned that many people were spending more of their time with people they already knew. Often these strengthening bonds turned out to be crucial to positive feelings of worth and mental health. In those tough situations, people were taking solace from their nearest and dearest.

Yet at the same time, people’s relations with their broader network of colleagues, associates, and more distant friends began to erode. Here are two comments from managers I noted in my daily journal in mid-2020—when many had already experienced six months of lockdown: “Some of the people in the team who are working from home are feeling very lonely. If they are naturally extroverts, this is really impacting their happiness and well-being”; and, from another manager: “At the moment, what really concerns me is the pressure on networks. People are getting close to each other and, frankly, that’s been a lifesaver for many over the past months. But what has happened to the watercooler moments? It’s impossible when everyone is at home to just accidentally bump into people.”

What is happening here is almost below the surface. Most of us don’t systematically track our networks, and few companies have empirical data on how knowledge flows within and across their business. Yet it is clear that if the redesign of work in your company includes changes to place and time, such as working from home or adopting a revised schedule, then this will inevitably impact networks. That’s why it is so important to understand how networks work and how your redesign ideas will change them. The networks framework below illustrates some of the key concepts.

It turns out that with regard to the redesign of work, proximity is a significant driver of the formation of strong ties. Who you sit next to in the office and who you are likely to bump into in the corridor have a significant impact on how these strong ties are formed.

This powerful driver of proximity occurs throughout our lives. Take college friendships. There are potentially hundreds, possibly thousands of students with whom you could form lasting relationships. Yet as those researchers who have tracked these relationships have discovered, the probability is that your closest and longest-lasting friendships will be formed with students rooming in adjacent dorms. In fact, in a series of studies, researchers were able to compute a direct correlation between the degree of friendship and the dorm distance: the closer the dorm, the greater the probability of creating a long-lasting relationship.

It’s the power of proximity that is such an important factor in the design of offices. If, for example, all the marketing team sit closely together, they get to know each other better, but they often fail to build relationships with other teams located on different floors—or even perhaps across the corridor. Using the power of proximity is crucial for the design group Arup, which has more than 15,000 specialists working in projects spanning 140 countries. As Arup principal Joe Correnza, who is based in the company’s Melbourne office, told me: “Bringing ideas from across all our disciplines is crucial for us. In the office we have engineers, designers, planners, technical specialists, and consultants. We want them to talk with each other and bounce ideas off each other. One of the ways we do that is, within the office, to move teams from one place to another around every quarter.”

These strong network ties can be important to exploiting the knowledge individual team members have (shown in the center of the networks framework). Because they know each other well and trust each other, they are more likely to share their tacit knowledge. Yet while these networks of strong ties are excellent at surfacing tacit knowledge, they are less able to create new ideas. Why? Because people are conversing about what they already know, and their familiarity with each other’s ideas means they are unlikely to encounter concepts that are new to them.

Weak ties

At the other end of the spectrum of relationships are weak ties (shown in the networks framework as a gray line). These represent the links to the hundreds of people you are associated with. These are the acquaintances you meet less frequently and to whom you have little emotional attachment. You know something about them—for example, they would probably reply to an email you sent them—but you don’t know much about their interests or family. You have many more of these weak ties because they take less time and resources to maintain. Indeed, you may have many hundreds or even thousands of such connections on social media. Yet you probably devote less time to these large but weak networks than to your small number of strong ties.

While networks of strong ties are excellent at surfacing tacit knowledge, they are less able to create new ideas.

The value of weak ties lies in their number: they have value precisely because there are so many of them. This was shown in one of the classic studies of networks carried out by Stanford University sociologist Mark Granovetter, who studied the ways in which people found a new job. (This research, by the way, preceded the growth of online job-search platforms such as LinkedIn and Monster, which have the potential to create thousands of potential job connections.) What he found was that when someone is looking for a new job, it is rarely a person they know well who originally suggests one. It is more likely to be a friend of a friend. Granovetter discovered that within groups of people who know each other very well, there is much overlap-ping knowledge. So, if one of your close friends hears of a vacancy, it’s likely that you’ll also hear about it—because you have overlapping networks—and will pass that information on to another friend who is looking for a new job. It is through friends of friends—the power of weak ties—that new information is distributed, and it is here that serendipity often occurs.

In the networks framework, you will notice that two members of the inner group have strong ties to members of other groups. These are boundary spanners, people who link two different networks together. When two distinct networks have very limited overlap in membership, it creates what sociologist Ron Burt calls a “structural hole” in terms of the fields of knowledge. A boundary spanner whose relationships connect the two camps can bring together completely different domains of knowledge—and the possibility of exploration through synthesis. Boundary spanners are in a position to explain the groups to each other, to point out areas of overlapping interest, and to encourage people to question their basic paradigms and ways of working. As you think about the redesign of work, it’s worth considering who the boundary spanners might be in your own organization: does the redesign create natural channels for them to connect to others, or are you inadvertently blocking off these important channels?

Having many weak ties provides an exciting opportunity for people to connect beyond their immediate group into the wider community. This is important because it offers an opportunity to be innovative and generate innovation through novel combinations.

The possible impact on these novel combinations was one of the greatest concerns for business during the pandemic. Many commentators talked about those watercooler relationships. They began to realize that an office could be not only a place of close proximity but also a place where people had serendipitous encounters. There was a deeper anxiety that when people worked from home, such encounters—and the creative sparks they set off—would be dramatically eroded. This is an important consideration as you redesign work. It highlights the importance of those precious times in the office to both create proximity and encourage serendipity.

Technology and network ties

There is no doubt that one of the distinguishing features of the pandemic was the speed at which people adopted technologies such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams and the capacity of these technologies to deliver a low-cost, high-reliability service. We are beginning to realize that these technologies could play a crucial role in transforming how networks are formed and how knowledge flows.

In our strong network ties—with people we know well and trust—we naturally pivoted toward video meetings. But what of those relationships with people we didn’t know so well—the weak ties? Consider companies such as the Swedish technology group Ericsson, which is using online platforms to host conversations among many thousands of people over a period of three days (see “Let’s talk about how we work,” below). Might these virtual conversations be the base from which new networks are created—ones that could remain weak but could also strengthen as people catch up individually on video meetings?

Let’s talk about how we work

Recently, the Swedish technology company Ericsson invited its employees to take part in an important conversation.

In 2019, Ericsson asked 3,750 leaders and managers to have a virtual conversation over a 75-hour period about the future and values of the company. The following year, plans were made to broaden the conversation to discuss how potential new ways of working might affect Ericsson’s culture. All 95,000 employees from around the world were invited to engage in an in-the-moment, moderated conversation.

On April 28 of that year, just two months into the pandemic, more than 17,000 people participated in this virtual exchange. They created more than 28,000 conversational threads, which addressed issues such as how working during the pandemic had created both challenges (such as lack of social contact) and benefits (such as increased productivity through reduced distraction).

The process created a shared sense of collective destiny and allowed people to hear from others outside their immediate circle. It meant, for example, that someone in an administrative role could have a real-time, unfiltered conversation with the CEO, or a software developer in India could talk at length to a customer relations person in Germany.

An important feature of the process was the introduction of teams of facilitators, who engaged and supported those on the platform, encouraging them to have a much wider conversation. The facilitators gave people confidence to speak out by using prompts such as “Could you tell me more about this?” or “That sounds interesting” or “Do you have an example of how this worked for you?” The facilitators also engineered new encounters by connecting people with others who were following a similar conversational thread.

This process of co-creation engaged employees directly in the conversation, so everyone who participated had a better idea of what others felt, the choices and trade-offs they faced, and how those choices and trade-offs measured up to their own experience. “People could empathize with each other as they listened to and shared their own stories,” said Selina Millstam, vice president and head of talent management at Ericsson. “And from a process perspective, it brought to light the many experiments and work-arounds that were taking place across the company.”

Are these virtual connections the same as meeting people face-to-face, and are they likely to be the basis of serendipitous connections? Frankly, we don’t know yet. Certainly, during lockdown, I made a couple of really good serendipitous connections with people I had not known previously. And after connecting with them over video conversations, I felt I had begun to know them relatively well. Remember also that, looking forward, there is sure to be an avalanche of innovation around human connectivity. There is already much excitement about the possibilities of virtual and augmented reality in building and supporting networks.

An understanding of the role that weak and strong ties play in building and maintaining networks should inform the redesign of work. As you consider the current networks and knowledge flows in your business, bring a group together, and, using the networks framework on page 54 as a template, draft what you think were the pre-pandemic networks and knowledge flows that were central to those jobs. Ask: Were people primarily in tight network groups? Were there people who were boundary-spanning to other groups? Did people have broad, weak ties to many others both within and outside the business?

As you think about the current reality in your business, consider how these networks and knowledge flows are operating. Has there been a shift in weak and strong ties? If so, what impact might this have on the way that tacit knowledge flows and the possibility of new combinations of knowledge?

Finally, consider the impact of technologies such as videoconferencing or virtual platforms on how these networks are formed and maintained. In what way are they substituting for face-to-face connections? What are the potential challenges, and also the benefits?

These are extraordinary, transformational times. We have a chance now to fundamentally change our relationship to the work we do, to our organizations. We will transform this relationship by redesigning work. There is no doubt that there will be obstacles along the way on our transformational journey, and that our courage and taste for experimentation will be tested. Yet as I look at how people around the world are stepping up to debate, cooperate, and build, I am convinced that we can create a future that will support us in being not only more productive in our work but also more fulfilled.