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Reducing the phoniness of lockdown life with social capital

by | Feb 5, 2021 | Communities

Park

Last week The Guardian and other news outlets carried an article in which the boss of Unilever – one of the UK’s biggest and most valuable companies – predicted that his firm’s office workers:

will never return to their desks five days a week

On behalf of Undod Cymru I have written in a personal capacity about my reservations about the binary choice of home vs office for workers. In short, not everyone has the same opportunities to work from home, and if there is an expectation among bosses of the home, hearth and family accommodating work routines and obligations, then they should consider empowering their workers to plan their working routines and obligations in a way that retains the necessary distinction between personal/familial responsibilities and those of work. Neither should one’s needs for exercise or cultural and social nourishment and expression have to be compromised by the work-from-home dogma.

Putting on my Grow Social Capital hat what is particularly interesting though is that Unilever’s CEO, Alan Jope, says he has witnessed a “slow erosion of social capital” at the company caused in large part by the shift away from colleagues meeting in person. The article goes on to cite other business leaders’ concerns about lack of innovation and the impact on training younger staff when workers do not congregate. Social capital in large organisations appears to not just generate a sense of togetherness within, and belonging to, a corporation, but also stimulates creativity.

Writing for Harvard Business School in 2001 – way before Zoom, muting, Covid or furlough were part of our everyday lexicon – Dan Cohen and Laurence Prusak wrote that:

“Social capital thrives on authenticity and withers in the presence of phoniness or manipulation”

Many of us have been very resourceful, adaptable, innovative and resilient in how we have managed are adjustment to home working during the continued lockdowns last year and into this. Our motivation, productivity, sense of achievement and sense of purpose have nevertheless probably fluctuated. There have been good and bad days; maybe even good weeks and bad weeks. But it was not until returning to Cohen and Prusak’s observations on Social Capital in organisations that I was able to put my finger on something that had nagged at me for a while:

the phoniness of it all.

As hard as Zoom, Teams and the other platforms have worked to maintain some semblence of ‘work as normal’, and in plugging the gaps in our social lives with online quizzes, workouts with Joe Wicks, and online knit n natters, the lack of physical interaction with people has been tangible. It is common knowledge that much of our communication is non-verbal; yet Zoom et al can only communicate a fraction of the necessary non-verbal elements: the body language that one’s posture broadcasts; the energy and forwardness that moments of inspiration can engender; the fidgetiness and agitation caused by hearing a dreadful idea. 

As much of a novelty as it was in the early days – when our reserves of adaptability and resilience were probably more plentiful too – since Christmas in particular for me, it has felt all so damn artificial and forced.

Is my Social Capital, as Cohen and Prusak caution, withering?

I fully appreciate work is not the sole determinant of my sense of purpose, motivation and what Maslow called self-actualization. I, like many I suspect, have re-engaged and deepened my connection with my hyperlocal community, my local park and natural environment, as well as seen more of my neighbours. Maybe many of us have replaced an authenticity shaped by traditional work routines and environments, with a (re)new(ed) sense of purpose and connection to those things I call the ‘critically mundane’: the things we see and encounter every day but perhaps take for granted; those things we would miss if we lost them. Parks, benches, street corners, community noticeboards, trees, birdsong. I’ve developed a curiosity in my part of Cardiff this last year in ghost-signs, a faint legacy of a lost past.

It is heartening that someone as senior as Jope is alert to the value of social capital to his company’s operations, working culture and creative spirit. But diagnosing the problem is one thing; what is the course of treatment to be?

Francis Fukuyama (1999; 2020) famously asserted that nation states do not have many obvious levers for creating social capital and that it is difficult to generate through public policy. The state therefore cannot work alone in a didactic, top-down manner to restore levels of social capital. Neither, I think, can Jope do likewise within his company. We at Grow Social Capital think that it is at the level of our hyperlocals, our micro-networks and daily, ‘critically mundane’ interactions that progress can be made, particularly as the pandemic rumbles on with new covid strains emerging, health services under extreme strain and the state continues to be preoccupied with the massive logistical task in distributing vaccines.

It is at these scales that a number of steps might be taken. The Service tab on our website will soon provide a comprehensive list of these services and ideas, but as a flavour why not identify who might your community or organisational Tummler be; or better still, why not be the Tummler yourself?

Tummler is a Yiddish word for someone who gets a party going. Think about parties where the music is playing, yet no one is dancing. It is not until some brave souls get on the dancefloor that others are encouraged to follow. Our monthly Tummler School provides the strategies, confidence and ideas for ‘Tummlers’ to inspire and build the capacity of others to sustain activity to carry on without them – rather than others being dependent on a leader, you create ‘leaderful’ communities.

There is much talk about ‘Building Back Better’, ‘Creating New Normals’ and the like. A desire to reduce inequality tends to lie at the root of these commendable ambitions and inequality is important in discussions about social capital because, as Eric Uslaner points out, it erodes mutual, communal and social trust. While before Uslaner, Robert Putnam famously pointed out the need for the formation of solidarities to tackle inequalities. The broader the differences that solidarities span – of faith, gender, ethnicity, nationality, identity, and so on – the greater the scope for trust in people unlike ourselves to grow and a recognition that we have more in common than which divides us. If the word ‘solidarities’ feels a bit overbearing for your community or organisation, how about calling it Togetherness?

Either way, the key is articulating Narratives For Change that motivate and inspire the groups around whom solidarities might be built. Place these at the heart of your placemaking and community building and you set yourself a firm basis on which to locate your virtuous social capital circle: 

Consider the Together Stronger mantra that underpinned the unforgettable summer that the Wales men’s football team spent in France in 2016. What started out as a social media hashtag, was adopted by the players themselves to express their intra-squad solidarity. It quickly spread to the stands and the fans who comprise ‘The Red Wall | Y Wal Goch’ where it helped create a solidarity not only between the fans and the players, but between the fans themselves. 

Where once there were hostile interclub rivalries among Wales fans there is now a much greater common identity that spans fans of Cardiff, Swansea, Wrexham et al; Welsh speakers and non-Welsh speakers; and the demographic of fans at Wales games is much more diverse than I remember it being as recently as even 15 years ago. It has helped spawn and inspire a range of organic, fan-led and fan-owned forms of cultural expression and production: Wal Goch y Menywod (around the national women’s team), Expo’r Wal Goch, Spirit of 58, podcasts (such as my Podcast Pêl-droed), books, fanzines and more. 

IT is not just FTSE 100 CEOs like Alan Jope, but also us in our own communities and organisations, for whom the challenge is to articulate a new narrative for these ‘new normals’, around which solidarities can coalesce. As Fukuyama reminds us, these cannot be top down and need to be co-produced as far as is possible by those affected by them.

We at Grow Social Capital have developed a range of ways – inspired by the #DublinConversations and drawing from the disciplines of communications, PR and community development – to help you harness the positive potential of what we call Purposefulness – the antithesis of phoniness and artificiality – to enable your people, communities, teams or organizations to realise greater togetherness. Join us throughout Social Capital Week 2021 (#SCW21) to learn more about Purposefulness, becoming a  Tummler and more.

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Written by Russell Todd

Russell is a Welsh-speaking community development practitioner of 20 years’ experience, researcher, digital inclusion trainer, project manager and co-operator with over 8 years experience of workforce development and support for those employed on the recently-ended Communities First (CF) tackling poverty programme.

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