Weak Ties and Why They Are a Growing Management Problem
Within our social lives, it's not uncommon to have relationships that are stronger than others. The same can be said of work relationships. There are often strong ties between fellow team members or people who interact regularly. There are also weak ties — work relationships that aren't as strong as those within a core team.
Examples of weak ties could be the acquaintance from the accounting department who you chat about last night's game with as you fill up on coffee in the office kitchen, or the colleague from the regional office who travels in once a month. Weak ties are the ties between people who know each other, but not particularly well.
As remote work has continued and organizations have been forced to change the way they communicate, the resulting silos that have been created have, in some cases, caused the chasm between strong ties and weak ties to grow. This could end up being a big problem as companies ponder their remote and hybrid work future.
What Are Weak Ties and Why Are They Important?
"Weak ties used to often refer to those people in your network who you didn't speak to very often," said Shahar Erez, founder and CEO of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Stoke Talent.
In an office setting, some of the most common weak ties might happen between a member of the sales team and an IT technician, or a marketing intern and the chief marketing officer. While these interactions may be transactional in nature and don't happen as often as they do with direct teammates, they can still be valuable.
"When you do need to see them or get the chance to socialize with them, you can learn something extremely valuable you wouldn't otherwise have known, or you will be prompted to consider something you wouldn't have otherwise taken the time to think about," Erez said.
For example, the IT staff might provide a valuable tip for troubleshooting a nagging technical issue that is dragging down the salesperson's productivity. The marketing intern could have valuable insight into youth trends that point the way to a new campaign or channel for marketing. Innovation often happens from the unexpected or accidental collision of different ideas and perspectives.
However, weak ties by their nature are superficial, and some people believe these connections are more manufactured and inauthentic, which is particularly noticeable in a remote work environment. As a result, the extensions of a professional network within an office and the benefits that come with them may not be realized in quite the same way in a remote and hybrid environment.
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"Different teams no longer interact with each other simply because they don't see each other anymore the way we did in the traditional office setting," said Raj Datta, CEO and co-founder at Chicago-based oak9, an information security software firm.
Given the benefits they can provide, there needs to be some work done to foster weak ties and avoid the silos that can occur with remote work. Here are some tips:
Having weekly meetings where everyone in the organization comes together can be a beneficial practice in smaller teams. For larger organizations, company-wide updates can provide a layer of transparency that keeps everyone on the same page and provides an opportunity for team members who don't frequently interact to find out how others are doing or have an excuse to talk.
Virtual Happy Hours
While weekly meetings and updates can provide a means of communication between members of the organization, virtual happy hours or coffee meetings can be a greater opportunity for employees to interact informally. For example, employees could schedule meetings with employees on other teams to find out about something that might impact their work or get tips about the latest software updates or tools they'll be using.
A key benefit of weak ties is access to senior management, who can offer valuable career advice or insight into organizational strategy. There needs to be a way to replace these meetings. "One way to overcome this is continuing to encourage mentorship between employees at different levels and conducting feedback sessions," Erez said.
Express Individual Interests
One of the reasons weak ties aren't strengthened is because employees are unaware that someone in another department has similar interests. This might be being a fan of the same TV show, enjoying the same sports, or planning to visit the same travel destination. Many organizations rely on Slack for internal communication, and this is exactly how the #random channel can be used.
While interactions between people with weak ties doesn't happen as often, these relationships can be quite beneficial for the organization as whole. Remote and hybrid work can create silos that limit these ties on the surface, but when managed properly it also provides tools to strengthen these relationships through effective communication and collaboration.