Spending time with colleagues in the pub is an important way of building what economists call ‘social capital’ © Ian Shaw/Alamy

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When I joined the Financial Times as a trainee in 2007, I spent a lot of time learning about credit default swaps and a similar amount of time in the pub. The CDS knowledge proved useful in the ensuing financial crisis, but 13 years later, I am glad of the hours spent in the pub too.

It was how I got to know my colleagues, who taught me the FT’s folklore, its funny anecdotes and its subtle power dynamics. I just thought I was having fun, but an economist would have said I was building “social capital”, defined by the UK’s statistical office as “the extent and nature of our connections with others and the collective attitudes and behaviours between people that support a well-functioning, close-knit society”.

Social capital is a fuzzy concept and hard to measure. But Covid-19 has made us think about who has it, who doesn’t, how we build it and how we lose it.

I was near the end of my maternity leave when the pandemic started, so it has now been almost 18 months since I last worked in the office. I’m grateful every day for my store of social capital, which has helped me to stay connected, though I do get a twinge of anxiety with every new byline I don’t recognise.

It has been much tougher for people starting out this year. If it is hard to maintain relationships via video calls, it is harder still to build them from scratch. I spoke recently to some senior accountants about their new crop of trainees. They were learning their trade, but there was no opportunity for general chit-chat before and after virtual meetings, and the trainees seemed to find it harder to ask “daft questions” in video calls than when “sitting round a table with a packet of biscuits”.

Next year, employers will have to think creatively about how to help new employees “catch up” on forming social capital, especially in a world of “hybrid” work where people stay at home for several days a week.

Inadequate social capital is a problem for organisations as well as individuals. Research suggests that social capital boosts efficiency by reducing transaction and monitoring costs. In other words, “society wastes resources when people distrust and are dishonest with each other”, according to Dimitri Zenghelis, leader of the Wealth Economy project at Cambridge university, which explores social and natural capital. 

I am often struck by the inefficiencies of distrustful workplaces. Companies using screenshot and mouse-tracking software can end up in a cat-and-mouse game with resentful workers using tech workarounds of their own. Employers who doubt the honesty and motivation of their staff compel line managers to hold “return to work” meetings with employees after every sickness absence, even of only a day. Factories and warehouses often have long queues at shift changes as staff go through scanners to prove they are not stealing. Covid-19 might push some employers further in this direction, particularly if they decide to use more offshore workers with whom they have no prior relationship.

On the other hand, this year’s forced experiment with homeworking has made some employers realise their staff can be trusted to work productively without oversight. The key will be to hold on to that trust, and the efficiencies it brings, rather than slip back into old habits of micromanagement.

Social capital matters for economies, too. For his book Extreme Economies, economist Richard Davies travelled to nine unusual places, from a refugee camp in Jordan to an Indonesian town destroyed by the 2004 tsunami. He was struck by how societies with higher social capital were more resilient when disaster struck. In Glasgow, by contrast, he argued that the replacement of tenement homes with tower blocks had dismantled the social capital of the people who lived there, making it harder for them to cope with economic decline.

For both individuals and economies, social capital is an important buffer against unexpected hardships. Yet in the UK, where the Office for National Statistics has been trying to track various indicators of social capital over time, the trend has not been good. We exchanged favours or stopped to talk with our neighbours less often in 2017/18 than we did in 2011/12. Our sense of belonging to our neighbourhoods also fell. Parents became less likely to regularly give help to, and receive help from, their adult children.

The pandemic has strained our ability to maintain the bonds between us, but it has also reminded us just how important they are. Any plan to “build back better” when the crisis ends should include plenty of time in the pub.

sarah.o’connor@ft.com


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