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Work Is About Knowledge That Pays and Relationships That Are Priceless

(Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

“And both wages and relationships advance worker opportunity, the essential elements of which are what individuals know (i.e., profitable knowledge) and whom they know (i.e., priceless relationships).”

We often conceive of work as a purely economic activity conducted in order to earn a living and climb the income ladder. But this view of work overlooks its social, interpersonal dimensions. Through work, we have the chance to build connections and relationships that increase social capital, which are the benefits we get from those relationships. Hence our understanding of work and how we approach it must include not only economic but also social exchange; work involves knowledge that pays and relationships that are priceless. 

Workplace social connections, friendships, and the disruptions the Coronavirus (COVID-19) created for these relationships are central topics of an American Perspectives Survey of 5,037 American adults ages 18 and older. The survey was conducted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life in English and Spanish. I want here to summarize three important insights from that research. They point out the social nature of work, and they lead me to outline a proposed post-COVID-19 opportunity and talent development framework for workers.  

The Importance of Workplace Friendships 

The American Perspectives Survey makes clear, first of all, that workplace friendships are important to us. More than half of workers met a close friend through their work (42%) or a spouse’s or partner’s work (10%). This makes work the main place where individuals forge friendships—more so than school, the neighborhood, a place of worship, clubs or social organizations, their children’s school, or online. Moreover, those who form workplace friendships are more satisfied with coworker relationships overall than those who do not have them: Over seven in ten (74%) report they are very or completely satisfied with coworker relationships, compared to almost four in ten (39%) without a workplace close friend. 

Good workplace relationships also spawn greater overall job satisfaction, with more than six in ten (62%) with good workplace relationships saying they feel completely or very satisfied in their current job. Additionally, those with good workplace relationships report feeling more connected to work than those without them. They find more meaning in their work; are satisfied with their current employment; and are less likely to look for different jobs. On the other hand, those without workplace connections report greater feelings of loneliness and isolation. To this point, more than one in three (36%) report having felt lonely at least a few times in the past week, compared to one in five (20%) who have at least one close workplace friend. 

And because workplace relationships also align with strong relationships outside work, the survey reveals that workplace social capital reinforces social capital more generally. More than two in three (68%) with close workplace relationships report having at least four or more close friendships in general, compared to about four in ten (38%) with no workplace friends. Similarly, workers who report having at least one close workplace friend are more satisfied with their general social situation than those who have none (65% to 43%). 

Unequal Distributions 

It is clear that workplace friendships carry significant benefits—both in terms of job satisfaction and stability and in terms of social connections. These benefits are unequally distributed across the existing education, gender, and other divides of American political and social life. The American Perspectives Survey highlights some of the ways in demographic characteristics, especially education levels and gender, affect workplace friendships. 

For instance: Those with a college degree are more likely to have a close friend in the workplace than those without one (45% vs. 35%). More than half (54%) of workers with a post-graduate degree report socializing with work colleagues outside work at least a few times a year, whereas fewer than four in ten (38%) without a college degree do so. In other words, the more years of formal education individuals have, the more likely it is that they invest in and benefit from socializing with colleagues both at work and outside work.

Among the college-educated, women are more invested in socializing with coworkers outside the workplace than men (55% vs. 47%). Women with college educations are much more likely than men to report developing relationships at work, with almost three in ten (29%) having at least one close coworker friend compared to two in ten college-educated men. But among women with a high school degree or less, only 36% invest in socializing with coworkers outside work. Almost half (49%) of those with a college degree and more than half (52%) of college-educated woman report making major or minor changes in how they act, talk, or look at work compared to less than four in ten (37%) without a college degree. 

Other personal characteristics have a relationship with how people act. For example, overall, younger workers (18 to 29 years old) are more likely than older workers to feel they need to do this. Finally, the difference between whites and blacks in making these major or minor changes in the workplace is minimal (44% vs. 40%), with Asians most likely (54%) and Hispanics least likely (39%).

Changing Dynamics  

Workplace connections have not survived COVID-19 unscathed. When McKinsey and Company surveyed about 5,000 full-time workers on how their workplace connections changed since COVID-19, it found that more than three in four “report connecting with others less frequently, have smaller networks, and spend less time and effort on relationship building since the start of the pandemic.” The American Perspectives Survey paints these findings in clearer detail. 

On the one hand, those working remotely during COVID-19 report they were less likely to maintain close relationships with coworkers than those who were hybrid and in-person workers (16% vs 24% vs 30%). But, surprisingly, all three groups report similar levels of being completely or very satisfied with their level of work-related social engagement (60% vs. 62% vs. 61%).  

It seems that as work went increasingly virtual, social connections shifted with it. Nearly two in three (62%) remote workers also report they were either very or completely satisfied with the amount of time they spent with their families, whereas around half of hybrid workers (54%) and in-person workers (48%) felt the same. And around six in ten (62%) remote workers and hybrid workers (57%) say they often feel free to attend to personal matters during the workday, compared to around one in three (35%) in-person workers. 

An Opportunity and Talent Framework

This opportunity framework sees work as more than the economics of salaries, wages, and benefits that boost individuals up the income ladder, as important as they are. It emphasizes seeing a healthy work environment as a place that nurtures connections and friendships—social capital—between workers. So work is about money and association. Both promote worker loyalty and satisfaction. And both wages and relationships advance worker opportunity, the essential elements of which are what individuals know (i.e., profitable knowledge) and whom they know (i.e., priceless relationships).

This understanding of opportunity requires an approach in which individuals develop habits of mind and habits of association. Habits of mind include the knowledge and skills we acquire to live, work, and compete in today’s world. They help individuals set goals, develop pathways to achieve them, and exercise the ability or self-agency to achieve them. Habits of association, on the other hand, include two types of social capital: bonding and bridging. “Bonding” social capital is formed through the relationships we develop with those similar to us, while “bridging” social capital is formed through relationships we develop with those different than us. They are complementary, as bonding social capital is for “getting by” (or preserving your status quo), while bridging social capital is for “getting ahead” (by connecting to new people and networks).   

Taken together, habits of mind and habits of association form the foundation of what Brent Orrell, Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, calls human-centered talent development. This approach highlights the development of worker knowledge, skills, and abilities. It promotes worker dignity by matching those knowledge, skills, and abilities to meaningful work. This creates an opportunity agenda for making a living and making a life, giving workers the financial and social resources they need to foster human flourishing.

Bruno V. Manno is senior advisor for the Walton Family Foundation’s education program and former United States Assistant Secretary of Education.

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