James' view | What is business travel for?: social capital and connections

By James Parkhouse, CEO, Capita Travel and Events

What is business travel for?

Last week I published the first in a short series of articles exploring the question of ‘what is business travel for?’, where I focussed on the role it plays in building culture and engagement. In this next piece, I will look a little more at the role it plays in building social and relationship capital and by the end of this short series, I hope that exploring this question will bring us a little closer to overcoming the typical stereotypes many of us have pictured in our heads. Business travel is about teamwork, collaboration, in-person connectivity and much more - across industries, sectors and cultures.

The importance of in-person connections: Building social capital and connections

The changes in the way we work during the pandemic have highlighted the importance of in-person connections to company performance in terms of profitability, employee experience and corporate culture. But another important angle to consider is why organisations need to consider how social capital is impacted by a shift to remote working, how it is depleted without face-to-face engagement and how it can be replenished.

Social capital is the value resulting from trust and connections that have been cultivated in groups of individuals, regardless of level or status. Social capital is who you know and how well you know people. The number and quality of connections in a social network lead directly to innovation, exploration and creativity.

Many businesses employ brilliant people, but it is their connection to one another that prompts them to share ideas, collaborate and problem-solve. Without high levels of social capital, the quality of debate and exchanges of ideas is diminished.

Social capital is what gets things done. It is the lubricant in the cogs that keeps a high-performing engine running efficiently and helps makes teams much more than the sum of its parts.[1]

Impact of lockdown

The response to lockdown; the closing of offices and the adoption of remote working was largely successful because of the social capital that businesses already had ‘in the tank’. This was thanks to social connections nurtured, primarily through face-to-face engagement, over many years.

Three-quarters of US and UK workers do not feel visible within their organisation since moving to remote working. Not being seen or being able to find and identify others - and thereby build social capital – has significant impacts on productivity. Conversely, those who do feel visible at work saw productivity increase.[2] As workers lose human connections and visibility within their organisations, social capital reserves can dry up and putting remote working productivity at risk.

75% of workers who report being more productive since working from home already know at least half of their company colleagues, but two-thirds of those who feel invisible within their organisation report a productivity drop while working from home. Those ‘invisible’ employees could be anyone from new recruits to members of smaller teams but whatever the reason, restoring – or even building new connections - is of clear importance in building relationships and boosting productivity.

Restoring social capital

The impact of poor human connectedness is well-documented. Social connection lowers anxiety and depression and helps us to regulate our emotions, leading to higher self-esteem and empathy.

By neglecting our need to connect, there are health risks too. Or - put another way - we can make ourselves happier and feel more fulfilled in our workplaces by building friendships with the people that work with us, for us and with leadership. [3] So, how can lost social capital be replenished? Inclusiveness is an essential first step that can make the implementation of business decisions much smoother. Whether it is re-connecting with colleagues through necessary and valuable face-to-face meetings and event interactions or re-creating those watercooler conversations we took for granted during normal times.

It’s possible to build social capital with virtual tools too, but these connections can rely heavily on planned interaction and can lose the value of organic exchanges. In contrast, when office-based or have the opportunity to meet in person; accidental, incidental and tacit communication helps to grown and strengthen social bonds. [4]

There is no magic bullet when it comes to building social capital; it’s built through an accumulation of varied business connections – through face-to-face, virtual and even written interactions. But the key – and at times the challenge - is that they are supported by necessary and effective business travel.

In my next article, I’ll discuss how business travel and meetings are used for collaboration, creativity, choice, and empowerment.


[1] https://jrsinclair.com/articles/2020/remote-work-and-the-half-life-of-social-capital/ .

[2] https://workplaceinsight.net/remote-working-productivity-will-slump-as-firms-burn-up-their-social-capital/

[3] Happiness expert Annie McKee, author of How to Be Happy at Work

[4] Building social capital in remote teams (management-issues.com)