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For too long, we’ve allowed employers and Big Tech to take too large a share of the ‘social capital’ that keeps us connected. Now we have a chance to take it back

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Employees wear masks at a Tokyo office this past November, months into the COVID-19 pandemic.Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

Benjamin Leszcz is a writer, consultant and entrepreneur based in Toronto.

1967 was a good year for IBM. After supporting the launch of Apollo 4 – a dry run for the moon landing – Big Blue enjoyed its 20th consecutive year of growth. In the Rouge River Valley, northeast of the Toronto, the company opened the newest location of the IBM Country Club – a lavish facility comprising two golf courses, a baseball diamond, a soccer pitch, four tennis courts, archery facilities and a sprawling clubhouse. The facility, like IBM’s other country clubs, was an elaborate perk – a place for employees and their families to enjoy freely, near the office but apart from its demands.

Within a quarter-century, facing mounting losses, IBM began divesting real estate assets. In 1993, the company closed the Toronto club, partnering with Minto, a developer, to build a subdivision. In online forums, IBMers still mourn the club’s loss, wistful for a bygone era in which it somehow made sense for a technology company to own a golf course.

Those days are long behind us. Or are they? The Googleplex, in Mountain View, Calif., lacks a golf course, but it has a Frisbee golf course – and baseball diamonds, swimming pools, bikes, baristas, nap rooms and a full-size replica of an experimental rocket plane. Google, it might seem, is the 21st century’s IBM – a tech giant channelling fat profits into outsize employee benefits. But a closer look reveals stark differences. IBM Country Clubs were vibrant community centres – classless havens where, on evenings and weekends, junior technicians rubbed elbows with senior executives; where employees met, befriended, even married, and then brought their children.

Google’s amenities, on the other hand, were designed in 2004 for a work force that worked constantly. (A 130-hour workweek is possible, according to early employee Marissa Meyer, “if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower, and how often you go to the bathroom.”) IBM, like other major mid-century corporations, promised lifelong employment. By contrast, the median tenure of Google employees is reportedly somewhere between two and three years. For IBMers, the office and its amenities were one node in a vital, multidimensional community-oriented life. For Googlers, the campus is a self-contained universe, offering everything from catered meals to medical clinics and laundry services, making it as easy as possible to stay forever.

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At top, the atrium of IBM's Toronto office in 1985. At bottom, Google's head office in Mountain View, Calif., in 2019.The Globe and Mail, The New York Times

Of course, times change. For many professionals today, pledging lifelong loyalty to one company would be unappealing – if not horrifying. But for a population scarred by war (and for some, the Great Depression), it was a more-than-fair price for certainty. And for veterans accustomed to hierarchy and collectivism, becoming a corporate foot soldier may have come naturally. This reciprocal loyalty constituted a sacred social contract, which facilitated a sense of stability and social cohesion that emanated beyond the workplace.

In postwar Canada, this ethos manifested in many ways. Union membership hit historic highs. Religious service attendance was triple the current rate. Civic engagement peaked, with 79.4 per cent of Canadians voting in the 1958 general election. Public policy followed suit, with the establishment of welfare state pillars such as the Family Allowance Program, the Canada Pension Plan and universal health care.

In the 1950s and 1960s, “engagement in community affairs and the sense of shared identity and reciprocity had never been greater,” Robert Putnam writes in his seminal 2000 book Bowling Alone, which was reissued last year. Dr. Putnam documents the postwar peak, and subsequent decline, of “social capital” in the United States. Canada seems to have followed the same trajectory, experiencing a steady dwindling in civic participation and social connection since the early 1970s.

Statistics Canada only began tracking metrics of social capital in 2003 (partly prompted by Bowling Alone), so definitive evidence is scarce. Still, the trend is evident in the decline of voter turnout and religious service attendance, as well as the waning of groups such as the Boy Scouts, Lions Clubs and Women’s Institutes – to say nothing of yard sales and lemonade stands. Grimmer yet are ever-rising rates of depression and anxiety, which hit crisis levels in Canada well before COVID-19, only to escalate further in 2020.

Social capital is the sum of our connections, and our sense of connection – in short, “social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them,” Dr. Putnam writes. Social capital gives us a sense of mutual obligation, of belonging, of identity. It is the thread that holds society together – the grease of the commercial, social and civic wheels. In countless studies, social capital correlates positively with health, happiness and productivity.

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At top, IBM employees assemble computers at the Toronto plant in 1979. At bottom, Google employees ride on company bicycles in Mountain View in 2018.The Globe and Mail, The Associated Press

Dr. Putnam names several culprits for social capital’s decline: TV, suburbanization, “generational change” – and the transformation of work. The shift from the IBM Country Club to the Googleplex is only part of this story. Abetted by technology, work today has become more relentless than ever. According to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a U.S. non-profit, the top 20 per cent of earners work an average of nearly two additional hours a week relative to those in the bottom 20 per cent. “For many of today’s rich, there is no such thing as ‘leisure,’ in the classic sense – work is their play,” writes economist Robert Frank.

And then, the centre shifted. Workplace banter became a distant dream. Bereft of alternatives, we found ourselves talking more than ever to the people around us: our families, our closest friends, our neighbours.

This shift – from offices to homes and neighbourhoods – happened under pandemic duress, but we’ve come to appreciate its merits. Workplace relationships are vital, but they are often contingent – on a company’s priorities, even a boss’s whim – and often reliant on their functional value. By contrast, the ties we build in our communities are stable, unmediated and more based in emotional connection. They are, in short, the most valuable sources of social capital.

This strange time, then, has not only allowed us to re-evaluate the centrality of the office, but also of work itself. Increasingly, we see that we have been overindexing on our careers. The opportunity cost of long nights, quick trips and endless meetings has never been clearer.

In the before-times, with the workplace ascendant, it was tempting to conclude that “the line at the copying machines has replaced the back fence as the locus for social capital,” Dr. Putnam writes. But as I consider the time I spent last year standing by my own back fence, chatting with neighbours as our kids ran frantic figure eights around us, I feel hopeful. What if 2020, that year of cataclysm, was also the year that we shifted the centre of our lives away from the office and back into our communities? And what if 2021 – which we hope to be a year of restoration – can be the year we permanently reorient our relationship to work, reclaiming the social capital we’ve lost? What if the twenties roar not just with consumer spending and open-mouth kissing, but also solidarity, interconnectedness and a new societal flourishing?

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A woman sits as she works at a desk of an insurance-company office in Milan in November, 2020.Luca Bruno/The Associated Press

Reimagining our relationship with work does not mean reverting to the IBM heyday, a time characterized broadly by brutal discrimination – and in the corporate world, by rigid hierarchies and the prioritization of systems over people. (If the market changed, your job might change, too, via retraining or relocation. Hence the long-standing in-joke that IBM stood for “I’ve Been Moved.”) Still, the concept of “jobs for life” made work a stabilizing force. Long-term employment, according to the sociologist Richard Sennett, establishes a norm of long-term connections that extends beyond the workplace into family and community life. The threat of layoffs would undermine this dramatically. Fortunately, it scarcely existed. In his book The Disposable American, Louis Uchitelle notes that for most of the 20th century, layoffs were “a sign of corporate failure and a violation of acceptable business behaviour.” Until, of course, they weren’t.

In his 1970 essay titled The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits, Milton Friedman established the concept of shareholder primacy – shareholder returns trump everything – and birthed a new cultural and economic epoch. A decade later, Canada avoided the hard-right turn into neoliberalism taken by Britain and the U.S. under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, but an increasingly global economy made the paradigm inescapable.

Few events legitimized that paradigm as profoundly as Mr. Reagan’s 1981 firing of more than 11,000 air traffic controllers who were striking in violation of his order to return to work – a moment which Reagan official Donald J. Devine characterized as “a lesson in managerial leadership that [business leaders] could not and did not ignore.” That year, Jack Welch became chief executive of General Electric, another company once known for lifelong employment. “Neutron Jack” was a new kind of folk hero, beloved for enriching shareholders – which he did while laying off nearly 120,000 employees. “Loyalty to a company?” he once said. “It’s nonsense.” By 1993, layoffs had gone from unthinkable to conventional. That year, IBM not only shuttered the Toronto country club; it also breached its 82-year-strong promise of jobs for life, laying off 60,000 workers.

Mass layoffs have since become a common management technique, widely accepted as a necessary evil in a hyper-competitive world. Last year, Canadians experienced nearly two million layoffs. (With luck, most will prove temporary.) Yet despite the normalization of layoffs, losing a job is traumatic, ranking eighth on the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory. Never mind the data indicating that it’s much tougher to find a job when you’re unemployed, or that roughly half of Canadians live paycheque to paycheque; according to a 2015 University of Manchester study, job losses “significantly scar individuals’ generalized trust, with depressed trust observable at least nine years after the event.” Even the lucky ones suffer. Researchers at Stockholm University and the University of Canterbury identified a 41-per-cent decline in job satisfaction and a 20-per-cent decline in performance among workers whose colleagues had been axed. Layoffs corrode feelings of trust, purpose and solidarity. “Teamwork stops feeling so amicable,” Dr. Putnam writes, “when you are subtly competing with your teammates for your livelihood.”

In a bitter irony, as the employer-employee social contract took its last breaths, a growing chorus of business leaders began recognizing the value of stable, trusting worker relationships to the then-emerging knowledge economy. In 1995, political economist Francis Fukuyama published Trust, in which he explained the secret to the success of nations such as Japan and Germany: “A healthy capitalist economy is one in which there will be sufficient social capital in the underlying society.” In a Fast Company essay published that year, the director of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, John Seely Brown, with the consultant Estee Solomon Gray, established “a new set of management principles for competing in the Knowledge Era.” They argued that casual conversations among Xerox technicians were the organization’s secret sauce, invoking the philosopher and scientist Michael Polanyi’s notion of tacit knowledge – ”we can know more than we can tell” – as especially relevant in a fast-changing, technology-driven environment.

The banter may have seemed idle, but it was the key for the transmission of wisdom, practices and seemingly intuitive modes of thinking that would defy any system or handbook. “The real genius of organizations is the informal, impromptu, often inspired ways that real people solve real problems in ways that formal processes can’t anticipate,” they wrote. “The coin of the realm is social capital: the incentive to be a good colleague, to contribute and receive knowledge as a member of the community.” The insight wasn’t limited to Silicon Valley. In a report that year about a new office design trend (coffee stations), The New York Times quotes a finance executive: “When people interact informally, they form relationships – they build up a level of trust. Then they aren’t afraid to feel foolish later, when they need to ask business questions or share information.”

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Employees from Capitol One take part in a team building exercise to see who can throw an axe more accurately at Washington's Bad Axe Throwing in 2018.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In 2012, Google launched Project Aristotle, its far-reaching study aimed at understanding the magic of its highest-performing teams. Its conclusion? A team’s most important determinant of success is the psychological safety its members feel. If people feel comfortable asking questions and proposing maybe-ridiculous ideas, then teams perform far better on metrics ranging from employee satisfaction to retention to revenue. Google took this not-quite-earth-shattering insight and did what it does: it optimized. The company created resources to help teams foster that key psychological safety, encouraging them to participate in trust-building exercises.

Charles Duhigg, in The New York Times Magazine, recounts the story of a manager, Matt Sakaguchi, who gathered his group for such an exercise. Mr. Sakaguchi went first: “I think one of the things most people don’t know about me is that I have Stage 4 cancer.” In an instant, the dynamic changed; it became safe to open up. Mr. Sakaguchi created an environment that ultimately became not only more productive but also more honest and trusting. Sean Laurent, a team member who was initially skeptical of the exercise, said: “My work is my life … Most of my friends I know through work. If I can’t be open and honest at work, then I’m not really living, am I?”

Trusting work environments are unquestionably more productive and pleasant; concealing critical personal details, let alone a terminal illness, is likely to affect the team dynamic. But by developing processes aimed at extracting that information, by exhorting people to bring their whole selves to work, Google – and many others like it – aren’t just facilitating the development of social capital; they’re engineering it. When employees like Mr. Laurent, already overinvested in their careers, are coaxed into pouring yet more of themselves into work, they may build trust and intimacy on their teams, but they are also putting yet more social-connection eggs into one basket – a basket that happens to be company property. And by expending this additional emotional energy – and time – at the office, they diminish their opportunity to build more durable relationships elsewhere.

The psychologist Janna Koretz uses the term “enmeshment” to characterize the blurring of boundaries between oneself and one’s career such that one’s individual identity loses importance. When we conflate who we are with what we do – when we don’t just work at Google, but become a Googler – then professional problems become personal problems; being laid off can feel like an existential failure. Work, writes Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, has transformed into “workism” – a “religion, promising identity, transcendence and community.” With traditional sources of social capital in decline, more and more professionals are seeking their sense of self, and of belonging, at the workplace. It’s deeply ingrained: Mr. Thompson cites a 2019 Pew Research finding that 95 per cent of teenagers said “having a job or career they enjoy” would be “extremely or very important” to them as adults. Helping others in need clocked in at 81 per cent; getting married, 47 per cent.

Mr. Thompson wasn’t the first to describe work as a religion. William H. Whyte, in his 1956 critique of corporate life, The Organization Man, writes: “The organization man…[needs] something that will do for him what the Protestant Ethic did once.” Whereas the Protestant Ethic tied economic production to the will of God, the Organization Ethic is “a secular faith.” Presciently, Mr. Whyte writes that recruitment resembled proselytizing, with companies “sugar-coating their purpose.” By the 1990s, statements of purpose – of mission, vision and values – became prominent as companies sought out cost-effective salves for the wounds left by mass layoffs and slashed benefits. In 1993, Chase Bank embarked on a “Vision Quest” to invigorate a “profoundly depressed,” recently downsized work force. The project yielded coffee cups inscribed with principles such as teamwork and professionalism.

Today, lofty purpose statements are standard, whether the business is selling hot drinks (Starbucks: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit”) or online file storage (Dropbox: “We’re here to unleash the world’s creative energy by designing a more enlightened way of working”). Professionals today are seeking meaningful work, but when companies fall short of their mission, vision and values – as they typically do – the result can be crushing. In a study this fall, 49 per cent of Canadians said they were “seriously considering” leaving their jobs.

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Pedestrians keep a respectful distance at Paris's La Defense business district this past fall. Lockdowns in France kept much of the work force at home in 2020.CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP via Getty Images

To be fair, white-collar work today is singularly miserable. Office camaraderie is a balm for the banality, or agony, of work. But with Trivia Tuesdays and Thirsty Thursdays on hiatus, and interactions drained of the infinite subtlety that only a non-pixelated human can convey, all that’s left is the work itself. (Virtual happy hours, the most depraved form of “funishment,” are salt on the wound.) Throw in a mortal crisis – offering COVID-19-clarity to highlight what truly matters – and work, in many people’s lives, has experienced a demotion.

For parents, this is especially true; parenting in a pandemic is relentless. And while few parents would wish to repeat 2020, nearly all are grateful for the family time it afforded. My wife and I had our third child one year ago – watching the first year of a life unfold in vivid detail has been extraordinary. Forming “bubbles” forced us to acknowledge explicitly relationships we might otherwise have taken for granted.

Our neighbourhoods have ascended to the centre of our social lives, perhaps even the extent of them. School drop-offs, back-alley cocktails, dog runs, park strolls – these are precious opportunities for human interaction. For parents, the summer’s local street action harked back to a simpler time, when kids’ social lives were determined not by programs but by proximity. Vital neighbourhoods, writes Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, comprise “a city’s most irreplaceable social capital.”

After the pandemic, offices will thrive again, but the balance will surely shift. Increasingly, flexible work will be a boon to neighbourhood life and to local businesses, which will cater as never before to morning coffees, midday lunches and end-of-day beers. Such schedules will mean a slowdown for business districts, but with developers already considering converting largely vacant office buildings to apartments, it could promise an urbanist dream of truly mixed-use neighbourhoods – diverse areas as vibrant on Tuesday afternoons as they are on Saturday nights.

The shift points to a flourishing not only of local economies and creative communities, but also of society itself. By swapping a local café for a downtown Starbucks, we support a business that’s embedded in our community. “The sum of such casual, public contact at a local level,” Ms. Jacobs writes, “is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust.” Indeed, these small behavioural changes are the surest path we have to building a more compassionate, cohesive society. This, in essence, is the project of liberal democracy – the success of which we enjoy not merely by living in safe homes, near good schools and widely accessible hospitals, but also by living among fellow citizens who enjoy these rights, too. By investing in community, we acknowledge that despite our country’s shortcomings, we believe that what we have is good, and that better is possible.

This pandemic has jarred us, forcing us to see how bound together we truly are. We see now that we don’t merely crave companionship; our personal relationships connect us to the universe, and imbue our lives with meaning and joy. Social capital, then, is the currency of life itself – the how and the why, the original vaccine for loneliness, isolation and despair. Somehow, distracted by deadlines and blinded by ambition, we lost sight of this, whiling away days and nights at work without ever asking what we really want, and who we really are.

Last March, we hit pause, stepped back – and by necessity, started a new way of living. If, as we hope, a return to the old way of living becomes possible this year, then it will be easy to slide back; old habits die hard. COVID-19 has forced a collective, existential reckoning with meaning and value. Preserving what we’ve learned will not be easy. Indeed, it could be rather hard work. That much, I trust, we can handle.

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