How Leaders Can Build Connection in a Disconnected Workplace

How Leaders Can Build Connection in a Disconnected Workplace

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For too long, workplace connection has been thought of as something that just happens during the workday, whether via hallway conversations, water-cooler moments, or grabbing coffee. With spontaneous moments of connection more challenging to recreate in a remote or hybrid environment, managers need to take a more proactive approach, especially given how important connection is to retention. Consider this: If employees don’t have a best friend at work, there’s only a 1 in 12 chance that they’ll be engaged. The author offers four practical ways to build stronger relationships on your team: 1) Make workplace connection a ritual; 2) Make it easier to ask for support; 3) Make onboarding more experiential; and 4) Make recharging a reality.

Another way to think of the Great Resignation is as the “Great Disconnection.” In the wake of the pandemic and the vast shift to flexible work from anywhere policies, 65% of workers say they feel less connected to their coworkers. Employee disconnection is one of the main drivers of voluntary turnover, with lonely employees costing U.S. companies up to $406 billion a year. Research by Cigna shows that lonely employees have a higher risk of turnover, lower productivity, more missed days at work, and lower quality of work. Meanwhile, BetterUp found that employees who experience high-levels of belonging have a drop in turnover risk, an increase in job performance, a reduction in sick days, and an increase in employer promoter score, which results in an annual savings of $52 million for a 10,000-person company.

The antidote to workplace disconnection is promoting friendship and meaningful connection at work. A 2019 report by The Institute of Leadership and Management found that building close relationships with colleagues was the most important factor in determining job satisfaction by 77% of respondents. Salary was eighth on the list. Gallup reports that only 30% of employees have a best friend at work, but those who do are seven times more engaged. Employees with a best friend at work are more likely to engage customers, produce better work, have higher well-being, and are less likely to get injured on the job. If employees don’t have a best friend at work, there’s only a 1 in 12 chance that they’ll be engaged. The peer coaching platform Imperative found that there’s only a 1% chance you will report being fulfilled in life if you lack meaningful relationships at work.

As the Great Resignation rages on, here are four tools to help your team build stronger relationships at work.

1. Make workplace connection a ritual.

For too long, workplace connection has been thought of as something that just happens during the workday, whether via hallway conversations, water-cooler moments, or grabbing coffee. With spontaneous moments of human connection more challenging to recreate in a remote or hybrid environment, it’s time to listen to Shasta Nelson, a friendship expert who reminds us that “friendships don’t just happen.” In her book The Business of Friendship, she explains that friendships need three things to thrive: positivity, so we can feel satisfied; vulnerability, so we can feel safe; and consistency, so we can feel seen.

Whenever possible, create consistent connection rituals that offer praise and appreciation on an ongoing basis. An example might be Gratitude Mondays, where employees start each week by sharing something they are grateful for. Or Storytelling Fridays, where each week, a different employee can share a personal story and their coworkers can ask follow-up questions. Vulnerable sharing and storytelling spark curiosity and compassion, and have been shown to foster belonging.

2. Make it easier to ask for support.

According to social psychologist Heidi Grant, 75% to 90% of all help coworkers give to one another starts with making an ask. During the pandemic, a group of authors and I created what organizational psychologist Adam Grant calls a reciprocity ring. We get together via Zoom on a quarterly basis, and everyone shares something they’re struggling with. A fellow author might be looking for an agent or looking for help marketing their new book. The rest of the group offers ideas, contacts, and resources to support their ask.

We keep track of our asks in a Google Spreadsheet, and we use a WhatsApp group for folks to stay connected and offer encouragement in between Zoom meetings. Creating reciprocity rings will help build consistency and structure into how your colleagues are able to ask for help. When employees are invested in each other’s personal growth, we build a culture where friendships can thrive.

3. Make onboarding more experiential.

Onboarding is a critical first opportunity to facilitate friendships at work. Since the pandemic, millions of employees have started new jobs and have never met one of their colleagues in-person. Especially for early career employees, this can be incredibly challenging.

Joanna Miller, who leads learning and development at Asana, was tasked with designing a virtual onboarding experience that 150 managers in 10 countries have now gone through since the pandemic began. She told me that the part of Asana’s onboarding that managers got the most out of were experiential exercises.

In one exercise, called Board of Advisors, new managers in an onboarding cohort take turns sharing their most burning question — the thing they are most uncertain or curious about with the rest of the group. Other new managers in the onboarding cohort then have a chance to offer advice, insights, and support to each person. Joanna told me that when a new manager admits what it’s like not knowing how to do something, they become open to receiving help from their colleagues whom they only just met. The onboarding cohort experiences the psychological safety that comes from being in a safe environment to admit mistakes, ask questions, and try new things. They immediately experience what mutual support feels like, which creates a container for deeper connection.

4. Make recharging a reality.

In the wake of a pandemic that has deepened an epidemic of loneliness and disconnection, we need to lead with compassion and take better care of each other. Nearly one in five Americans has no close social connections, a double digit increase from 2013.

For human connection and friendship to thrive, we need to take employee health seriously. We can start by supporting more generous family leave policies, child care and elder care, access to mental health services, time off for renewal, and “work-free hours” so employees can recharge by spending more time with family and friends. According to Cigna, employees are seven points less lonely when they have work-life balance and four points less lonely when they can “leave work at work.”

Having more phone calls and in-person conversations at work also reduces loneliness. During the workday, encourage “phone a friend breaks” where employees call a friend or someone important in their life (or if possible, go for a walk together). Employees who take a break every 90 minutes report a 50% higher level of health and well-being, a 50% greater capacity for creative thinking, and a 30% higher level of focus. Try adding “five minutes of play” to the start of in-person or virtual team meetings, in the form of a connection exercise, interactive icebreaker, or game. Time spent playing with your colleagues can lead to deeper relationships and better collaboration.

In today’s lonely world, human connection is everyone’s job. It’s an essential part of building a great place to work and a more resilient society.

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