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How Leaders Can Connect in a Disconnected Workplace

For too long, connecting at work has been seen as something that simply happens during the workday, whether through hallway conversations, refreshments, or over coffee. With spontaneous moments of connection harder 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 they’ll be hired. The author suggests four practical ways to build stronger relationships on your team: 1) Make connecting at work a ritual; 2) Facilitate the request for support; 3) Make integration more experiential; and 4) Making charging a reality.

Another way to think of the Great Resignation is as the “Great Disconnect.” As a result of the pandemic and the broad shift to flexible work-from-anywhere policies, 65% of workers report feeling less connected to their colleagues. Disconnecting employees is a major driver of voluntary turnover, with lone workers costing U.S. businesses up to $406 billion a year. Cigna research shows that single employees have a higher turnover risk, lower productivity, more missed workdays and lower quality of work. Meanwhile, BetterUp found that employees who experience high levels of belonging have lower turnover risk, increased job performance, reduced sick days and increased employer promoter score. , which translates to an annual saving of $52 million for a company of 10,000 people.

The antidote to disconnection at work is to promote friendship and meaningful connection at work. A 2019 report from the Institute of Leadership and Management found that building close relationships with co-workers was the most important factor in determining job satisfaction for 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 who have a best friend at work are more likely to engage customers, produce better work, have better well-being, and are less likely to be injured on the job. If employees don’t have a best friend at work, there’s only a 1 in 12 chance they’ll be hired. The Imperative peer coaching platform found that there’s only a 1% chance you’ll report being fulfilled in life if you lack meaningful relationships at work.

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

1. Make connecting to work a ritual.

For too long, connecting at work has been seen as something that simply happens during the workday, whether through hallway conversations, refreshments, or over coffee. With spontaneous moments of human connection harder 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 his book The affair of friendship, she explains that friendships need three things to flourish: positivity, so we can feel satisfied; vulnerability, so that 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 co-workers can ask follow-up questions. Vulnerable sharing and storytelling spark curiosity and compassion, and have been shown to foster belonging.

2. Make it easy to ask for support.

According to social psychologist Heidi Grant, 75-90% of all help co-workers give each other starts with a request. During the pandemic, a group of authors and I created what organizational psychologist Adam Grant calls a reciprocity ring. We meet 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 request.

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

3. Make onboarding more experiential.

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

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 experienced since the start of the pandemic. She told me that the part of the Asana onboarding that managers get the most out of is the 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’re most unsure or curious about with the rest of the group. Other new managers in the onboarding cohort then have the opportunity to offer advice, ideas and support to each person. Joanna told me that when a new manager admits what it’s not knowing how to do something, they open up to help from their colleagues they have 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 sense what mutual support feels like, which creates a container for a deeper connection.

4. Make charging a reality.

In the wake of a pandemic that has worsened an epidemic of loneliness and disconnection, we need to lead with compassion and take better care of each other. Nearly one in five Americans do not have close social ties, a double-digit increase from 2013.

For human relationships and friendship to thrive, we must take employee health seriously. We can start by supporting more generous family leave, childcare and elder care policies, access to mental health services, renewal leaves and ‘hours off work’ so that employees can recharge their batteries 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 breaks with a friend” where employees call a friend or someone important in their life (or, if possible, take a walk together). Employees who take a break every 90 minutes report 50% better health and well-being, 50% better creative thinking, and 30% better concentration. 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 business. It is an essential part of building a pleasant workplace and a more resilient society.

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