Both research and common sense tell us that high-quality social connections among colleagues constitute a competitive advantage. High-quality connections -- defined as ongoing brief, mutually reinforcing interactions that nurture and energize us -- are a pathway to individual and organizational flourishing, as social relationships and swift coordination among employees allow work to get done and meaning to be found in organizations.
And yet loneliness and lack of connection are prevalent in modern life, including at work. Well before the novel coronavirus appeared, managers and employees surveyed in 10 countries spent about 50% of each day on digital (vs. in-person) interactions -- and more than half felt lonely as a result. Cigna’s Loneliness and the Workplace: 2020 Report charts the growth of loneliness in America over the last 3 years and its disproportionate impact on younger and lower- income workers.
Today’s global pandemic exacerbates the situation; in April, soon after lockdowns and stay-at-home orders were put into place, surveys showed that up to half of American adults were feeling lonelier than usual. This is worrisome on multiple levels. Social isolation and lack of connection are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, poor sleep, substance use, depression and anxiety. Accompanying disengagement, unhappiness and reduced quality and volume of work may compromise individual and team performance.
Technology contributes to loneliness, but it’s also a necessary solution during self-isolation. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has said that being physically separated from each other puts people in a state of physiologic stress. which when prolonged, can become chronic, cause inflammation and damage physical and emotional health. This is an obvious risk during the COVID-19 pandemic, reinforcing the importance of virtual connections.
What can organizations do to foster connection, belonging and positive work relationships? Intentional approaches to support high-quality connections and an empathic culture are likely to be more effective than happy hours and group social events.
Here are strategies leaders can use across organizations to deepen connections with colleagues; many of these ideas were inspired by Murthy’s work on building relationships in the workplace, including during COVID-19:
- Assess the current state by asking employees if they feel valued and cared for by colleagues and understood beyond their role at work, particularly at this time. Be ready to act on their feedback.
- Model giving and receiving help, both of which build connection.
- Create opportunities for employees to learn about each other beyond work roles to deepen connections (e.g., by sharing something about themselves). Practice inclusion to avoid inadvertently excluding colleagues from virtual social events, committee meetings or chats.
- Prioritize check-ins at the start of meetings, greet and acknowledge co-workers, value small acts of kindness and strive to make others feel seen and heard.
- Protect time outside work to maintain and nourish connections with family and friends, now more than ever.
As we wait to turn the page on COVID-19, it’s becoming increasingly clear that whether we thrive or languish depends significantly on the quality of the social connections we’re able to nurture. An added benefit is that when individuals flourish, so does the workplace and the business as a whole.