Both during and after the pandemic, I have found myself reminded of how basic the need is for human connection. As a current C-suite leader, a former president, a studio site leader and an overall data geek, employee engagement and culture are things I care deeply about. The engagement surveys my company ran after the pandemic showed us that employees largely wanted to meet their colleagues in person, although not necessarily in the office. Employees expressed a desire to connect in two specific ways: by meeting colleagues in their region in person and by being able to interact with colleagues—no matter where they were based geographically—on activities and hobbies they shared.
Many engagement surveys at other companies echo the same sentiments. Employees are seeking human connection, and they were looking to their leaders at work to foster this in a post-pandemic world, where many employees had never met their colleagues in real life. With remote and hybrid work here to stay, employers and leaders need to be mindful of how human connection can be fostered and why it is critical for employee well-being and job satisfaction.
If you’re like me, you watched a lot of TED Talks during the pandemic. One of my favorite talks was on longevity by developmental psychologist Susan Pinker. I was surprised, and frankly a bit relieved, to learn that the top things that impact your longevity aren’t diet and exercise; the top two spots are about human connection. That is how critical it is to our general well-being.
Let’s talk about these two points and how leaders can foster them in the workplace.
Fostering Human Connection In A Hybrid Setting
The first and most important factor for longevity is social integration: how many people you interact with as you go about your day. This can include close friends, colleagues and even the barista who makes your cappuccino every day. The second is close relationships, and research cited by Pinker shows that you need a minimum of three close friends you can confide in.
This research explains many things, including why the pandemic was so rough on some people—such as those who had to isolate alone versus those in a family unit or multigenerational household. The research also explains how the rise of social media and the fall in close friendships have seen a subsequent rise in suicide rates and mental illness, particularly among teenagers. More than obesity or gun violence, social isolation is the public health risk of our time.
With many offices returning to a hybrid model and some choosing to continue working 100% remote, I believe it is more critical than ever to crack the code on remote onboarding that fosters connection. There is a really great book by Ron Friedman that has a lot of relevant data on this subject. The book highlights how companies can be more mindful about how they foster friendships among employees, and why this is important for retention. One example is making sure people are talking about things that matter—in other words, the difference between asking someone how they spent their weekend versus which writers have influenced them the most.
The key factor is getting people to share information with one another about themselves that is expressly not work-related but is also not superficial chatter. Ask about who they are as a person, what is important to them, or hobbies they enjoy (which is why I ask new employees to write up a bio about themselves that includes their hobbies—it’s something other employees can instantly connect with). That is how the friendship process starts.
I still remember the in-person onboarding that a previous employer hosted in Boston, and how interacting with other new colleagues fostered friendships I still enjoy many years later. This didn’t happen in the actual onboarding; it was through sharing parts of our lives in the bar at the Marriott that we started these bonds. For me, this was by far the best part of the onboarding—and the most rewarding.
Friendships at work are critical for retention. According to Friedman and other related studies, people stay at companies longer when they have friends at work. Indeed, many companies noticed a huge difference in attrition for employees who started during the pandemic versus those who had been at the company prior and had some social bonds to fall back on. Having friends at work is key—and for many people, the best places to work are those that actively try to foster human connection among their employees.
To successfully continue with a remote or hybrid working model, leaders must look differently at how we onboard employees, with a special focus on how we can foster quality interactions. It is fairly well known in my and many other industries that certain key talent won’t move where they live for you, so we need to understand how to do remote onboarding well if we want to reduce attrition.
How To Encourage Stronger Connections At Work
• Team-Building Activities: These provide an opportunity for colleagues to meet and become better acquainted. Consider group-play apps like Jackbox Games. We played lots of Fibbage during the pandemic, which helps you get to know colleagues by the answers they give about themselves.
• Sharing Work: Having an intranet where artists can share their work with one another can create stronger bonds, as employees want to be seen as people, not just employees.
• Human-Perspective Write-ups: When introducing new employees, including their hobbies and passions makes it easier to connect with the new hire as a person. You can also highlight long-term team members in a way that shows what they enjoy outside of work. This can foster a better connection with who that person is outside of the office and encourage them to talk about things they’re passionate about.
• Assigning A Colleague To Help Onboard Newcomers: This should be someone in that same role who has been there longer and is the new person’s go-to contact for any questions they might have. I’ve found this is more helpful than simply giving them an onboarding doc or having someone in HR walk them through company tools and procedures.
Some things never change, such as the fact that human connection is a fundamental need, both inside and outside of work. With hybrid and remote work here to stay, it’s critical to mindfully forge human connection in the workplace.