When it comes to workplace satisfaction, material perks like gym reimbursement and kombucha on tap only go so far. Instead, the foundation for personal and group success stems from something much simpler: meaningful connections.
“Having strong connections at work is one of the greatest predictors of happiness, success, and health, which makes it an outstanding investment of time and resources,” says Shawn Achor, a Harvard researcher and founder of Goodthink, a company that helps connect research on happiness and success with real-life strategies to achieve both. “In my research on Harvard students, I found that the greatest predictor of their happiness in the midst of a hypercompetitive environment was social connection. Google found that the greatest predictor of the success rates of a team was the social cohesion on the team. And in separate research, social connection was found to be as predictive of longevity as smoking or high blood pressure.”
And by all accounts, our workplace social connections are at risk. A 2018 study conducted by Future Workplace, an HR advisory and research firm, and Virgin Pulse, a technology-solutions company geared toward employee wellbeing and engagement, found that of the 2,000 managers and employees in 100 countries surveyed, 45 percent rely on email (among other tech tools) to communicate with their teammates. Of those, over 40 percent said they feel lonely always or very often, are not engaged, and have a high need for social connection.
As ever-evolving technology brings incredible advantages to the workplace, it also highlights the importance of face-to-face interactions, says Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global. “We’re heading into a time of increased automation, machine learning, and AI—what some are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” she says. “One of the biggest consequences of all of this technology entering the workplace will be the premium placed on essential human qualities, like creativity, decision-making, empathy, and collaboration.”
Recently, companies have started to create initiatives and roles to preserve and strengthen these uniquely human attributes and foster stronger workplace relationships. Lakshmi Rengarajan is the first director of workplace connection at The We Company, and she credits technology with making her job possible—and essential. “New jobs emerge when something in our society is at risk,” she says. “And connection is at risk because of these wonderful tech advances. I’m here because people don’t look each other in the eye anymore, and as a result, we’ve lost something.”
Companies are wise to pay more attention to fostering connections among their employees. “A business’s human capital is its most important resource. Creating ways for employees to connect is the way to unlock their potential and get the most out of their talents,” she says. “Humans are hardwired to connect. It’s an essential part of our well-being, and, as the research shows, having strong social connections is deeply important for our physical and mental health.”
Rengarajan’s job “is to figure out how to help people get beyond the surface in the workplace, to get to know each other better in ways that matter,” she explains. “All other goals for your team become easier when you see each other as humans first.” She encourages workers to build “a fuller picture of who someone else might be by inviting them to tell you more about the why and how of their journey. One such way of doing that is asking questions that elicit stories rather than simply answers from people.” For instance, if you ask a colleague what their favorite food is, you might hear “pizza.” If you ask them about their most memorable meal, you’ll get an anecdote that gives you an insight into their experiences, preferences, and values.
Office connections may be important, but don’t panic at the idea of an office-wide popularity contest. Forging meaningful relationships with colleagues doesn’t necessarily mean becoming buddies, says Rengarajan. “This isn’t about baring your soul or sharing your most intimate thoughts,” she says. “You don’t even need to like someone to treat them with respect and dignity and form a partnership. Connection allows conflict and difference of opinion to better thrive. If I am connected to you, I can tell you, ‘Hey, I think that idea could be better,’ without it being misinterpreted.”
Building stronger connections in the workplace isn’t a step-by-step process; it’s more of an ongoing mind-set. “We all need to internalize the idea that connection is a practice,” says Rengarajan. To shift your mind-set into a more connected place, here are some ways to see the humanity in others on a regular basis—and reap the personal and professional benefits that come along with that connection.
Listen closely when people introduce themselves. “Saying someone’s name correctly is one of the first, most humanizing things you can do to build connection,” says Rengarajan. Fully hearing people when they introduce themselves—and not asking for a shortcut or nickname you could call them instead—makes them feel valued as individuals.
Have a conversation where you mostly listen. One of Thrive Global’s Microsteps—too-small-to-fail, science-backed steps we can all take to make immediate changes in our daily lives, says Huffington—is to never underestimate the power of silence to help a conversation take a new and revealing turn. Instead of sharing your opinion or changing the subject, give the other person a chance to go deeper.
Smile at others as you walk down the hallway. It’s a simple act that can open the doorway to deeper interaction, says Chris Juliano, director of recruiting for the Jellyvision Lab, an interactive employee-communication-software company in Chicago. “It gets you out of your own head, even if you’re busy,” he says. “You’re suddenly more approachable. Then introduce yourself—even if you’ve been at the company for a year.” The rest flows from there.
Ask a colleague about their life outside work. This is another Thrive Microstep that can help build empathy. Even small talk in the office kitchen or a quick chat before a meeting—about subjects from family and pets to hobbies and favorite sports teams—can let you see a different side of a colleague.
Each day, make a connection with someone you normally don’t spend much time with. Whether you’re newly connecting with a colleague you don’t work with closely, or reconnecting with someone you haven’t touched base with for a while, this Microstep really pays off. In a talk she gave to employees at WeWork’s Global Summit in January, Rengarajan urged the audience to actually act on that stereotypically vague suggestion: “We should have coffee soon.”
Connect with yourself. Ultimately, Huffington says, your connection to others is only as strong as your connection with yourself. “Real relationships are not built through screens. Create device-free time for yourself so you can unplug, recharge, and feel ready to engage.”
Graphic by Naomi Elliot