Say what you will about Marie Kondo and the decluttering movement, but she brought to light a profound, dare I say, “life-changing” insight that caught the world’s attention: the difference between tidying and cleaning. The lesson to be learned was that while many people were taught to clean, they weren’t necessarily taught how to tidy. They were practicing one behavior, but wanting the outcome of another. Kondo taught us that cleaning is an act of hygiene, and tidying is an act of organization and categorization—applicable to an entire home, with a ripple effect on a person’s entire life.
It’s so easy to overlook terms that we think we understand, just by virtue of being human. To that end, there’s another set of words we need to clearly differentiate: meeting and connecting.
We tend to use meeting and connecting interchangeably, especially in the workplace. But they’re two different types of interaction. Looking at these concepts with such a critical eye might seem excessive, but misunderstanding this difference is at the heart of why so many “team-building” and networking events fall short. While employers are out there trying to establish connections among their employees, they’re often simply setting up conditions for “meeting.” Once we understand the difference between meeting and connecting, we can begin to program workplace events (and the purpose behind them) differently, resulting in greater success.
What is meeting?
Meeting is often characterized by initial introductions. I know this well from my seven years working in the online dating industry. When meeting, people are more likely to exchange information about themselves, rather than stories. You’ve likely talked to someone who is single and dating, and the most common gripe you’ll hear is how exhausting the dating process is. Sure, part of that is caused by the process itself—it’s a logistics dice roll of matching, chatting, and coordinating an in-person date. But if you listen more closely, you might find that the most exhausting aspect of this process is the repeated exchange of information that the dater is having.
Simply exchanging information doesn’t provide meaningful insight about a person. And without that meaningful insight, in such a setting as dating, it’s so easy to dismiss someone. One comment, a bad hair day, or not splitting the bill in a way you think is appropriate can mean “see you never” after date one.
In the workplace, we’re susceptible to making these same snap judgments about our colleagues because we never get to know them on a deeper level. The best example of how we’re simply meeting—but not connecting—in the workplace might be the over-reliance on happy hours as a social event. It’s not that certain people can’t or won’t ever connect at a happy hour. But these conditions are better suited for a brief introduction to many, rather than a stronger connection with a few—which is what builds a more meaningful employee experience.
What is connecting?
Connecting is a more substantive glimpse into someone. It has an energizing quality to it, and it tends to occur when you hear about a person’s journey. Connecting is about getting beyond the headlines and pleasantries—without having to divulge all of your vulnerabilities or highly personal moments. Connecting could be as simple as discussing an episode of Game of Thrones or describing the amazing extra cheese burrito you had late last night.
Think about the moments when someone told you a story and you visualized it as they spoke. You start to imagine that person in a different context, and, as a result, you’re able to draw a more holistic picture of them in your mind. It doesn’t mean you have to like the person or become friends with them—but through this type of interaction, you’re able to paint a fuller picture of who they really are.
How to create connection in the workplace
This is the point at which employers want to read a list of “tips and tricks” to help their employees connect, leading to a more fulfilling work environment. Here’s the thing: Don’t think in terms of tips and tricks—that means you’re thinking tactically (addressing something now) and not strategically (considering the overall objective). Instead, think holistically about creating scenarios where people can move beyond a person’s basic info or headlines, and into a space where true connection can occur.
For example, let’s start with the cornerstone of so many work gatherings: food. It’s easy to think that just having free food available draws people together. Well, in theory, it does—but we’re going for meaningful, not simply logistical. When we order food for a team gathering, we think in terms of dietary restrictions, allergies, and possibly group preferences. But what if we thought about food as a way to really learn more about our employees? At WeWork, I launched a simple but connective concept called “Feast of Favorites.”
Here’s how it worked: Prior to a team meal, I emailed a short, fun survey to our team of 15 people, making sure to include five people who had just joined the team to ensure a variety of employee experiences. I posed questions such as: “What food do you immediately look for on a bar menu?” and “What’s a food that makes you smile?”; “That you will never turn down?”; “That renders you powerless?”; “That represents your culture or home life?”
Then, after I provided these food items based on the survey answers, we gathered with all of the food labeled, indicating which item was connected to which team member. In this process, we were sharing more than just food based on dietary restrictions. We were sharing smile triggers, wishes, cravings, and preferences—both lowbrow and highbrow. Suddenly, the food wasn’t just a menu item; it was a way to learn more about one another. Our software engineer, who is Pakistani, had a chance to talk about Bengali fish curry. Our designer lit up when lemon bars appeared. Our team leader got to sing the praises of truffle mac and cheese.
The difference between meeting and connecting
We could have just eaten together. Instead, we got to go one level deeper as we learned about our colleagues. The event was so full of lively conversation that no one had to reach for their emergency small talk or recite a list of facts about themselves. It didn’t require revealing anything too personal, and it didn’t put anyone on the spot.
Creating more authentic connections in the workplace can be this easy. If meeting is just about getting to know someone’s name and job title, connecting can be as simple as learning that your colleague believes lemon bars are the perfect union of tart and texture.
Connection is about getting beyond the basics. Don’t save it for an off-site event. Don’t feel like the discussion has to be deeply personal or painful (you don’t have to dig deep into someone’s struggles). It’s not about making it personal. It’s about making room for a person’s personality.
Lakshmi Rengarajan is the workplace connection advisor at WeWork. Prior to WeWork, Rengarajan was the director of event design and strategy at Match.com, and she founded and developed Me So Far, an off-line dating forum to help singles go from simply meeting to actually connecting.