These are unprecedented times in history, when such large numbers of workers have the ability to work remotely and efficiently. While some companies may be able to move their workforces back to the office, the question remains around whether all employees can be — or will ever be — moved back into pre-pandemic work arrangements.

While the move to remote and hybrid work has allowed businesses to continue innovating in the face of rapid change, there is an ever-increasing problem that we must address if we want to retain and engage workers over the long term: employee connection.

During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic when organizations quickly shifted to remote work, the immediate focus was on how to connect workers through technology — with little space to think through the impacts of removing physical human interactions. Many companies are limited when it comes to imagining connectedness in the workplace. For many, it means centralizing employees, assets and business services on one platform — but failing to consider the element of human connectedness.

The changes to the technology and approach to remote work are problematic from a learning and development (L&D) lens, when simultaneously, there is a movement across industries to promote human-centric workplaces. The whole point of a human-centric design is an increased focus on employee satisfaction.

However, many organizations fail to recognize the importance of human connectedness. To complicate matters, there is so much uncertainty for workers as a result of organizational upheavals, rapid transformations and geopolitical and social events, that mental health issues have been on the rise.

Connection and Connectedness

Connectedness can be physical, emotional or cognitive. Mediated communications (via technologies like phone, email, text, instant messaging, social media, etc.) allow social interaction and a broader awareness of others over distance and time. Whether these forms of communication can truly replace face-to-face interactions, however, is still up for debate.

While there are great benefits of working remotely like schedule flexibility, time and cost savings with no commute, etc., remote workers continue to struggle with loneliness. Whether widely reported or not, there are workers that miss the social interactions that one just cannot experience when working from home. There is anecdotal evidence of this just from the past year as events and venues opened up post-pandemic. One thing that was loud and clear among in-person event attendees was the sense of feeling more connected in the physical presence of others. The ability to have face-to-face conversations or the sense of belonging and connection seems irreplaceable, even if remote work is here to stay.

Since the pandemic, most professional and personal relationships have changed. Lakshmi Rengarajan, a workplace connection consultant, stated, “For a long time, we’ve probably taken for granted the ability to see our coworkers every day and maybe didn’t realize how valuable that was … I think teams will be a lot closer when they’re able to move back into the workplace.”

However, she also argues that connection is not purely about socializing and human interaction. Therefore, it is important to note that physical proximity does not equal connection. “We think of connection through a personal interaction,” Rengarajan says. “But connection is something everyone experiences differently. Connection is being seen, heard, appreciated and acknowledged.”

Red Thread Research has found that organizations with higher levels of connection are:

    • 4X more likely to be agile.
    • 2X more likely to have satisfied customers.
    • 3X more likely to have engaged employees.

The key point here is to recognize that while having employees on a single platform and using the same technology and tools will enable connectivity — it will not enable connectedness.

How employees connect to each other, their teams and the organization is critical and requires attention. This is specifically relevant as well with all the recent attention to human-centered leadership, which is meant to put people first.

L&D teams have strong opportunities to influence and drive connectedness within organizations that have largely remote or hybrid work models. While there are a variety of approaches and steps that may be utilized to establish a more connected remote workforce, there are ways to start this process quickly for more immediate results.

The first step is to establish an understanding of the levels and types of connections that exist. Per Betterwork’s research, there are three main workplace connectedness profiles:

    • The close friend: This group cultivates strong friendships. They form holistic bonds with the people they work with, both in and out of the workplace.
    • The friendly colleague: For this group, friendliness is an acceptable level of connectedness, with some easy banter during breaks, but nothing that goes too deep.
    • Strictly professional: This group keeps things professional with co-workers. They don’t need or want to share about families or hobbies. They are satisfied if they can smile and wave when they come and go from the office or meeting, and their role is understood by those they work with closely.

Going beyond the three main profiles shared in the research, a case can be made for workers who maintain all three of these types of interactions on a continuum with their co-workers depending on their level of interaction, shared experiences, tenure with the company, mutual feelings and other factors. What’s clear is that companies need to pay attention to how their workers are interacting and engaging and whether they feel a sense of belonging.

Per RedThread’s study, there are four different aspects of connection at work, forming two spectrums, which may influence what type of effort is used to foster that particular connection:

    • Emotional vs. intellectual connection.
    • Forming a new connection vs. deepening an existing connection.

These four situations may then be applied across three main buckets when applied to organizations. Building connections within these buckets fosters connections in different ways.

    • Connections within teams allow individuals to contribute effectively to the team, build organizational agility and encourage belonging, trust and acceptance.
    • Connections across teams help to boost collaboration, build organizational agility and enhance a sense of community and belonging.
    • Connections within the organization enable organizational agility, employee engagement and customer satisfaction along with helping to satisfy workers’ needs to be part of something meaningful.

What L&D Teams Can Do To Help Colleagues Foster Connections

Learning professionals can focus on promoting a flexible and connected workplace, but also acknowledge that this is an uncertain environment with many unknowns that will have to be handled as they come. Being upfront and transparent with stakeholders will go much further in creating collaborative approaches and solutions to address worker connection.

It’s also important to reframe assumptions around what connection means. While physical connections via in-person colleague interactions are beneficial, bringing people together physically is not the only way to foster connections. Each organization can benefit from rethinking and reviewing its culture and goals to determine what it means to build connections for its specific environment. Leaders may consider a variety of options including: remote, hybrid and in-person interactions while taking into consideration the three workplace profiles along with four main interactions among workers. With partnership from HR, talent and L&D leaders, companies may move forward with thorough planning and intention around where they have gaps and what success looks like.

In addition, L&D teams may take the opportunity to support connection through training and provide guidance for leaders and front-line managers. But people leaders can be so focused on delivery that they may not understand or even appreciate the impact that remote work has had on the mental health of their teams. Building more robust skills around team meeting engagement and individual check-in conversations, empathy, coaching and active listening are just a few ways that leaders may enhance their own skill set to better support their colleagues. Additionally, consider whether teams are only focused on their task lists when meeting co-workers.

The work doesn’t stop here. Learning teams can partner with HR benefits teams to promote wellness programs and company-specific benefits to help employees with struggles they may be facing like feelings of isolation, connecting with team members and overall engagement. Perhaps there are opportunities to showcase learning that is available in the company’s learning management system (LMS) around health, wellness and mindfulness. If an organization has a coaching or mentoring program, coaches would benefit from learning about the latest research and stats around remote work and its impact on workers.

Lastly, tap into employee resource groups (ERGs) as they have a broad reach into targeted employee populations and may be able to impact engagement, foster more connectedness and also be able to report back around any escalating needs that require attention from leaders.

Final Thoughts

We’re at an interesting point in history where there are tremendous benefits from technology and the digital world, but physical connectedness is suffering. There are no easy answers here, but perhaps all may benefit from keeping in mind that screentime and listening to voices over a phone or computer line are very different from looking someone in the eyes and seeing their body language and facial expressions, and taking the time to go beyond and really form a connection.

The benefits of creating connections will not only help the individual workers but also organizations. It is definitely worth the effort to work through this if an organization is experiencing challenges and is truly moving toward a human-centric workplace.