We have all had good reasons—and few alternatives—to keep our distance from each other during the past 18 months. But our separation has taken a large toll. When you factor in social fragmentation and a gradual weakening of community in our everyday lives, it is remarkable we have avoided a plethora of disasters. Despite organizations’ best efforts, virtual meetings could not match the number of connections available in the office. Nor were they nearly as effective as in-person interactions. Now, as new workplaces take shape, connection should be a priority wherever possible. Organizations that reestablish connections to and between their people will create cultures where great work is the natural outcome.
The human need for connection—number three on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—is not a given or guaranteed. In the recent past, people found meaningful connections at work and elsewhere within society, but several current factors have combined to create and multiply feelings of isolation:
- Covid-19 and social distancing that physically separate people from extended family, friends, workplaces, places of worship, and support communities
- Racial tensions, including riots, the Black Lives Matter movement, and police trials
- A polarized political divide, resulting in incompatible, unyielding perspectives and tensions that include feuding over masks, vaccines, conspiracies, and civil rights
On the organizational front, remote work has blurred the lines between work and personal life; disconnected employees from their companies, leaders, and peers; and has shifted perceptions of the workplace. Coupled with unprecedented uncertainty, stalled growth, budget cuts, and layoffs, the sense of detachment from community, workplace, and each other has only grown.
This social fragmentation—the separation of people or groups within a larger group based on ideals, values, purpose, or goals—often happens in the absence of a connection with the larger group. Fragmentation can significantly affect an organization’s culture where individuals or teams feel isolated, unsupported, and even excluded from other groups or the organization. This, in turn, can lead to less alignment—or more misalignment—among people and teams working toward common goals.
Our research finds that 45% of employees say the number of individuals they regularly interact with at work has decreased significantly over the past year, and 57% say they engage in fewer social activities. In addition, 1 in 3 employees feel disconnected from their leader, furthering isolation and loneliness.
Strong connections help prevent social fragmentation, strengthen culture, and ultimately improve business results. Studies show employees who intentionally build social ties at work perform better. One involving engineers found those who connected with peers and helped colleagues with projects built trust and respect among the team and were also more productive.1 Another study concluded that at organizations where 60% of employees had a best friend at work (the current average is 20%), there would be 36% fewer safety incidents and 12% higher profits.2
These benefits are possible even if teams work remotely. Employees in hybrid workplaces may not always be in the office at the same time, but they generally have enough flexibility to build and maintain social interactions and meaningful connections. All that any of them may need are the right tools and some deliberate opportunities.
“Invisible threads are the strongest ties.”
—FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE, PHILOSOPHER
TYPES AND CONSEQUENCES OF SOCIAL CONNECTION
Social connection is more than team members eating lunch together or socializing after hours (although those may be positive side effects). It’s a sense of bonding, a feeling of belonging to a larger group, a nurturing of strong relationships. And the impact extends beyond happiness.
Yet despite significant efforts, organizations have not created enough opportunities for connection either before or during the pandemic.
Without the opportunities or tools to meaningfully connect with each other, collaboration, wellbeing, and work performance suffer and burnout increases. However, connection should not be limited to coworkers and teams. To bridge socially fragmented groups, organizations must build employee connections to leaders and the organization itself.
Figure 8. THE THREE RECONNECTION PRIORITIES
Employees should focus on three types of social connection.
“We’re human beings, and we need contact with people. Some need more and some less, but we all need it.”
—ANNIE MCKEE, FOUNDER, TELEOS LEADERSHIP INSTITUTE
CONNECTION TO TEAM
Employees create strong connections as team members when they value their relationships and spend time together. The connection between colleagues, especially cross-functional connections, is essential to limit the odds that employees will experience social fragmentation at work. Well-connected teams have members who are aligned in the purpose of their work and go out of their way to help one another succeed. They also recognize each other for their great work, share successes, and show they care about one another.
However, teammates with below-average connections report a dramatically different employee experience. Such employees are more likely to feel misaligned on the purpose of their work and more likely to suffer from mild to severe burnout. They also score lower on engagement, as well as all six Talent Magnets (those essential elements of workplace culture that make employees want to join and stay at an organization):
Additionally, there is a 3x higher likelihood that employees will leave the organization within three years if they don’t feel connected to their teams. Therefore, creating and maintaining strong connections among team members should be a priority for leaders to ensure the best possible employee experience, reduce the likelihood of fragmentation, and minimize risk to the organization.
CONNECTION TO LEADERS
Social fragmentation also occurs when employees feel disconnected from their leaders. Those who develop strong connections trust their leaders more and genuinely feel their leaders care about them as people. They’re also 11x more likely to stay with their organization for at least another year and 3x more likely to stay three more years. Additionally, employees who feel connected to their leaders are more likely to rate higher on all Talent Magnets (purpose, opportunity, success, appreciation, wellbeing, and leadership).
Modern leaders naturally connect with their employees because they mentor, coach, and advocate for career development and growth rather than gatekeep and micromanage. They tend to see their employees as individuals, understand the challenges their people face, and build inclusive teams where members build strong connections that reduce feelings of isolation and odds of fragmentation. They also proactively appreciate their employees’ accomplishments and share their team’s successes with others. Employees with modern leaders have a 22x higher likelihood of feeling a strong connection to their leader.
“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
—BRÉNE BROWN, AUTHOR AND SPEAKER
CONNECTION TO ORGANIZATION
Organizations with high social fragmentation struggle to attract, engage, and retain employees. Great organizational cultures that help employees thrive require connection. This happens when employees are proud to work at the organization and motivated to help it succeed. They also feel a sense of belonging and believe the organization provides opportunities for them to succeed personally.
When employees feel less connected to their workplace, culture, and purpose, our research shows the likelihood of great work falls 90%, the probability of burnout increases 11x, and the odds that employees will leave within three years surge 6x.
Building strong connections with teams, leaders, and the organization can empower employees and instill a sense of ownership in the company’s success. When employees feel connected to all three, they are 11x more likely to stay at their organization for another three years, and both employees and their organization are more likely to thrive:
To foster true social connection at work and avoid the harm of fragmentation, leaders should ensure employees have and embrace a purpose in their work and receive recognition regularly—two hallmarks of modern leadership.
1. Expand and deepen team ties
Provide opportunities for social connection during regular work hours. Having drinks after work can be fun, but some employees may not be available or feel comfortable, which could increase fragmentation and make connection even more challenging.
Hold company-sponsored events for team building, including cross-functional teams, to help prevent or reduce the odds of fragmentation. When employees get to know each other personally, the likelihood that they’ll feel an above-average connection to their teammates increases 42x.
Peer-to-peer recognition also builds connection to the team. Case in point: when teams celebrate birthdays and work anniversaries, the odds of an above-average connection between team members improve 11x. Likewise, when recognition for great work and extra effort is a consistent part of everyday culture, the odds increase 15x.
Finally, focus on creating an inclusive culture. When employees can be their true selves at work, there’s a far better chance (20x) they’ll feel an above-average connection to the team. And when new hires feel supported and included from day one, the odds are 12x better.
The importance of modern leadership can’t be overstated. Employees of all generations highly value leaders who are clear and open about their processes and decisions. In order to fully engage and inspire employees, organizations must practice modern leadership, no matter the age of their leaders.
2. Strengthen relationships between people and their leaders
The better leaders know their people, the stronger the connection to them can be. So, encourage managers to get to know their employees as individuals. Some proven methods:
Hold regular one-to-ones. Even if done virtually, frequent one-to-one conversations help leaders better understand what employees are working on and how they’re feeling, plus they provide time for appreciation, mentorship, and connection. One-to-ones can also identify potential risks of fragmentation. For example, when employees feel leaders make time for them, they are 7x more likely to have an above-average connection with their leader.
Give recognition. Ongoing recognition demonstrates leaders see and value what and how their employees contribute, and making recognition a priority requires leaders to pay more attention. Whether it’s recognition for extra effort or a rare accomplishment—or just a simple thank-you—showing appreciation builds a connection between employees and leaders at all levels. When recognition is a part of everyday culture and leaders use it formally (e.g., work anniversaries, everyday effort, and above-and-beyond programs), the odds of having an above-average connection with those leaders increase 25x.
Develop modern leadership skills. Modern leadership builds connections with employees and reduces fragmentation because it’s more inclusive and embraces employees’ intersectional identities. Modern leaders are 4x more likely to have an aspirational (very high) level of connection with their people.
3. Connect people to the organization
The best way to accomplish this type of connection is to rally them around what they have in common. Organizations reduce social fragmentation when they frequently communicate a collective goal and help employees understand how their work makes it possible. Celebrating company milestones and achievements, tying employees’ work to the organization’s purpose, and giving them ownership of the company’s success create strong bonds among people. Employees who connect to purpose are 20x more likely to have an aspirational connection to their organization.
Additionally, celebrate success together. Whether it’s the company’s 20th anniversary, an ambitious sales target, or a new product launch, show employees how their contributions helped achieve it.
Be clear and communicate how each employee’s work furthers your organization’s purpose and why what they do matters. Empower them to make decisions and play key roles in the company’s future. When employees feel they are a crucial part of an organization’s success and they are doing important work, they start to feel more connected and are less likely to feel left out.
CONNECTION— KEY TAKEAWAYS
Disconnection and social fragmentation threaten teams and organizational culture.
Employees must feel connected to their team, leader, and organization to thrive at work.
Organizations should actively create opportunities for connection, both in person and remote.
Recognition, modern leadership, and purpose have a significant impact on building connection and preventing social fragmentation.
1. “The Neuroscience of Trust,” Paul J. Zak, Harvard Business Review, January 2017.
2. “Why We Need Best Friends at Work,” Annamarie Mann, Gallup, January 15, 2018.
3. “How to Build the Social Ties You Need at Work,” Amy Gallo, September 23, 2015.
4. “6 Companies Share Best Practices for Cross-team Collaboration,” Sophia Lee, CultureAmp, January 31, 2020.
5. “6 Companies that Get Teamwork Right,” Kasey Fleisher Hickey, Asana’s Wavelength, 2014.
6. “How The ‘Best Companies To Work For’ Engage Employees And Retain Top Talent,” Dana Brownlee, Forbes, September 4, 2019.
CASE STUDY—CONNECTING FROM A DISTANCE
The executive director of corporate communications for a leading automotive review website had worked remotely for 10 years. However, her newer colleagues didn’t feel she cared about them and thought she was too abrasive. The company hired a leadership coach and helped the executive make several changes. While still working remotely, she learned to:
- Add personal touches to her emails (her main form of communication, which, because they were always quick and to the point, seemed impersonal and demanding)
- Schedule more in-person meetings with colleagues when she traveled to the office
- Make time for team dinners after work
With these changes, the executive received different results on her next 360-degree review. Her colleagues better understood her and felt more connected to her.3
CASE STUDY—CONNECTING BEYOND THE ZOOM HAPPY HOUR
Creating team connection is about both work and fun. Two innovative companies take unique approaches:
1. Health insurance marketplace Covered California holds a series of cross-division employee workshops called Collaborative Community to improve teams and find better ways to work.
“One of the most important takeaways from the workshops was revealing how our day-to-day work often touches other divisions in ways that might not occur to us. Those touch points have created opportunities for learning, growth, and improvement every day,” says Deputy Director Kami Keszler.
Since implementing these workshops, the company has seen:
- Increased levels of morale and pride
- Greater efficiency from streamlined processes and fewer redundancies
- More effective horizontal and vertical communication
- Better decision-making and sharing of best practices
- Higher levels of satisfaction with service4
2. Udacity, the online vocational training company, knows that when teams have fun, they’re more likely to trust each other and collaborate. It schedules weekly team exercise time and makes every other Friday a themed day, where employees dress up to match a theme like
Oscar Night, Panda Day, or Fancy Feet Day.5
A strong connection to team, leader, and organization
leads to much greater odds that:
EMPLOYEES WILL PRODUCE
EMPLOYEES WILL BE
PROMOTERS ON THE ENPS SCALE
EMPLOYEES WILL BE SATISFIED
WITH THEIR EMPLOYEE EXPERIENCE
EMPLOYEES ARE PLANNING
TO STAY WITH THE ORGANIZATION
SIX YEARS OR MORE
CASE STUDY—CONNECTING EVERYTHING AT CISCO
The Cisco People Deal is an agreement between the networking technology company and its employees to create a strong workplace culture. The deal has three directives—connecting everything, innovating everywhere, and benefiting everyone.
Part of the People Deal is building a conscious culture, where employees understand the impact “every employee has on one another and on the teams they are a part of. This includes the environment employees work in, the unique characteristics that make Cisco what it is, and the experience employees create in the work they do every day,” explains Scott Herpolsheimer, Director of Team Success.
To do this, Cisco encourages strong, authentic connections between teams and leaders using technology that reminds employees to check in frequently and prompts conversations. The team activation platform measures engagement levels, provides topics for discussion, and helps track check-ins. Data show engagement levels of employees who don’t check in drop 13% within six months. This opportunity for connection between employees and leaders is an essential part of helping Cisco employees feel connected to everything at the organization.6