Remote work can make people more productive, but, at what cost? While eliminating the countless social interactions that characterize office life makes employees more productive, it also makes employees feel less connected to their teams and leaders. Over time, that loss of connection has the potential to make them less engaged, less productive, and more likely to quit. Even as the isolation of the pandemic wanes, the mass migration to remote or hybrid work means that employee disconnection will continue to be a serious problem. To succeed, organizations must find ways to strengthen employee connections and build stronger communities in the workplace.
The Harvard Business Review recently wrote that the root of the “Great Resignation” can be traced to what it called the “Great Disconnection.” 65% of workers feel less connected with their coworkers and leaders than they did before the pandemic. And, loneliness is on the rise. A survey from health services company Cigna showed that 46% of U.S. adults sometimes or always feel socially isolated, and 54% said they feel that no one knows them well. The same survey found that lonely employees are less productive, produce lower-quality work, call in sick more often, and are more likely to quit than their more-connected colleagues. The net result of this loneliness costs employers more than $406 billion per year.
On the other hand, Gallup’s meta-analysis of data from more than one million employees shows that groups of engaged employees have 21% greater productivity and 22% higher profitability than their less engaged counterparts. They also experience less absenteeism and lower turnover.
The social brain network is a complex system that governs our social interactions. Neuroscience research has shown that the size and integrity of various components of the social brain network determine our ability to form and maintain connections with others. The social brain network is weakened by isolation. Laboratory mice that were raised in an enriched environment and subsequently isolated for 30 days displayed nerve damage in parts of their brain. Other animal studies have shown isolation increases aggressiveness towards others and creates persistent fear and hypersensitivity to threats. Social isolation reduces empathy, compassion, and perspective-taking, creating obvious obstacles to building the psychological safety essential to effective teams.
You can’t fix what you don’t understand. Since the beginning of the pandemic, our team effectiveness data has shown a marked increase in the number of teams who are maintaining extreme levels of productivity while experiencing a devastating decline in the relationships that foster the trust and cohesion necessary for sustained high performance. In the hybrid workplace, this decline can be difficult to identify. Valid team assessments can help leaders and organizations spot shifting team dynamics before they show up as declining engagement and rising attrition.
One of the dangers remote work poses to teams is that in a virtual environment, our interactions tend to be all business. While this may be efficient, it can also be terribly lonely. Encourage small interactions at the beginning of phone calls and videoconferences to check in with coworkers. Studies show that these interactions trigger the release of oxytocin, a chemical key to social attachment and building trust between individuals. Finally, understand that while these measures can help, they are no substitute for in-person interaction. As it becomes safe to gather, don’t underestimate the importance of periodically bringing teams, departments, and entire companies together to connect.
Leaders and organizations must think beyond culture to build what the isolation of the pandemic took away from us: a sense of community. Think of community as a more inclusive form of culture — rather than being built around a set of norms and behaviors, community is built on the connections between employees and the connection employees feel to the organization.
Building connection within our organizations is essential for productivity, engagement, retention, and more. As many of us embrace remote or hybrid ways of working, we must find ways to build connection with the people around us. Otherwise, our workplaces risk becoming void of inspiration, innovation, and meaning.
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