Posted October 29, 2022 by Mark Perna
True human connection in the workplace is harder to find than ever before—and it’s taking a toll on employee engagement and retention. Mark’s article, “Why A Lack of Human Connection Is Crippling Your Work Culture,” published at Forbes.com on October 24, 2022.
Human connection is one of those things we never knew we were taking for granted—until it was gone. A smile, a handshake, an honest inquiry about how you’re doing; these seemingly small social acknowledgments had a bigger impact on workplace culture than many of us realized. People want more friends at work—but they’re just not finding them.
A new study by Airspeed underscores just how challenging it has become for companies to foster a sense of community and connection among their post-pandemic workforce. A sense of employee connection is the #1 challenge cited by C-suite survey respondents, with fully 95% acknowledging that their company culture and sense of connection need improvement. Chillingly, 75% of these executives believe their employees would give up a lot to work for another company where they’d feel more connected.
Remote work, as convenient and empowering as it can be, can have a dark side when it comes to social connection. Seventy-two percent of workers say that they aren’t able to socialize enough when they’re remote, and 33% expressed feelings of loneliness. Alongside an actively toxic work environment, simply feeling disconnected from their coworkers is a top reason employees would quit.
Very few would argue that employees who feel connected with one another are more motivated and perform at a higher level of productivity; in fact, Airspeed found that 96% of the executives surveyed believe this.
So how can organizations encourage employee connection? First, we have to understand what kind of connection workers are looking for.
I’ve written before about human connection in relation to trust and surveillance in the workplace. In a nutshell, a true human connection is forged when a person feels seen, heard and valued by another individual. The strength of that connection is built over time, as ongoing interactions cement and deepen the original rapport.
I use the term “human connection” instead of “relationship” for several reasons. Human connection emphasizes the moment of making contact, of being eye to eye and belly to belly. “Relationship” feels vaguer and perhaps also like a more demanding investment than simply connecting with someone.
A human connection cuts through the artificial, surface-level interactions that most people either endure or actively avoid. Gen Z especially has little time for people who strike them as inauthentic.
Of course, no one wants to be told to “play nice and be friends,” as if they’re kids at a playdate arranged by their parents. And therein lies the rub for executives who want to help employees forge a human connection, but can’t mandate or dictate it.
A true human connection is essentially organic in that it happens naturally—or not at all. Job listings can request applicants who work well with others or are skilled in collaboration, but they can’t demand that you make eye contact with your teammates or display genuine interest in their lives.
But employers can set the stage for people to connect on a real level—even remote workers. It all starts with leadership.
As a leader, it’s up to me to set the tone of human connection in our organization. “As goes the leader, so goes the team” is a truism—but a true one.
An example from education is how administrators, counselors and teachers are learning just how non-negotiable a human connection is today. It has become not just nice to have, but absolutely critical in the classroom after two years of disrupted learning.
Digital-native Gen Z students, who live half their lives online, are silently asking three questions of every authority figure: do you see me? Do you hear me? And do I matter?
I would argue that the workplace is no different. Every day in your workplace, whether it’s spread out geographically or all together in the same building, people want to know:
If we prioritize forging a human connection with those we lead and work beside, we’ll find it’s not actually that hard. It’s more of a mindset than anything else.
Yes, it takes a little extra time and effort to ask someone how they’re doing—and really listen to the answer. Yes, we have to be more observant of those around us—and notice if something’s amiss. That’s what makes this connection so essentially human.
When leaders deliberately choose to build habits of human connection, these behaviors will spill over into the culture. And one of the easiest habits to implement is the art of checking in and then walking away.
If you’re leading people in any capacity, especially in a remote setting, you’ve probably heard about the importance of regular check-ins. It’s vital to keep a pulse on how the team is doing, so you check in with them. And that’s great—if you’re doing it right.
When you check in, check in and then walk away. Do not add anything else to the conversation. Do not bring up an assignment you need them to complete, don’t talk shop, don’t let it turn into anything else except a sincere conversation about them and their needs at that moment in time. Check in, and then walk away.
If you do ask someone to do something immediately after checking in with them, you’ve just invalidated the check-in. They see it as you simply making small talk, with your ulterior motive being what you need from them.
An effective check-in isn’t complicated. You ask how they’re doing, actively listen to their answer and see if they need anything from you. Then you leave it at that. You just showed them you care about them, not what you need them to do. It’s powerful.
Many leaders have no idea how deeply they’re undermining their human connections by using check-ins as catch-all conversations. The other person sees the check-in as a blind for the true purpose of the discussion, and it’s a huge turnoff.
Failing to forge a human connection with our coworkers can come at a high price. Airspeed notes that the widespread lack of connection has created a workforce that is fundamentally transactional—and therefore highly disengaged with the company vision.
More than half (52%) of the employees surveyed admitted that all they care about at work is the paycheck—to the point where 62% said they would accept another position for a sign-on bonus of just $1,000. On the flip side, others said they do feel a deep sense of loyalty to their company (62%) and their coworkers (69%).
Fortunately, the C-suite is recognizing how critical the situation is. The vast majority (88%) say that improving culture and connection is one of their top priorities. Among those who don’t offer an integrated technology platform to support workplace connections, 83% have plans to move in this direction, noting that this would improve people’s day-to-day work experience (92%) and make them more likely to stay with their company (87%).
Of course, while effective tech tools for connection are important in our dispersed workforce, they’re hardly the whole game. We can’t practice human connection screen-to-screen if we don’t do it regularly face-to-face.
No matter what the environment, a true human connection stands or falls by how we answer the three vital questions: do you see me? Do you hear me? And, do I matter?