Employee connection, employee engagement

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If technology has proven to make interactions easier, why are employees experiencing less connection to one another than ever before?

Hot on the heels of trends shaping the working world, a connection crisis is brewing.

While it may be easy to simply attribute it to the pandemic, that may not be the case.  According to BetterUp Lab's recent report, “The Connection Crisis: Why Community Matters in the New World of Work”, "the problem isn't just that people have become isolated, but companies need stronger connections with and among their people to have the committed, adaptable, resilient, and mentally fit talent they need".

Spanning over 3,000 workers in the US, the report explores the connection problems workers are facing today and what organisations can do, including pragmatic, science-backed strategies to help people build connection and create workplace community.

*Note: While this report covers the US, HRO believes the data remains relevant and insightful for our Asia-wide audience.

It was uncovered that, across the employee spectrum, connection in the workplace has two distinct facets that determine how connected an employee feels: 

  1. The size of their networks (that is, how many people they know or are connected to in an organisation) matters. 
  2. More so, connection is about the feelings they experience within those networks (such as belonging, friendship, a sense of collaboration, and more). 

Interaction is plentiful, but connection remains low

Along with the increased popularity of remote working, time in meetings has also more than doubled. 

Unsurprisingly, technology-mediated communication is soaring, with two in five respondents using emails constantly. One in five also indicated using instant messaging constantly.   

This then begs the question: if technology can make interaction easier, why are employees experiencing less connection to one another than ever before?

In fact, the study identified several alarming trends: 

  • 61% don’t socialise with their co-workers outside of work.
  • 53% don’t look forward to working because of co-workers.
  • 44% don’t have a true friend at work.
  • 43% don’t feel a sense of connection to co-workers.
  • 38% don’t trust their co-workers.
  • 22% don’t have even one friend at work.

According to the report, this issue predates the pandemic. 

"Just as technology wasn't helping people feel less lonely than before, it alone cannot meaningfully fill the connection void today, despite being a bridge and lifeline during the lockdowns."

Understanding the importance, organisations are thus urged to play a part in fostering better connections, or risk losing out. Particularly, the report observed the five risks.

  • Decreased engagement - data shows that individuals who experience lower connection in the workplace have 73% less engagement than their highly-connected peers.
  • Higher rate of turnover - those with a lower level of belonging have a 313% stronger intention to quit, and 176% higher likelihood to job search.
  • Lagging performance - Employees who report low levels of social connection are less likely to take calculated risks, have passion for their jobs, and have lower levels of growth mindset and goal attainment.
  • Limited opportunity for upskilling - The decreased engagement as mentioned above also comes into play with employees less interested in gaining new skills or willing to put in the discretionary effort to upskill and adapt.
  • Less and lower quality collaboration - Individuals who put a lot of effort into building relationships are more skilled at including others, communication, and collaboration than those who put in little effort.

What can you do to help? 

Noting the importance, the report also identified several ways organisations can help strengthen employee connection.

1. Learn the different levels of connection employees need.

According to the data, employees need five friendly co-workers to feel connected, and seven to feel they'll belong.

However, no workforce is a monolith. Employees want and need different types, degrees, and amounts of social interaction. 

Most employees fall into one of three groups when it comes to their preferred level of work-related social connection. 

  • Friends: 29% of the workforce feel as though their co-workers know them on a personal level to the degree of considering each other "friends". 
  • Professional: 11% of the workforce say they keep their work relationship strictly professional. 
  • Friendly: 50% of the workforce say that they know their co-workers personally but mainly consider each other "friendly" rather than close friends.

2. Understand what real connection looks like to employees now

Only two in five employees said that their leaders were doing a good job promoting connection or even discussing it. The report identified the kinds of opportunities that mattered most to employees, and those that do not, for strengthening connection.

Top predictors of connection: 

  • Being vulnerable
  • Spontaneous interactions
  • Casual conversation and fun banter
  • Sharing hobbies
  • Getting to know someone on a personal level 

Null or weak predictors of connection

  • Having a shared background
  • Venting about leadership or jobs
  • Interacting on work topics
  • Having task dependencies at work

Leaders can instead help by setting shared goals, fostering open communication, making space for spontaneous interactions, and focusing on enabling quality, not just quantity of connection.

3. Try the five tactics employees say will help them build more connection

Per the report, employees are not getting the opportunities for the connection they want.

In particular, a majority of respondents don't have "play" opportunities and fun events (83%), in-person/common interest events (73%), online group/channels/communities (78%), or in-person/virtual happy hours (54%). Further, 40% of employees do not have a culture of small talk during meetings.

Thus, leaders are encouraged to consider these abovementioned tactics, as avenues to foster conversation, engagement, and eventually, connection.


Lead image / BetterUp

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