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Sandra was hired for her excellent interpersonal skills, and her humor, in addition to above-average technical skills. She was valued for her ability to manage multiple tasks on deadline.
Now, two years in, her manager has noticed a change in her performance. She still turns work around but often asks for extensions, passes on the kinds of projects she used to jump on, and has taken more sick days than ever before. Recently, she completely missed the boat on an important analysis and didn’t reach out to clarify requirements or resolve the issues.
Her manager's impulse was to point to the pandemic — Sandra would probably agree. Like everyone else, she’s dealing with a heavier workload and a new level of stress.
Here's what is less obvious: Sandra has no coworkers whom she considers friends. She barely knows them. It might sound trivial, but this lack of connection is critical, and it’s impacting a huge swath of workers.
Having strong social connection has been directly linked to a laundry list of outcomes, from higher job performance and the ability to innovate and make clear decisions, to greater physical well-being, decreased cardiovascular mortality, fewer depressive symptoms, and improved overall mental health. In fact, science has given us ample evidence to suggest that social support, and the experience of connectedness, impact an array of facets of our everyday lives.
The experience of connectedness is vital in our work lives. And not just because work is where people spend a significant chunk of time. We are beginning to recognize how connection affects individual and team-level trust, agility, and resilience. Ultimately, this impacts performance as well as an organization's ability to retain high-performing talent, solve complex challenges, and navigate tough times together.
New research from BetterUp, The Connection Crisis: Why community matters in the new world of work, reveals just how much connection matters. We surveyed 3,000+ US workers, evaluated data from over 150,000 BetterUp Members, and analyzed 78 leading companies on Glassdoor to better understand what connection means and what benefits the individual and organization experience when organizations get connection right.
Connection may be personal, but it affects our working lives, too. Ninety-six percent of organizations say they recognize the importance of relational skills for their employees. Yet, according to our research, here’s what’s really going on:
61% of people polled don’t socialize with co-workers outside of work
53% don’t look forward to working because of co-workers
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
You may be thinking, but this is because of the pandemic, right? It’s not surprising that our experience of social connection is greatly influenced by how and where we spend our time.
Actually, just because more people are working from home more often does not account for this lack of social connection. While 1 in 2 workers told us that the opportunity to forge new or deeper connections with colleagues has decreased since the start of the pandemic, just over half said they still don’t want to go back to the office full-time. Perhaps even more curiously, those already working in-person said they felt even less socially connected to colleagues than their hybrid colleagues. Loneliness and lack of connection and belonging is not solved simply by being around people. The fact is, workplaces have been failing to cultivate connection and connectedness for a long time.
Based on our research, the Sandras of the world don’t need more money or fancier titles to rediscover their commitment and reignite a passion for their jobs — they need opportunities for social connection. And they’re not getting it.
We’ve got a connection crisis on our hands
Like Sandra, many have lost commitment and enthusiasm for their work because they don’t feel a genuine connection to their coworkers. Like Sandra, they’re actively looking at other opportunities, including lower paying jobs in different industries. Sandra misses being around people who really get her; who know why she’s offline everyday at 2:00 pm — to walk Charlie, her ten-year-old chocolate lab — and why she won’t eat pizza — hates tomato sauce —and admire not just her ability to create excellent charts but also her singing voice.
As it stands, a startlingly low number of workers report having close friends at work. Though each individual has a different need and appetite for social connection at work, a full half of employees we polled indicated that they’d like employers to foster social connection, and 43% say their organization isn’t doing enough to help them feel connected to their colleagues.
Bridging this gap is now an organizational imperative — how connected workers feel to their colleagues plays an outsized role in employee experience. Without meaningful connection, workers don’t have a sense of belonging, and without belonging their commitment and dedication to work plummets.
What employees may not know, but the data clearly shows, is that without social connection, an ability to innovate and adapt decreases drastically. We’re working as islands. Doing our part and tossing it across to the next. Meanwhile the challenges and opportunities companies face today are increasingly complex. More than teamwork, complex problems require creative collaboration and productive friction, alignment, and real-time adaptation to new info.
The talent you need needs more connection
Workplace connection and belonging is critical for winning the hearts, minds (and discretionary effort) of your current employees and the in-demand talent you need to attract. Our analysis of Glassdoor suggests that organizations who ranked in the top 25% for social connection experienced higher ratings and were more likely to be named a great place to work. Perhaps more importantly, employees in these organizations were more likely to recommend the company to a friend.
Without connection, burnout increases and so does attrition.
Consider that people who have few friends and a low sense of belonging have:
313% stronger intention to quit
176% likelihood of seriously job seeking
And a lot of people actually have quit. Through turnover tracking from 2020 to 2021, we saw that people with low belonging quit their jobs 39% more often. More, like Sandra, people aren’t thinking about leaving in order to get better salaries — 53% of those surveyed said they would choose stronger ties to colleagues even if it meant a pay cut or slower career advancement.
The need for greater social connection at work is apparent, but so far the response has not been. The good news? Organizations can change that.
Connection is addressable
By giving employees the skills they need to build deep connections to colleagues, and creating spaces to promote that effort — online, offline, and as a work culture — you can make an immediate impact.
Of course one new Slack channel and a pizza party isn’t going to produce results, but that doesn’t mean the measures you have to take have to be difficult.
For example, we underestimate the power of personalized attention. As navigating uncertainty asks more of the employees we have, doing more to help employees rebuild their skills of relationship building and connection is both effective and demonstrates care. Listening to employees like Sandra reflects for them that they are important and valued, an important component of engendering a sense of belonging. With belonging comes the safety they in order need to put effort into building real, meaningful, and long-lasting relationships with coworkers.
When leaders make social connection an organizational priority — when it is rewarded and tracked like any other goal — and take active measures to facilitate it across the employee spectrum, performance, productivity and well-being go up, and talent stays. And, when people like Sandra feel motivated to put effort into building relationships at work, they report tremendous personal results, too: 41% higher social connection, 59% more positive relationships and 36% greater life satisfaction. They also grow more professionally and personally.
Maybe now it’s clear why Sandra’s decline in productivity and enthusiasm isn’t just a personal pandemic-related problem, and creating opportunities for meaningful connection, and belonging, for employees is so important.
Connection is addressable. Start focusing on cultivating connection in your workforce now or watch the silos and islands in your organization multiply. When you create opportunities for meaningful connection, you shape a culture of greater belonging. That’s good for the company, and it’s great for the people.