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If spending hours seeing colleagues’ faces over video isn’t making up for the feeling you used to get after a good day in the office, you’re not alone. Though we now know a lot more than we did before about things like Zoom fatigue that zap us of energy in new and complex ways, there’s another piece to the puzzle.
What’s missing from our work lives is, well, friendship. Or at least connection.
If you’re feeling adrift, stalled, or maybe just don’t feel the same enthusiasm or energy for work that you once did, read on. BetterUp’s team of behavioral scientists and data geniuses dove into our data and research to better understand what connection means to today’s workers and how we benefit when organizations get it right. Their insights can help all of us find our way to a more satisfying, more energizing, and more productive work experience.
A lack of camaraderie is impacting us in all kinds of ways, and that goes for those of us who don’t care to “make friends” at work at all, too. We’ve all got different needs in that department, but, the latest research from BetterUp has shown that when people feel disconnected from their colleagues, they’re less engaged at work and more anxious, depressed, and lonely. It negatively affects your health but also has a negative impact on everyone around you, in an organization or at home. And we’ve got enough stress and anxiety in our lives right now – 63% of Americans reported generalized stress due to pandemic-related uncertainty, and 42% reported symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Overall, working remotely (or behind masks or at a distance) for so long has eroded even the most outgoing workers' social skills. We’ve gotten more awkward. We’re misreading social cues and miscommunicating.
It has created its own microclimate of workplace connectedness issues. We found that remote workers have one fewer work friend on average than those working in an office, four fewer colleagues they’re friendly with, and can feel up to 19% less of a sense of belonging than their in-person or hybrid colleagues. However — and this might come as a surprise to you if you're mostly remote — even those workers who are hybrid or working in-person in a shared physical workplace aren’t satisfied with their connectedness to coworkers. Both report not having enough opportunities for friendship, community, or spontaneous connection in a drastically changed in-person workplace.
Your career needs you to connect more, too
Having the ability to build good working relationships — with your team, with your manager, with customers, vendors, and partners — is more important than ever now, whether your job is remote, hybrid, or in-person. Companies look for it. We found that 96% of organizations hire on relational skills.
For many of us, these skills have atrophied over the last few years, making it even harder to meaningfully connect with your coworkers, yet 43% of people surveyed say their organizations aren’t doing enough about it. In fact, on Glassdoor, employees rate "connection at work" as a "pro" of their organization 50% less often than three years ago.
Connection – how many people we know at work and how close we feel to those people, whether as friends or as community members – has a huge impact on how we feel, perform, and grow at work and in our careers. When we feel connected to colleagues we grow more professionally and personally.
We found tangible benefits that would boost any career. People who experience more connection at work achieve their goals more often, enjoy greater well-being, have more positive relationships, and grow more professionally — 92% more!
Connection: What’s your type?
Of course we all define connectedness a little differently. While some may not consider themselves “connected” to colleagues unless they have at least one real friend on the team, others may feel a sense of belonging just by being with a group of people that share at least one interest, work, and a value, getting it done, and by interacting on a daily basis.
We found that people fall into one of three workplace connectedness profiles:
The Close Friend: 39% of workers we surveyed said they prefer being friends with their colleagues – they talk about hopes, dreams, concerns; share personal dramas and wins, and reciprocally know things about colleagues beyond work duties. They might call a colleague on the weekend or invite them on a trip. For this group of people, connection to colleagues means forming holistic bonds with the people they work with in and out of the workplace.
The Friendly Colleague: 50% of workers said they prefer being on friendly terms with coworkers. They might banter over tea in the morning or chat for a few extra minutes before the Zoom meeting begins – they might know whether or not their colleagues have kids or ride horses or spend holidays in a certain state – but otherwise don’t concern themselves too much with the inner lives and external concerns of their colleagues. For this group, friendliness is an acceptable level of connectedness.
Strictly Professional: About 11% of workers say they like to keep things professional with coworkers. They don’t need or want to share about families or hobbies. This group feels a satisfying level of connection to colleagues if they can smile and wave when they come and go from the office or meeting, and their role is understood by those they work with closely.
What’s your type? How about others on your team? Your manager? Your reports? Do you see any mismatches?
As it stands, a startlingly low number of workers report having close friends at work. While that might not seem like a problem to someone who has a preference for keeping things professional, our data revealed that, regardless of your type, people need 5 friendly coworkers to feel connected, and around 7 to feel belonging. Across the board, the most well-connected people were friendly with 10 colleagues, and the least well-connected were on friendly terms with up two people, or none at all.
What to do to boost your connectedness
It may seem simple, but understanding the different social connection needs at work is key to boosting your own workplace connectedness. Whether you work remotely, in-person, or a hybrid, these 4 steps can help.
1. Identify your own connection profile.
By first identifying our own workplace connection profile, we can get more clear about where our current workplace experience is falling short. You can be more specific in advocating for connection opportunities with your leaders and make a plan to start addressing your own needs.
2. Ask others what they prefer.
You can try and suss out other people’s profiles, but sometimes the direct approach is best. Have a conversation about connection with your team or send out a poll and see where people place themselves. With so much lack of connection out there, people will be relieved just to talk about it.
3. Get started.
Organizations need to do more, but grassroots efforts can get you started on the path to improving connection for colleagues and reports. Keeping your own needs in mind, stay attuned to what might appeal, or not, to others in your organization.
- If you are a Close Friend, you might focus on deepening a relationship with two colleagues you already feel comfortable with rather than reaching out to everyone in the organization you haven’t met. Or, lead the way by letting more of your Whole Person™ show on calls or in the workplace. Be a little more vulnerable. Try sharing how you’re feeling about the challenges of the day or mention what you did over the weekend. It can be tough to read the room, especially if it’s a Zoom room, so keep it light. Even if the whole team isn’t receptive to Close Friend connection, you’ve put up a beacon for the few who are.
- If you’re the Friendly Colleague, lead the way by adding interests, descriptors, or “ask me about…” on your internal or IM profile and asking others to do the same. Look for an ERG in your company that you’re curious about, even as a friend or ally. Reach out to colleagues, managers, or company leads to form interest groups, whether that’s a working parent Slack, a running club, or something more work-focused like a “better data visualizations” group. Naming things and giving them a calendar invite or a Team channel, gives others looking for connection a place to focus.
- If you (or your team members) are Strictly Professional, look for ways to collaborate. Rather than completing tasks in isolation and handing work off to someone else, schedule more working sessions or hangouts to work together. It’s an effective way to work through tricky problems or move a complex project forward, but even independent work can benefit from it.
4. Make connection a priority.
Whatever your preference, boosting your connection takes some sustained effort, especially at first. If you form a group or channel, you have to participate in it regularly to prime the connection. If you reach out to a colleague for a chat, they may turn you down. A working session may feel inefficient in your busy schedule.
The good news is that effort pays off. The data shows that managers overall make more effort to foster connection than ICs. And, compared to individual contributors, managers experience 53% more friends at work, 22% greater sense of connection, and 20% more belonging. Those numbers don’t lie — it’s worth the effort.
If you’re a manager, making connection a priority means first modeling the behavior. Set aside time to have open-ended, honest conversations. Carve out space, and time, for employees to spark friendships. For example, reduce the amount of time spent in meetings so people have more unstructured time to reach out to colleagues or socialize after work hours (and with fewer meetings, they might have the energy to actually do it).
Spend time and resources on proper onboarding: show employees from the start that forming connections with colleagues is an important part of their job. Assign a mentor or buddy to new hires and extend the onboarding process over several weeks. Consider re-boarding for employees who didn’t get a robust experience.
If you’re a leader, try to identify who on staff would make a great relationship building ambassador. Task them with finding ways for those who need deeper friend connections to do so, and reward their efforts.
Every attempt won’t be successful. But the reality from our data shows that others are more likely to be receptive than not. Everyone is feeling the lack of connection. You’re not alone.