How can we spark meaningful connections at work?

Practical tips and ideas for employers

When you think back over your favourite moments at work, chances are, there’s a common thread: a friend.

Someone you trust. Maybe they make you laugh or can sense when you need a caring ear just by looking at you. Maybe you rely on them for support, thoughtful feedback, gut checks or a friendly, “You got this!” when your spirits need a lift.

Regardless of what you call them—besties, work friends, close ties or high-quality connections—they’re often the people that bring life to a workplace. And they’re so important in so many ways.

Why are friends so important in the workplace?

Sure, having friends at work is fun. But researchers have also found a host of other positives linked to workplace friendships—both for employees and employers alike. In fact, according to Gallup, having a best friend at work is one of the 12 essentials of a healthy workplace.

Employees who have close ties at work are:

  • More productive, innovative and creative.
  • Seven times as engaged.
  • More satisfied with their job, less susceptible to burnout and less likely to leave their organization to pursue another role.

Employers who foster these kinds of relationships see a range of benefits, too, including:

  • Higher retention (a UK study found that employees were 10 times more likely to stay put for friendships than for increased compensation—particularly younger employees and women).
  • Fewer accidents, happier customers and higher profits.

The pandemic effect

The thing is, like so many things in our lives, the pandemic had a huge impact on our friendships, too. Today, we’re lonelier than before, go out less often and are more disconnected, especially those of us who work remotely and rarely connect with others, whether at work or in life.

Three decades ago, 3% of Americans told Gallup pollsters they had no close friends; about a year into the pandemic, 13% of women and 8% of men aged 30 to 49 said they’d lost touch with most of their friends; and in 2022, Gallup found that only three in 10 workers reported having a best friend at work.

And all this lack of connection is taking a toll on our mental health. Last year was the worst year on record for employee stress, according to Gartner. Many of us are feeling a general sense of malaise (aka, languishing), and PTSD and depression are rising faster than ever. McKinsey recently reported that 59% of workers in a global study reported having at least one mental-health challenge—so the odds are high that someone you work with has been impacted (if not you).

It’s no surprise then, that Gallup also found that since the start of the pandemic, having a best friend at work is even more important. We’re craving connection. And yet, paradoxically, it also comes at a time when many of us are working remotely and have fewer opportunities to actually connect with colleagues.

Therein lies the rub.

How can employers help foster connections, especially on remote or hybrid teams?

This was the core question at our recent webinar, How to Spark Meaningful Connections in the Workplace, featuring guest speaker Andrew Soren, an expert in applied positive psychology in the workplace and founder of the global network Eudaimonic by Design, which advises organizations on how to create conditions where people can thrive at work.

Together with our CEO and co-founder, Kathryn Tremblay, and our VP, HR and People Strategy, Erin Campbell, Andrew walked the audience through everything from recognizing when someone is in need of connections to ways of fostering them at work.

First: How do you know when someone is missing connections?

It’s hard to tell. Andrew pointed out that just because someone puts on a sunny face doesn’t mean they’re happy. And in fact, this kind of forced positive attitude or toxic positivity can actually lead to further burnout.

He also highlighted that everyone is different—we’re introverts and extroverts who need more or fewer connections, and it all varies from day to day. As Andrew says, when it comes to connections, “one size fits none.”

So, how do you know how your employees really feel?

At Altis, we survey our employees quarterly, and one of the key areas we always ask about is meaningful connections. Specifically, we ask them to rate from 1-5 statements like these:

  • I have people to confide in at work.
  • I have positive relationships at work.

Contact us to learn more about our Wellbeing surveys: hrtopics@altisexcel.com

Second: What are the key features of connections that energize?

Andrew cited Energize Your Workplace, a book by researcher Jane Dutton on high-quality connections. In it, she outlines the four things that every high-quality connection has. They:

  1. Make us feel seen. We feel respected.
  2. Make us feel alive, vital and excited about the engagement and the way we share a connection with another person.
  3. Give us a feeling of mutuality. We share stories and show vulnerability, there’s give and take.
  4. Change us physically. These connections release oxytocin and chemicals that make us feel well.

For more on the qualities of these connections, download Andrew’s free resource here.

Third: How can we foster meaningful connections at work, particularly in a hybrid workplace?

When working virtually and connecting over video:

  • Record yourself when in a meeting or on a call and then play it back later to see how you come across. Look at your body language and facial expressions. Do you look friendly and engaged?
  • Make time for fun, human interactions. Let’s face it, we could all use some levity, especially with everything there is to worry about these days (recession, inflation, war, climate change, layoffs…). Make sure you make time for fun chit-chat about non-work things. It can’t be all business all the time.
  • Try an old-school phone call 20% of the time. Research has shown we can get distracted by visuals (not to mention fatigued by being on camera), so to really focus on what someone is saying, try calling them instead. As Erin noted, “Sometimes building the best connections could mean not seeing them on video.”
  • Create a communications agreement with your team. Andrew recommends asking your team members how they’d like to communicate when working remotely (cameras on or off, meetings in person or remote, etc.) and refresh the agreement every quarter because people change. He cited Harry’s “How to Hybrid” manual for some interesting ideas.
  • Tangibility goes a long way in a virtual world: Send something real to your remote employees—a small gift, thank-you card or a handwritten note. These tokens of appreciation will go a long way to fostering connection on remote teams.

When working on a hybrid team:

  • Be intentional: Whether hybrid or remote, whenever you bring people together onsite, try to determine what the goal is of doing so. Is there a team lunch, a social event, a collaborative project or team brainstorm session? Maybe it’s the day when an in-person one-on-one takes place with the leader, so they can build a rapport. Ideally, it’s not a random ask for everyone to come in and sit separately and work on video.
  • Be agile: Try to think of the projects and workflows that change from day to day and adjust your onsite days accordingly rather than setting a rigid schedule. Also, keep in mind that everybody has different demands in their personal life (child/elder care, for example) and they might need flexible options for onsite work.
  • Crowdsource ideas: Host social planning sessions where employees are invited to put forth ideas for connecting with others. Not everyone likes pizza—maybe they’d prefer a book club.
  • Offer as much choice as possible: Back to that “one-size-fits-none” idea of Andrew’s—everyone has different likes and dislikes, so you can’t expect that everyone is going to magically click at every work event. We’ve found it’s best to offer as many different opportunities as possible to connect, including smaller, community-based events for employees to connect in smaller groups closer to home (i.e., a local coffee shop or dog park).
  • Make in-person gatherings predictable: Ensure they’re regular, planned and the purpose is clear.
  • Make room for introverts: Quieter employees might not appreciate getting together at a loud in-person lunch, so try to offer the chance to meet in smaller, quieter groups when possible

Wherever you work—remotely, onsite or hybrid

  • Build opportunities to connect through the work itself: Bring groups of people together—including leaders and employees of different seniority levels on different teams—to work on cross-functional projects or to solicit input on a core organizational issue.
  • Offer the opportunity to collaborate on areas of common interest: Give team members the chance to participate in programs outside their core work (for example, the DEI committee, DEI book club, health and safety group, onboarding cohort, etc.). We’re launching a coach’s academy this year, bringing together 20 employees from different teams to coach each other.
  • Use active listening: Use every time you speak with someone as an opportunity to learn a bit about them and understand what motivates them, the things they’re interested in etc. Set up regular check-ins that are entirely about listening to an employee’s input (we have regular stay interviews, where leaders just listen to their team members). Be sure to ask meaningful questions, actually listen to the answers and don’t multi-task—especially on video calls. Think they don’t notice when you’re checking your email? Think again.
  • Engage respectfully: (related to active listening) Give the person the attention they deserve, turn off distractions, make eye contact and show them you’re genuinely focusing on them.
  • Help them do things. Give your employees resources, guidance, tools, mentorship—show them you truly care about their progress.
  • Show you trust them. Trust is an essential ingredient to friendship. How can you expect someone to get close to you if you constantly second-guess them, excessively monitor them or ignore their input? Be vulnerable, admit when you don’t know something, ask for help.
  • Have fun. Regardless of where you work, make sure there’s time for fun chit-chat, games, trivia, etc. It can’t be all business all the time.

Global teams that never see each other in person

  • Try to bring them together in person for a couple of days at least once or twice a year. This is the best way to build connections, especially for employees on different teams who don’t work together directly.

You can’t guarantee connections

Since everyone is different, no matter what you do to bring people together, there are no guarantees that they’re going to actually click.

You can’t make people make friends, but you can give them opportunities to do so.

Another key thing to keep in mind: just because someone has close relationships doesn’t mean they’re going to be happy all the time. But close connections do form the bedrock of wellbeing.

Just look at the longest happiness study to date—Harvard researchers have been following the same 724 people since 1938 (plus their family members—in total ~2,000 people) to try to determine what makes people happiest. It turns out, health is not the key to happiness. The happiest people in the study? Those who had the strongest relationships.

Additional resources

  • Questions about any of the ways we’re fostering connections on our team at Altis? Contact us: hrtopics@altisexcel.com
  • Want to learn more about how to design the conditions where people can have more high-quality connections at work? Connect with Andrew Soren and Eudaimonic by Design: andrew@eubd.ca | www.eubd.ca | LinkedIn

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