Take a moment to think about the people you turn to when you need support or advice. If you’re like most of us, family members and friends are the ones who spring to mind. While we may have a good work friend here or there, we usually don’t go to our coworkers for help when things get tough.
But maybe it’s time we should.
We spend the majority of our waking hours on the job. This is a huge amount of time. And from a research perspective, this means we’re missing out on a profound opportunity to build relationships with our colleagues–and improve one another’s health, well-being, and productivity in the process.
Authentic social connections provide immense psychological and physical benefits. On a fundamental level, they help us create stronger, more diverse support networks–increasing our access to informational and emotional support and providing a buffer against stress, burnout, and mental health challenges like depression. This not only improves our well-being, affording us greater happiness and life satisfaction, but also helps us cope more effectively with setbacks and challenges.
Surprisingly, strong social connections at work can even strengthen our immune systems and decrease levels of inflammation, in part because feeling socially connected decreases activity in genes coding for inflammation and thus helps us fend off inflammatory diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. This means that stronger connections at work bestow not only psychological benefits like increased happiness and decreased stress but also physical benefits like fewer sick days and greater overall health and longevity.
So, what can your organization do to reap the rewards of strong social connections? My research on the habits that best support lasting well-being and workplace success suggests that there are five particularly effective strategies.
Allowing ourselves to be authentic and vulnerable increases our self-esteem, sense of self-acceptance, and life satisfaction. But doing so in a professional environment can feel uncomfortable without encouragement.
Companies should help create norms around sharing personal stories, fears, and failures with colleagues by offering training program that specifically encourage and teach these behaviors. These programs establish the importance of trust and support between colleagues and set a tone of authenticity, empathy, and compassion in the workplace. This translates to closer relationships, improved communication, less personal conflict, and increased comfort in broaching difficult topics.
People are often afraid to admit to mistakes at work–generally out of a desire to appear competent to superiors or infallible to people reporting to them. But when leaders are honest about their mistakes, they help the whole organization see that vulnerability can be a sign of strength–and that setbacks can be profound learning opportunities.
Strengthen this cultural norm of openness and learning by holding regular all-hands Q&A sessions where leaders talk about their work experiences–both good and bad–and what they’ve learned from them.
Practicing mindfulness–non-judgmental awareness of the present moment–helps us focus and regulate our thoughts and emotions. Yoga and meditation classes in the workplace are great ways to help employees develop this skill, which can help them do their best work even during stressful times.
Meditation in particular has also been shown to increase levels of empathy and compassion, making us better at connecting with and supporting others. Overall, mindfulness can help to minimize workplace conflicts and increase overall camaraderie–while simultaneously boosting productivity.
Open-space offices are a common example of this strategy. But it’s just as important to provide communal workspaces in different parts of your office. Well-placed couches and armchairs not only give employees a change of scene, but also help them interact with colleagues they might not otherwise have a chance to meet. Additionally, they help people capture that casual but exciting coffee shop atmosphere that so many of us naturally seek out when we need inspiration for our work.
Game rooms or central kitchens offer similar benefits. A kitchen full of free food is a nice perk–but its real value is in how it increases the chances that colleagues will support or collaborate with one another across teams.
Happy hours, company-wide lunches, and off-sites are common ways for employees to bond in a less-structured setting. But don’t forget to also sponsor traditions that deliberately unite people who don’t often work together.
One great strategy is randomly pairing employees with colleagues from other divisions for a company-sponsored meal. Another is to give people time and resources to form cross-functional teams.
When we get to know a wide variety of people, we’re exposed to more (and different) perspectives, which can enhance creativity and also protect against groupthink. These relationships also make it easier for people from different divisions to share tribal knowledge they wouldn’t otherwise have easy access to.
We tend to think of meditation classes, collaboratively structured office spaces, happy hours, and other social traditions as mere workplace perks designed to attract and retain top talent. But these traditions are not just perks. If done well, a social focus in the workplace can provide tremendous, self-perpetuating benefits–both for individual employees and for organizations as a whole.
So let’s use them to start changing our workplace cultures. We’ll have more fun and be happier at work. And we’ll improve one another’s health and productivity in the process.
—Alexandra Russell, PhD is a people and culture data scientist at Medallia, a company whose software helps companies improve their customer experience. She has a PhD in Social Psychology from Stanford University, and her research has been published in Science magazine and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.