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How to foster human connection in a hybrid workforce

The author of Friendship in the Age of Loneliness says our new workplace reality has many of us more lonely than ever. Here’s what leaders can do to help.

How to foster human connection in a hybrid workforce
[Source photo: AndreyPopov/iStock]
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As more and more employees get vaccinated and life slowly returns to normal-ish, it’s clear that remote or hybrid work is here to stay, even as some employees return to the office. Many employees prefer working remotely—and are more productive doing so—prompting companies like Dropbox and Twitter to embrace remote-work-first policies and Microsoft and Facebook to announce more flexibility. But with this seismic shift comes a big risk:  loneliness and disconnection remains. 

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Lonely employees may cost U.S. companies up to $406 billion a year, and research by Cigna shows that lonely employees have 45% lower productivity, twice the amount of missed days at work, a higher risk of turnover, and 12% lower quality of work. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly two-thirds of Americans reported feeling lonely, and 80% of Gen-Z and 70% of millennials were lonely. During the pandemic, loneliness among young adults, as well as mothers of young children, has become even more severe. 

One cure for loneliness is friendship and belonging at work. According to data from BetterUp, employees who experience high-levels of belonging have a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, a 75% reduction in sick days, and a 167% increase in employer promoter score. These benefits result in an annual savings of $52 million for a 10,000-person company. 

Here are four ways to foster belonging in a remote or hybrid workforce: 

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Foster friendship at work

Be more intentional about connecting your employees and making the remote workplace a place where friendships can thrive. According to Gallup, employees who have a best friend at work are seven times more engaged. Employees who have a best friend at work are six points less lonely on the UCLA Loneliness Scale. Facilitate more one-on-ones, so employees have a chance to get vulnerable with each other and connect outside of a large Zoom setting. Create a culture of personal and professional mentorship, where employees are constantly sharing new learnings and opportunities for growth. Empathize with how hard it must be for new employees, especially younger employees, to start a new job, without being in the office or meeting new colleagues in-person for months at a time. Assign new employees a mentor or an “onboarding guide,” so they have someone to connect with during the challenging experience of onboarding remotely. Whenever possible, provide virtual team-building opportunities, encourage play, games, and creative curiosity, and remember that friendship and fun can be part of the workday. 

Ritualize human connection 

Encourage personal check-ins at the start of meetings, so folks can share about what’s going on in their lives, empathize with each other’s situations, and learn more about one another. When technology is used to make meaningful connections, not just to assign more tasks, employees are four points less lonely on the UCLA Loneliness Scale. As friendship expert Shasta Nelson writes in The Business of Friendship, “Friendship = Positivity + Consistency + Vulnerability.” Ritualizing opportunities for personal sharing, frequent feedback, and praise are essential to building human connection in the workplace. Whether it’s a Slack channel dedicated to giving people praise on recent projects, ending meetings with shout-outs and affirmations, or Gratitude Fridays, making these rituals part of the daily calendar will help create a culture of support and collaboration. When employees have more phone calls and in-person conversations with their colleagues, they are less lonely at work. 

Double down on purpose 

Employees who derive meaning from their work are 140% more engaged and three times more likely to stay with their organization. Not only that, but employees who have shared goals with their colleagues are eight points less lonely. Take time to make sure your team is on the same page. Come together for periodic strategic planning and visioning sessions (preferably in-person when it’s safe to do so), so your people know what their priorities are and have face-time with senior leadership. It is incredibly difficult for employees, especially new employees, to feel a sense of purpose, when they don’t feel like they have open communication channels with their managers or a seat at the decision-making table. Making diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives a reality (not just a priority) when it comes to recruitment and leadership, and investing in employee resource groups, are an essential component of building psychological safety at work. 70% of millennial employees who believe their senior management teams are diverse see their working environments as motivating and stimulating, versus 43% of younger workers who don’t perceive their leadership teams as diverse. 

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Take employee wellness seriously 

It’s been a really hard year, especially for young adults and their parents. A recent study by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education found that young adults and mothers are experiencing the highest levels of increased loneliness during the pandemic; with 61% of young people aged 18-25 and 51% of mothers with young children reporting “miserable degrees” of loneliness. In addition, we’re seeing high rates of employee burnout and a growing mental health crisis, especially among young people. It’s important that we take care of our people, encouraging more time for renewal, breaks from work, and time to recharge. Employees who take a break every 90 minutes report a 30% higher level of focus at work. Especially for leaders, modeling work-life balance (with an emphasis on the balance, and prioritizing well-being, family, and life outside of work) is critical right now. This may mean establishing “quiet hours” where non-essential communication is forbidden, or even mandating holidays or paid time off.

These challenges go far beyond any individual workplace, and as society recovers from the pandemic, we may see a renewed push for more compassionate workplace policies at the federal and organizational level when it comes to more generous paid family leave, time off policies, childcare subsidies, parent and elder care support, home office stipends, and access to mental health resources. Fostering human connection in the hybrid workforce will be one of the most important responsibilities facing companies—and our culture—long after the pandemic is over. 


Adam Smiley Poswolsky is an author, speaker, and millennial workplace expert. His third book, Friendship in the Age of Loneliness, by Running Press/Hachette, is out now. 

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