The Great Resignation is here, and it will take more than a virtual watercooler in the metaverse to fix it. At the start of the pandemic, executives quickly considered how to replace the ubiquitous watercooler. With offices closing down, we shifted into rapid motion, concerned about how to ensure our employees and customers had opportunities to convene casually and maintain a sense of community. We were convinced it was the serendipitous watercooler conversations that mattered.
We were wrong.
Trendy virtual spaces in the emerging metaverse from a seemingly never-ending list of newly funded companies failed to create the human connections people yearned for. It was the sense of purpose that was missing—and we are still working to reestablish that in an effective way.
It is now clear virtual spaces, which attempt to mimic reality, or the whimsical video camera filters, which seek to distract and entertain, are not the solutions to isolation and burnout. These innovations also failed to solve the childcare challenges millions of people faced daily as a result of the pandemic.
Organizations tried—with limited success—to counter the growing problem by investing in meditation applications and other resources. But burnout occurs because of a number of factors such as lack of control, unclear expectations, lack of social support, and a distorted work-life balance. The true, unmet needs of workers include belonging, safety and a sense of purpose.
Belonging is a need that all humans have in order to thrive, as Maslow described in his seminal work Hierarchy of Needs. To satisfy this need to belong, researchers suggest people need to not only have positive interactions with others, but they require meaningful interactions that are not random and take place as part of long-term stable relationships. (The opposite of the casual watercooler chat!)
Companies like Airbnb effectively tapped into this psychological motivator years ago with their tagline “belong anywhere.” As a young company, the founders could have focused on a “find a nice place to stay” tagline, but their mission of belonging appealed to people who wanted more than just another overnight stay at a Hilton or Marriott. They genuinely appealed to the human need to fit in, belong, and be part of a larger community of guests and hosts.
Today, as individuals continue on the treadmill to burnout and isolation, companies would be better served by considering how people come together in meaningful ways, rather than solely focusing on the nuts and bolts of virtual space, or individual therapy or meditation applications.
In an earlier op-ed, I wrote about the opportunity that the pandemic-induced lockdown might create to increase awareness of the importance of flexible work, and how a shift to a more flexible model could increase the leadership opportunities that women, in particular, might have in the workplace. A flexible work environment, however, shouldn’t be confused with a virtual work environment.
As Gartner, the world’s leading research and advisory company recently noted, organizations should actually consider moving from a “location-centric” culture to a “human-centered” culture. By only replicating the physical world and providing individualized solutions to combat burnout, companies may have actually made the problem of isolation and burnout worse. The solution lies with creating purpose.
Creating purpose and building a true sense of community are both essential to reducing burnout and unlocking stronger employee engagement in work environments, which will likely continue to be virtual in the years to come.
Ten months ago, I started working on a new company. Our mission is simple: Create better ways for people to come together to grow. We want to help people move beyond perceived limitations, and explore what’s possible for themselves and others.
In our initial research, we looked closely at group gatherings, including coaching sessions, group therapy, and even Alcoholics Anonymous, where it is clear that fellowship helps more people achieve sobriety than therapy does. In all of these practices, the intention is to bring people with different perspectives and backgrounds together to achieve individual or common goals.
Organizations such as Vistage, YPO, and Techstars, where I was a GM, have all sought to solve for some of the loneliness and burnout which comes with serving as a CEO or a startup founder by creating opportunities for cohort-based gatherings with peer support and coaching. In a cohort model, individuals with similar experiences and goals, are gathered in small groups to participate in a shared experience. Through common activities, they recognize that their challenges, which may feel unique, are actually common among peers. At Techstars, founders not only participate in an exclusive peer program, but they become part of something larger—a network that enables them to continue to connect and belong over time. The model has been proven effective with a much higher success rate for startups that participate in the program.
In successful group gatherings, another component that creates a sense of purpose is the use of ritual. Rituals bring people together, create bonds, promote a sense of well-being and belonging, and reduce loneliness, as anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas described long before COVID.
In accelerators, effective rituals might include a Friday KPI meeting and Wednesday dinner, in agile development, rituals could include a daily standup meeting and bi-weekly retrospective, and in Alcoholics Anonymous effective rituals often include mirroring techniques with common phrases like “pass it on.”
All of these rituals provide participants with a strong understanding of what to expect next, and we know that when uncertainty for individuals is reduced, well-being increases.
As organizations face the need to maintain a shift to virtual, considering ways to virtually support intentional group engagement and the introduction of daily rituals for consistency and belonging, will do more to reduce burnout at scale, while building community, creating a sense of purpose, and increasing learning and development.
While the Great Resignation is only getting worse, companies that look beyond fun office perks and trendy virtual spaces to actually keep people engaged virtually in a meaningful way will have substantially better chances of overcoming the odds. And with the lines between home and work forever blurred, ensuring employees have an effective way to pursue both professional and personal development is critical. The future of work doesn’t need to be bleak, even if it remains virtual.
Claudia Reuter is the author of Yes, You Can Do This! How Women Start Up, Scale Up and Build the Life They Want, creator of the podcast The 43 Percent, and is currently CEO of a new company focused on the future of work which is in pre-launch mode and supported by High Alpha.