In a recent conversation, the CEO of a global imaging services company shared the biggest worry keeping her up at night: Most of her employees who have been working from home during the pandemic do not want to return to the office. She is torn because while productivity has been great, new hires seem like strangers, and the company’s overall sense of community has been lost. In other companies, the situation is more dire. One senior vice president shared with us that four of his employees had recently taken medical leave for depression. The cause? Prolonged social isolation.
These are not uncommon scenarios. Surveys of employees consistently reveal a similar pattern: People are learning to work constructively from home and are reluctant to return to the office full time, for reasons ranging from commuting hassles to workday flexibility. And yet many employees are miserable, longing for connection with coworkers and feeling acutely cut off. This comes at a time when personal social networks have shrunk: Survey respondents reported in June 2020 that they had fewer close friends (by 20%) and fewer close colleagues (by 25%) compared with a year earlier.
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People feel a need to belong and have an inherent desire for deep, lasting, and meaningful connections. This is true both outside and inside of work. Not feeling connected can be downright soul-wrenching and result in the adverse physiological consequences that accompany prolonged anxiety and depression. Employees who feel disconnected are more likely to withdraw from colleagues, go on medical leave, or exit the organization altogether. On the flip side, feeling connected through meaningful relationships with colleagues is a demonstrated driver of employee engagement and performance.
As some regions and industries begin a return to a yet-to-be-defined form of normalcy at work, leaders must begin to reimagine how they can fulfill their talent’s need to belong. For organizations bringing people back to the office, this should be a top priority. It would be a fatal mistake to assume that simply resettling people into cubicles will cut it. For employees who will participate in a hybrid format or continue to operate virtually, a major reboot is also needed.
Steps Toward Meaningful Interactions
How do organizations facilitate belonging at work? Our core idea is that leaders need to design what we call immensely human interactions (IHIs).