What to Read Next
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.
Research Updates From MIT SMR
Get weekly updates on how global companies are managing in a changing world.
Please enter a valid email address
Thank you for signing up
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). IHIs are moments in which social interactions, including those in the course of the workday, are interwoven with empathy, curiosity, and humility. They can take place both during and outside of the traditional meetings required for collaborative work. Done right, IHIs help grow and nurture profound ties with coworkers and can help rebuild lost feelings of connection and culture at work.
Based on our analyses of research and conversations with company leaders, we offer six strategies for designing IHI moments in organizations:
Use IHIs to reinvigorate strong ties. Redesigning work to allow for moments of intensely human interactions can powerfully reinvigorate our strong connections with colleagues, which is so important for reducing loneliness. Jake Goldman, president of 10up, a web design company with remote staff members across the U.S. and Europe, has been doing this by encouraging his employees who are burned out by larger Zoom meetings to do one-on-one walk-and-talk phone calls.
In one-on-ones, people are particularly likely to reinvigorate their strong connections, even without using a camera; the voice alone can convey two dozen emotions. Our interviews revealed that people so strongly associate their virtual office setups with work that using the same setup for one-on-ones or informal get-togethers such as happy hours are often viewed as mere prolongations of the workday. Shutting down cameras and moving away from desks is useful. (One of 10up’s IHI activities involved people trying a handstand challenge asynchronously and then sharing their pictures.)
Efforts to rejuvenate strong ties can also benefit when leaders are willing to put their money where their culture lives. As restrictions on face-to-face interactions are lifted, leaders should consider allocating funds to enable teammates who live in the same area to get together for drinks, dinners, and other joint activities. Let each regional group decide what it wants to do, to avoid overprescribing culture. Keep these events optional and small, and encourage groups to vary the range of activities to increase inclusiveness. Suggest occasionally inviting members of local professional organizations, to broaden outside connections — which are also helpful for reducing loneliness and stimulating a sense of belonging.
Being intentional about seeding agenda-free conversations is necessary. Bill Lovejoy, a professor of technology and operations at the University of Michigan, offers a wonderful example of how serendipity can be deliberately infused into an organization’s culture. For years, Lovejoy would open the white pages of his school’s faculty directory, randomly pick a number to call, and invite the person on the other end to coffee. After years of doing this as a personal practice and finding immense value in the resulting conversations, he helped get it institutionalized within the university. Now, anyone can sign up to be randomly paired for a 30-minute coffee meeting through a program called Innovate Brew. These meetups contribute to the school’s reputation for cross-disciplinary dialogue and collaboration.
Engage in the practices of high-quality connections. High-quality connections are punctuated moments that foster the immensely human dynamics of trust, mutual positive regard, and reciprocated curiosity. Many of these moments are quick: They can be as short as 30 seconds and take place though an email exchange, a conversation, or a single interaction in a meeting. High-quality connections grow and strengthen our relationships in the long term. They contrast with low-quality connections — those distracted moments that deplete connection. Our colleague Jane Dutton, a professor emerita at the Ross School of Business, noted that “in low-quality connections, there is a little death in every interaction.”
The key to high-quality connections is practicing respectful engagement. Show up and be present, turn toward the other person, and give that person your full attention. You can’t have a meaningful meeting if you’re simultaneously checking your email or shopping online.
Eye contact is also important. One of us worked with an executive who, unbeknownst to him, consistently appeared to others to be disrespectful during virtual meetings. As he thought about a question, he would turn his gaze away from the screen. Although he may have been focused on the problem at hand, to the meeting’s participants he appeared distracted, as if he were multitasking.
Other active listening techniques make a difference too. An occasional nod to show agreement or understanding, a comment to draw a parallel to a coworker’s argument, or a question to learn the other person’s point of view — all can go a long way toward building high-quality connections.
Run “humility huddles.” Organizations need to create safe ways for people to brainstorm ideas and to interact when they need help answering a question.
Many people hesitate to share ideas that are less than fully formed. Criticism can affect people’s sense of self-worth, and people can be reluctant to reveal anything that is half-baked. But in humility huddles, individuals are encouraged to be explicit about the incompleteness of their ideas and the desire for others to roll up their sleeves and help make these ideas better. Dennis Smarch, a manufacturing manager at Profil Fastening Systems, described the approach this way: “When I introduce an idea, it’s always coupled with comments indicating this is not set in stone, I don’t have all the answers, and it will definitely change once started. It may even fail.”
The rules are simple: No slides. No presentations. Just share an imperfect idea or articulate a problem and how you are currently thinking about it, in the spirit of learning from others. The mindset is “How can we make this idea better?” or “How might we solve this problem?” An indicator of an IHI in this situation is when individuals are sufficiently humble to say they don’t yet know the solution.
Instead of allowing the conversation to become a traditional critique (“Will that even work?” or “Can you show me your net present value analysis that proves it would have a positive ROI?”), leaders must restructure the way others engage with ideas. The goal is to have others behave like collaborators. Humility huddles are not about sugarcoating flaws but about fostering productive exchanges that explicitly maintain a clear sense of humanity about them.
Embody curiosity with purpose. Curiosity with a purpose is about learning about what others find meaningful so that we might adjust our actions accordingly. In doing so, we convey that we are present and attuned to them as human beings.
A senior vice president of business development at a branded merchandise company shared her approach with us. In Zoom meetings, where her direct reports are often broadcasting from personal working spaces at home, she notes clues about what the person cares about from what she sees in the background, such as photographs and decorative tchotchkes. She uses those insights to customize small gifts she sends on special occasions, such as birthdays. To an employee who had adventure travel mementos in the background, she sent a gift certificate to the outdoor activities store REI. To another who had prominent displays of family back in Australia, she sent a box of Tim Tam biscuits. With these small gestures, she was able to use curiosity to elevate the human dimension to workplace interactions.
The gold standard of curiosity with purpose is to make heavy use of follow-up questions in conversation. By definition, follow-up questions are contingent upon what the other person contributes to the conversation, and they explicitly convey an elevated level of attention on the other rather than the self. These interactions can lead to surprising information that pays off in unexpected ways.
Enable people to share their stories. Imagine spending a few minutes of a weekly team meeting spotlighting one member. That team member could be asked to share how she chose her profession or what defines her at work or outside of work. Or team members could be invited to share what they were grateful for during the past year or what they learned about themselves during the height of the lockdown.
Such exchanges, infused with empathy and curiosity, can lead people to see through differences. Moments of storytelling help people see their inherently shared human values — values that transcend the work-nonwork boundary.
Meaningful Connections Beyond Colleagues
The tools of IHIs can be used to recultivate relationships with customers, too. Jordan MacFarlane, the owner of a CrossFit gym, told us that to help bring back the sense of community that existed before the pandemic, he started a podcast called Worth Your Salt. As part of the show, he asks members to share their life and fitness stories with others. The resulting conversations are publicized by the gym and shared among both associates and customer members. The stories reveal the common themes of hard work and competitive drive — and have reenergized the gym’s culture and sense of camaraderie.
The COVID-19 crisis and the disruptions it inflicted on our social and professional lives have upended our sense of belonging. And while the damage is not irreparable, it would be a mistake to assume that simply returning to the old physical space or professional norms will suffice. By designing IHI moments, leaders can promote employee wellness and avoid exacerbating the decline in social connectedness being felt by many of their employees and even customers.
Reimagining the post-pandemic workplace offers opportunities to restore people’s sense of belonging and create an environment for deep and meaningful human connection. By doing so, leaders will be working toward more vibrant and resilient organizations.