Humans crave the company of other humans; in fact, Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs lists a sense of belonging as a primary need – just like food, shelter and safety. And this fundamental need doesn't stop at our front doors.
Never have we felt the need to connect more keenly than during the pandemic when many of us were isolated and working alone from home. Interestingly, research tells us that there are also commercial benefits of fostering strong social connections at work, including:
A boost in employee engagement and performance: Research has found that employees with social ties and connections perform better and are more engaged. The study found that 'intra-organisational social connection' operates as a specific sort of social tie and generates positive effects on work behaviour.
Healthier employees:Evidence shows that social connections are "critical to physical health and cognitive functioning and even influence risk for premature mortality". Business-wise, healthy employees offer higher performance and productivity, take fewer sick days and even bring more energy to the workplace - a win for everyone.
So, now we know why connection at work is so important; however, the question remains, how can you support and encourage connection in your post-pandemic workplace?
We've spoken with some experienced office managers, EAs, heads of experience and HR leaders about what they’re doing to encourage the rebuilding of bonds in their workplaces. Read on to get some ideas for how you can do the same...
1. Start with sharing a coffee
A coffee, a meal, or a Friday beer: starting small, humans bond over shared experiences. Small steps make a big difference, so encouraging your colleagues to make the most of the office coffee machine is a quick win.
"Small things like chatting over coffee make a difference in building that connection and community within teams. We have a breakout area that has armchairs to encourage people to take a break in that area rather than stay at their desks. I am encouraging people to use that area more," says Jo Dalton, Office Manager, Vanderlande.
Foster interdepartmental relationships by encouraging your colleagues to consider coffee catch-ups with people outside of their own division or team too. Lavazza Australia HR Manager, Julia Dwyer, explained that they furthered this by rostering on cross-functional teams when they returned to the office post-pandemic - to ensure employees prioritised broader connections as well as the more familiar connections between direct team members.
While catching up for a coffee can seem all social, not related to work, many of us know it's these casual chats that are the backbone of getting to know someone - personally and professionally. Executive Assistant Mina Italiano says, "Going for a coffee and getting to know a person, really getting to know where they're at, personally and professionally, is so key to building community and culture within an organisation."
2. Communicate more!
Unplanned communication, otherwise known as water cooler chat, is the type of communication that happens serendipitously in the halls and kitchens of workplaces the world over. Well, it did, until the pandemic and remote work became the norm for many. Even as offices reopen and employees return to work, there has been a permanent shift towards more remote working, meaning that we cannot rely on unplanned communication any longer.
This is why planning to communicate more has never been so important to reconnect teams and workplaces. "We love to treat people to the unexpected and spark joy in our workspace. Whether it's a high-quality office coffee machine, hot cross buns delivered, hot and buttered, to your desk, Chuppa Chup Tuesdays or a gospel choir on a dull Monday morning - we create a space people want to be in," says Luke Taylor, Head of Experience, TBWA\Melbourne + Adelaide.
"But you also need to communicate this - more than pre-pandemic - to make sure people know about it and can plan to be there for it," he explains.
3. Use technology
HR and Business Operations Manager for Brand chemistry, Rebecca Drummond, says that using technology is essential to keeping people connected in our modern workplace.
"People used to go to the pub on a Friday after work, but that's not always possible for the whole team whether it's because they now work remotely or they have kids they need to get home to. So I think creating opportunities on a variety of different platforms for people to come together is important.
"You need to create a variety of different touchpoints for people to connect in ways that suit them, whether that's Slack, Skype or Zoom. And it's not always about HR or the office manager making these things happen, but allowing other people to take the reins too," remarks Rebecca.
4. Get everyone together regularly
Whether you're all back in the office, you're all remote, or there is a mix of both, an ideal way to strengthen the connection between employees in your organisation is making sure you get together regularly. While virtual hangouts have their place and have been helpful over the past year, getting together in person (while maintaining safe social distancing, of course) is now back on the table.
Getting together can be as simple as a team lunch in the office, as fun as an escape room challenge, or as active as a group yoga class - do what suits your team and their interests.
"There is something so welcoming and bonding about going together for lunch or doing a fun activity together. But you want to put some thought into it and do what people actually want to do, things that get them excited to be back together," says Mina.
5. Ask questions and check-in
'How are you?' is a powerful sentence, especially when the speaker has a genuine interest in hearing the answer. However, if you want to build connections, asking more specific questions can help:
"What are you working on right now?"
"When did you start at XYZ Company?"
"Where's your favourite lunch spot?"
The key: Make it less about you and more about sharing a connection and encouraging others to do the same.
If there was a silver lining to the pandemic, perhaps it's that it's guided us to ask more questions and dig a little deeper with our colleagues. Luke says, "It's taught me to scratch the surface with mental health. I keep checking in with my team now we're back in the office. In fact, I often ask 'How are you?' twice. I find it more honest."