Who would have thought that deciding where to walk with my family on Saturday afternoons would capture what so many of us are feeling? Pre-pandemic, the route of our weekly walks was irrelevant to me; I happily let my family decide whether we wandered the neighborhood, the wooded park, or the path atop the hidden aqueduct tunnels.
But now, each week, I steer them toward the carriage lane that parallels the main road, the route that is teeming with other walkers. My family groans. They know that I’m dying to run into people I know. They know that our walk will be punctuated by “conversation stops” as I joyfully catch up with friends and neighbors. And while this will test my family’s patience, lucky for me, they will have a hard time arguing with the research that backs up my need to connect with others, even those I don’t know especially well.
Just last year, a New York Times article highlighted the importance of feeling connected through a web of informal or “weak ties” that add richness to our lives. According to Dr. Mark Granovetter’s research, these informal connections provide an array of benefits which enhance our well-being, enable us to be more empathetic, increase our sense of belonging, and positively affect our overall happiness.
Unfortunately, these informal interactions—the ones that lift us up and contribute to the fullness of our lives– are currently absent. We miss the casual exchanges with our dry cleaners, the parents we see at school drop-off, and the Dunkin’ Donuts employee who remembers our coffee order. If you even miss the chatty commuter who frequently interrupted your plan for a quiet train ride, you aren’t alone.
Not surprisingly, this isolation is not only impacting our health and well-being, but also our effectiveness and productivity at work. Recent research by McKinsey reminds us that although many organizations did a great job focusing on employee connectedness early in the crisis, we can’t lose sight of the continued importance of this issue, saying that “it would be a mistake to assume that the camaraderie that has sustained many employees early in the crisis will endure long term.” Each of us, and especially our leaders, must make room for both the formal and informal connections that sustain us and which will ultimately help pave the way to a more successful return to work. In order to gain the benefits of social interactions that were previously effortless, we now must be more intentional.
Here are a few simple ways to do this for yourself and/or your team:
- Plan your meeting agenda to accommodate time for some chatter. Once or twice a week, relax your meeting agenda so it isn’t packed from start to finish. Don’t underestimate the impact of organic conversations that happen at the beginning or end of your meeting.
- And speaking of meetings, make them small when possible. The smaller the group, the better the connection.
- Send a daily thank you note. The five (or fewer!) minutes you spend sending a text or email will make someone’s day and build the type of feel-good connection that comes from sharing appreciation. Whether the recipient is the colleague who solved your technical problem or the babysitter who spent an hour reading books to your 3 y.o. over Zoom, this is a low-effort/big-impact activity.
- Reach out to the new hire. It’s always hard being the new person, but this is magnified exponentially when onboarding is remote! Even if your work with the new hire will be limited, reach out to introduce yourself and offer your help as they get acclimated. Trust me, they will appreciate your effort and you will likely build a great new connection.
Even as we each have different socialization needs, the strong link between connectedness, well-being, and workplace performance reminds us that connecting with others is well worth the effort. Consider if you need to boost the social interactions in your own life, and if you lead a team, evaluate if you are providing ample opportunities for your employees to connect with each other. And if you are heading my way down the carriage lane on Saturday, watch out, I just might want to say hello.