23 August 2022

5 Themes in the Literature on Connection at Work

Heather Gilmartin Adams
Research Lead

TL;DR

  • We looked at over 50 articles on connection at work and identified 5 themes
  • Connection is a big deal for individuals and organizations alike
  • Loss of connection isn’t just a pandemic problem, but the pandemic made it much worse
  • There are lots of types of connection that matter
  • It’s everyone’s responsibility to intentionally build connection

Many organizations are experiencing a connection crisis spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. As ways of working changed in the course of the pandemic, employees lost connection with one another and their organizations. Employees and organizations recognize that's not a good thing: Loss of connection has consequences for employee engagement and well-being as well as organizational performance.

That's why we're researching connection in the workplace. We want to know how organizations can foster connections that will help them thrive.

As part of this research, we reviewed over 50 academic and business articles, reports, and books. We wanted to understand the state of the current conversation so that our research can contribute as helpfully and thoughtfully as possible. This short article summarizes what we found, including

  • 5 major themes from the literature
  • 5 critical articles we think you should explore
  • A complete list of the articles we reviewed

Major themes

5 themes emerged from the literature on connection at work. Each is discussed below, with links to articles that support the overarching theme.

Connection is a big deal

The literature we looked at generally agreed that connection is important for employees and organizations alike. A few striking data points to support this finding:

  • Employee recognition firm O.C. Tanner reported that weekly one-to-one meetings with managers during uncertain times (like the COVID-19 pandemic) lead to a 54% increase in engagement, a 31% increase in productivity, a 15% decrease in burnout, and a 16% decrease in depression among employees.
  • WorkHuman’s research associated connection with a greater sense of purpose, more collaboration, and decreased turnover intention.
  • McKinsey & Company found that employees who feel more connected with colleagues are 1.5x more likely to report both engagement and a sense of belonging at work.
  • According to BetterUp’s 2022 Insights Report, highly connected employees experience 34% higher goal attainment, a 36% boost in well-being, and 92% more professional growth.

These stats give color and detail to the overall sense we got from the literature, which was: connection is associated with things like more innovation and creativity, a culture of inclusion and belonging, higher employee engagement, less burnout, lower turnover intention, and higher productivity. The literature agrees that connection is good for employees, and it’s good for business.

Loss of connection isn’t just a pandemic problem—but the pandemic made it worse

Even before the pandemic started, there was a body of literature reporting an increase in disconnection and loneliness at work and assessing its consequences. Back in 2019, Karyn Twaronite and the EY Belonging Barometer team found that 40% of people felt isolated at work. In early 2020, Cigna reported that 62% of US workers could be considered lonely, at an estimated cost to the US economy of over $406 billion a year. And just before the pandemic began, researchers Hadley and Mortensen revealed that 76% of workers said they had difficulty connecting with their teammates, and 58% agreed with the statement “My social relationships are superficial at work.”

As with many other areas of work, the pandemic accelerated an existing trend: It made the connection crisis much worse. The literature points out 2 primary reasons for this accelerated loss of connection:

  • As employees adjusted to the pandemic, they “turtled up,” as researchers King and Kovacs put it. That is, employees maintained and even strengthened ties with close colleagues, while letting their weaker connections to acquaintances wither.
  • Lost connections weren’t replaced by new ones. It’s natural for some connections to fade over time. But the pandemic didn’t allow them to be replaced as they normally would be.

As a result of these lost connections, one study by Buffer found, 52% of people feel less connected to their coworkers since shifting to remote work.

Connection isn’t just one-to-one

Heading into this lit review, we expected the literature to cover interpersonal (one-to-one) relationships more heavily than other types of connection. That’s not what we found. The literature covered a wide range of types of connection, including:

  • One-to-one: Relationships between 2 people
  • One-to-many: Relationships between 1 person and a group of people
  • One-to-organization: An employee’s sense that they belong in the organization and that they’re part of a community
  • One-to-work: An employee’s sense of connection to, and meaning in, their own work
  • Team-to-team: The relationships between teams in an organization

We were particularly intrigued by the explicit links made in the literature between connection, purpose, community, and belonging. For example, the Center for Equity, Gender & Leadership at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business emphasized that fostering different types of connection can strengthen employees’ sense of belonging and inclusion. McKinsey & Company’s Great Attrition research linked connection to employees’ sense that they’re part of a community. And researchers Blount and Leinwand noted that to accomplish their purpose, organizations must foster silo-breaking connections. Other articles also mentioned that alignment between individual and organizational purpose can strengthen employees’ sense of connection to the organization.

Strengthening connection is everyone’s responsibility

The literature contains a mix of advice for senior leaders, managers, HR leaders, and individual employees. Our interpretation of this mix is that the literature is telling us that everyone in an organization plays a part in, or has a responsibility for, building connection in different ways.

Many articles claimed that fostering connection is one of a manager’s or leader’s primary responsibilities, with motivational speaker John Hall emphasizing that building connections should be at the top of any leader’s priority list. Other articles proposed ways for HR leaders to implement systems and processes to enable connection. A blog by Lumapps, for example, advised HR leaders to create peer mentorship programs, set up communities of practice, and host regular social events.

A smaller, though still noticeable, number of articles were primarily directed at individuals. These articles dispensed advice on networking and forging one-to-one or one-to-many connections, since these connections are within an individual employee’s locus of control.

Connection must be strengthened intentionally

The literature emphasized that, particularly in a hybrid work setting, connections are not going to strengthen themselves. Several articles noted that leaders, managers, and employees must thoughtfully and intentionally put in place processes and systems to foster meaningful (not superficial) relationships.

For example, one article by writer Gwen Moran suggested that organizations start building connection at employee onboarding. A few mentioned the importance of documentation and communication—consistently taking and disseminating meeting notes, sharing detailed rationales for decisions, and setting explicit norms and expectations—to connect employees to what’s going on in the organization.

A final aspect of intentionality in the literature had to do with time. Some articles noted that building meaningful relationships takes time, and many of the interactions that employees have today are transactional or superficial. These articles advised leaders and employees to set aside time to nurture deep, human connections. For example, one article by organizational psychologist Juliette Holt-Lunstad argued that employers need to go beyond simply increasing opportunities for interaction and instead take steps to foster high-quality interactions that build high-quality relationships.

5 articles you should explore

Of the literature we reviewed, several pieces stood out. Each of the articles below contains information that we found useful or intriguing. We learned from their perspectives and encourage you to do the same.

“Network effects: How to rebuild social capital and improve corporate performance

T. Lauricella, J. Parsons, B. Schaninger, and B. Weddle.

“It’s imperative… that business leaders manage social capital in the same way they manage financial, human, and other forms of corporate capital: systematically and intentionally.

This data-rich article advises leaders to interrogate the systems of social capital in their organization through 3 lenses: motivation, access, and ability. Are employees motivated to build and maintain relationships? Do they have access to the right relationships? And do they have the ability to build those relationships?

“What a year of WFH has done to our relationships at work

N. Baym, J. Larson, and R. Martin.

"Those who said their interactions with colleagues have decreased this year were less likely to be thriving at things that lead to innovation, like thinking strategically, collaborating or brainstorming with others, and proposing innovative ideas.”

The authors describe how interpersonal connections, especially the types of relationships enabled through chance in-person encounters in the office, were lost in the first year of the pandemic. Managers are key to helping rebuild them.

"Hybrid work: Getting leaders to stay connected with teams"

M. Arena

“As the pandemic lingered, we noticed a decrease in both bonding connections and bridging connections.”

The author explains there are 2 types of connection: bonding connections, which typically occur within a team, and bridging connections, which connect individuals across different teams. Both types of connection were lost during the pandemic, but bridging connections were particularly hard-hit.

“Two years into COVID: The state of human connection at work”

WorkHuman

"The more recently someone has been thanked by a manager and / or peer, the greater their sense of connection to the company culture and their colleagues.”

This report offers tons of data and stats about how connection has been lost during the pandemic, and points to 4 ways to build connection: asking for feedback, communicating values, being human (demonstrating vulnerability), and saying "thank you."

“Are your team members lonely?”

N. Hadley and M. Mortensen

“Working remotely instead of face-to-face can by itself undermine social connections. But that is not the whole story, so resuming in-person work won’t fix the loneliness problem.”

This article reports results from 2 studies, one of which collected data before the pandemic began. The authors argue that face-to-face interactions (i.e., returning to pre-COVID ways of working) will not entirely solve the connection crisis. They make a case for fundamentally redesigning teams to foster meaningful connections.

Complete list of sources

Sources are listed in reverse chronological order.

  1. “Network effects: How to rebuild social capital and improve corporate performance”, Lauricella, J. Parsons, B. Schaninger, and B. Weddle, McKinsey & Company, August 2022.
  2. “22% of people don’t have any friends at work. Here’s how to change that”, Moran, Fastcompany.com, July 2022.
  3. “The 5 things Gen Z is looking for in a job and career”, Fung and A. Yum, entrepreneur.com, July 2022.
  4. “The magic of your first work friends”, Goldberg, The New York Times, July 2022.
  5. Advancing belonging in organizations: An equity fluent leadership playbook, Smith, J. Sanders, and I. Rustagi, Berkeley Haas EGAL, June 2022.
  6. Employee engagement and resignation: You need a virtual watercooler”, G. Giacomelli, com, June 2022.
  7. “How virtual work is accelerating innovation”, Berruti, G. Ho, P. Kirschner, A. Morris, S. Norman, and E. Roth, McKinsey & Company, June 2022.
  8. “Hybrid work: Getting leaders to stay connected with teams”, M. Arena, com, June 2022.
  9. “Don’t want to lose your Gen Z and millennial talent? Here’s what you can do”, Parmelee, Deloitte, May 2022.
  10. “Maintaining network connections”, Gratton, Strategy & Business.com, May 2022.
  11. “Purpose at work predicts if employees will stay or quit their jobs”, Amire, greatplacetowork.com, May 2022.
  12. 6 tips for creating strong work connections in a hybrid office, according to an expert”, J. Liu, CNBC Make It, April 2022.
  13. “Do we still need teams?”, Noonan Hadley and M. Mortensen, Harvard Business Review, April 2022.
  14. “Managers can’t do it all”, Gherson and L. Gratton, Harvard Business Review, March-April 2022.
  15. “Two years into COVID: The state of human connection at work”, workhuman IQ, March 2022.
  16. “We need to talk about why so many people are lonely”, Moran, Fastcompany.com, February 2022.
  17. “14 ways to foster connection between employees”, Forbes Council Members, com, January 2022.
  18. “How leaders can build connection in a disconnected workplace”, Poswolsky, Harvard Business Review, January 2022.
  19. “The neighborhood effect: Implications of hybrid work”, Arena, HRExchangeNetwork.com, January 2022.
  20. Connectable: How leaders can move teams from isolated to all in, Jenkins and S. Van Cohen, McGraw Hill, 2022.
  21. Rewired: Protecting your brain in the digital age, D. Marci, Harvard University Press, 2022.
  22. The connection crisis: Why community matters in the new world of work”, BetterUp Insights Report 2022.
  23. “2022 state of Remote Work”, Buffer, 2022.
  24. Rise of the relatable organization, Mercer Global Talent Trends 2022 Study, 2022.
  25. 15 tips to create meaningful relationships at work”, Sestric, gobankingrates.com, November 2021.
  26. “4 tips for being a ‘connected leader’”, Coultas, Trainingmag.com, October 2021.
  27. “‘Great attrition’ or ‘great attraction’? The choice is yours”, A. De Smet, B. Dowling, M. Mugayar-Baldocchi, and B. Schaninger, McKinsey & Company, September 2021.
  28. “Why workplace connection matters”, McClure, WorkHuman.com, Sept 2021.
  29. “How to keep remote workers from feeling disconnected”, Somers, MIT Sloan, July 2021.
  30. “The worker-employer relationship disrupted: If we’re not a family, what are we?”, Schwartz, K. Eaton, D. Mallon, Y. Van Durme, M. Mauptmann, S. Poynton, and N. Scoble-Williams, Deloitte, July 2021.
  31. “How to be a leader who connects with others”, Hall, Forbes.com, June 2021.
  32. “Help your employees find purpose—or watch them leave”, Dhingra, A. Samo, B. Schaninger, and M. Schrimper, McKinsey & Company, April 2021.
  33. “What a year of WFH has done to our relationships at work”, Baym, J. Larson, and R. Martin, Harvard Business Review, March 2021.
  34. "Research: We’re losing touch with our networks”, King and B. Kovacs, Harvard Business Review, February 2021.
  35. Digital body language: How to build trust and connection, no matter the distance, Dhawan, St. Martin's Press, 2021.
  36. “12 effective ways to create a more connected workplace”, Herman, Lumapps, December 2020.
  37. Are your team members lonely?”, N. Hadley and M. Mortensen, MIT Sloan Management Review, December 2020.
  38. “How the coronavirus outbreak has – and hasn’t – changed the way Americans work”, Parker, J. Menasce Horowitz, and R. Minkin, Pew Research Center, December 2020.
  39. “8 tips for leaders to increase connection in their teams (Part 3)”,-C. Ross, October 2020. “Employees need to feel connected: Leaders have to be human”, S. Taherian, Forbes.com, June 2020.
  40. Loneliness and its impact on the American workplace, Cigna 2020 Loneliness Index Executive Summary, March 2020.
  41. “Only 28% of employees say they feel connected to their company’s purpose”, Schroeder, hrmorning.com, February 2020.
  42. “The Value of Belonging at Work”, W. Carr, A. Reece, G. Rosen Kellerman, and A. Robichaux, Harvard Business Review, December 2019.
  43. “Why are we here?”, Blount and P. Leinwand, Harvard Business Review, November-December 2019.
  44. “Building relationships at work: Why it matters”, Ryba, Quantum Workplace, June 2019.
  45. “The surprising power of simply asking coworkers how they’re doing”, Twaronite, Harvard Business Review, February 2019.
  46. 6 ways to increase social connection at work”, Sellwood, LinkedIn.com, July 2018.
  47. “Fostering social connection in the workplace”, Holt-Lunstad, American Journal of Health Promotion, June 2018.
  48. “A manager’s guide to helping teams face down uncertainty, burnout and perfectionism”, Fosslien, First Round Review, undated.
  49. 5 questions on the minds of hybrid managers,” Microsoft WorkLab, undated.
  50. “10 ways to connect people in your workplace”, Attfield, Jostle.com, undated.
  51. “5 ways to form real human connection at work”, Career Contessa, undated.
  52. “Traditional leadership is dying: Here’s what HR can do to help”,C. Tanner white paper, undated.

 

Heather Gilmartin Adams

Heather is a senior consultant at RedThread Research. Trained in conflict resolution and organizational development, Heather has spent the past ten years in various capacities at organizational culture and mindset change consultancies as well as the U.S. Department of the Treasury. She holds a masters degree in international affairs from Columbia University and a bachelors degree in history from Princeton University. She has lived in Germany, China, Japan, and India and was, for one summer, a wrangler on a dude ranch in Colorado.

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