06 September 2022

Enabling connection at work: What can organizations do?

Heather Gilmartin Adams
Research Lead

TL;DR

  • We convened a roundtable to discuss how organizations can enable connection in the workplace
  • Individuals and leaders both have responsibility for fostering connection
  • Leaders have an outsized impact as role models
  • Organizational systems must support and enable connection

In September 2022, we convened a roundtable for leaders to discuss how organizations can more effectively enable connection in the workplace. This session was part of our research into connection at work.

Thank you to all who participated, shared their experiences, and learned from one another.

Why is connection important?

To frame the conversation, we discussed why connection is important—both personally for roundtable participants and for their organizations. Participants commented that connection is:

  • Personally fulfilling
  • A deciding factor when joining an organization
  • Essential for productivity, team effectiveness, innovation, and wellbeing
  • Important for strengthening culture in a hybrid environment; at the core of creating a powerful culture
  • Key to learning and trust

Participants noted that loss of connection isn’t purely a pandemic problem—loneliness, disconnection, and isolation were on the rise before 2020. Rather, the pandemic exacerbated an existing trend. And as one participant put it, leaders in this roundtable were “in violent agreement” that strengthening connection in the workplace is now one of the most important challenges facing many organizations today.

This roundtable aimed to help leaders answer the question: How can organizations most effectively enable connection?

To answer this question, we discussed the roles that systems, leaders, individuals, tech, and data might play in enabling connection:

  • Systems. How can existing systems and processes be used to foster connection in an organization?
  • Leaders. What’s the role of senior leaders and managers in building connection? How can organizations support them in this effort?
  • Individuals. What’s the role of individuals in fostering connection in the workplace? How can organizations support individuals in this effort?
  • Tech & data. How can technology and data be used to foster connection in the workplace?

Key takeaways

The roundtable generated a number of insights we thought worth highlighting. Here are our top 4 takeaways.

Individuals have a responsibility to build connection

Some participants latched onto the idea that individuals have a responsibility to connect. They emphasized that this responsibility is noteworthy because, in their experience, individuals sometimes rely on others to do the connecting. One participant noted:

“One of the things that’s striking to me is that we’re saying, individuals have a responsibility.”

Another agreed:

“Reminding individuals that they actually DO have a responsibility for building connections as well, not relying on others to only connect with you.”

Participants discussed how organizations can support and enable employees in fulfilling this responsibility. The conversation turned to tools and processes that might be used to help employees connect. For example, one participant described the Accountability Partnership Maps they use in their organization to help employees understand whom to connect with:

“You put yourself in the center, and then put different roles around you. Then you ask yourself: Who do I need to connect with to be successful in my job? Which are the most important connections? Then you color code those relationships, red / yellow / green, in terms of how strong the relationship is.”

Participants noted that tools like the Accountability Partnership Map help employees understand where to focus their limited time to build connections that will help them be successful in their roles and careers.

Connection must be embedded in what’s already happening

Participants emphasized the fact that although most people agree connection is important, they’re also overwhelmed by all that’s already on their plates. Making connection one more thing they have to do is unhelpful and, frankly, unlikely to get the results that leaders or employees might hope for.

So, instead of making connection an extra program or task that managers and employees are asked to complete, some participants are embedding connection opportunities into existing processes like onboarding, career planning, and manager support resources.

Other participants have seen success making networking more intentional by associating trainings with buddy programs, peer mentoring, or actual mentoring and coaching.

Participants also noted that organizations should implement processes that encourage connection, but at least some of these must make space for organic, informal connections. Connections can’t all be formal, and they certainly shouldn’t feel forced. As one participant wrote:

“The moment [connection] is forced, it drives disconnection.”

Finally, participants pointed out that connection opportunities should happen inside whatever technologies employees are already working in—not in separate systems.

Leaders set the tone

If individuals have a responsibility to connect, leaders have an outsized influence on whether and how connection happens in an organization. The ways that leaders connect with each other and with their reports will trickle down to the rest of the organization—behaviors cascade down.

Leaders, therefore, have a responsibility to role model connection. They set the stage and expectations for how others connect. One participant wrote that leaders can:

“Create space for connection, model connection, invest in experiences and opportunities,  encourage connection in creative ways, understand the importance of and build in every day micro-moments to create opportunities, understand that connection looks different for different people.”

Some participants noted that in order to role model and set the tone in the right way, leaders need to feel connected themselves.

Others pointed out that although these behaviors may come naturally to some leaders, others need practice and support—and might be embarrassed or afraid to ask for help. Organizations can support leaders in role modeling expected behaviors by providing tools, best practices, and guidance. Guidance might look like:

  • Talk tracks for 1 to 1 conversations with reports
  • Regular nudges on why it’s important for managers to connect
  • Recognition of leaders who role model connection
  • Senior leaders telling stories about how they build connection, when they’ve made mistakes around connection and what they learned
  • Helping leaders understand the biases they may have about whom to connect with and how to connect with different types of people
  • Providing tools and tech that make it easy to connect, especially remotely

Participants noted that in order for leaders to forge relationships, they need time:

“You can't microwave a relationship – it takes time.”

Participants noted that leaders must be given permission, support, and time to build meaningful connections.

Connection shouldn’t be left to chance

Participants discussed the fact that pre-pandemic, many connections were developed organically. Relationship-building chats could happen in the break room, at the water cooler, in the hallway, or just before or after meetings.

Now, participants claimed, organic opportunities for connection are much rarer. So they must be intentionally built into the ways people work these days. One participant wrote in the chat:

“In remote work, individuals need to be far more intentional about pursuing connection.  It used to occur more passively / organically, but I'm seeing less of that now.”

Some participants suggested that tech and data can be used to enable connection more intentionally. Perhaps most obviously, tech enables asynchronous communication and collaboration, which helps with some kinds of connection. One participant shared the example that in their organization, some employees are using virtual coworking spaces, where people are working together but aren’t located in the same place. This can create a sense of connection and community while enabling people to work remotely.

As another example, tech can match employees for any number of things—coffee chats, mentoring, projects / gigs, etc.—at a scale that would be difficult to manage manually.

Others in the discussion noted that having data about who’s engaged, who’s connected with whom, how healthy teams are, and so on can help leaders be targeted in their efforts to enable people to connect.

We were grateful for the open and vulnerable discussion during this roundtable. We welcome your suggestions, thoughts, and feedback at [email protected]

 

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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