What Workplace Connection Really Means - and Why It Matters

Fawzy Abu Seif
Co-founder and CEO
September 7, 2022

In the nineties, Gallup introduced a survey to measure employee engagement and its impact on business outcomes.  One question raised eyebrows: do you have a best friend at work? 

According to Gallup, when people have a best friend at work, they’re more engaged in their jobs.  The data points to: 

  • Increased productivity
  • Happier customers
  • Fewer workplace accidents
  • Higher profits

Over the next thirty years, HR and People Ops experts embraced the idea that there’s a concrete link between the amount of effort employees expend on the job and whether or not they have a “work best friend.” 

With the seismic shift towards remote and hybrid working, the conversation around the value of “work besties” bled from HR and PeopleOps discussion boards into the mainstream.  Even the New York Times bemoaned the loss of the best friend at work for those early in their careers.  

Yes: a close, deep work friendship can powerfully impact retention and fulfillment at work. 

But when the conversation stops at a best friend, we miss the broader story of why even “looser” workplace connection matters.  As a recent BetterUp study showed: 

  • Employees need five friendly co-workers at work to feel connected, and around seven friendly coworkers to feel they belong.  
  • Workers who have more friends are 32% more likely to engage, are 20% more likely to collaborate, and are 32% more innovative.  
  • Employees who are less connected in the workplace are 73% less engaged than their highly connected peers

Why Do Broad Social Networks Matter?

It’s clear that a lack of connection harms performance, collaboration and creativity.  But why?  Research from Wharton Business School  and the Harvard Business Review points to three reasons: 

  1. Alienation: when employees feel lonely, they’re ‘alienated’ or less emotionally connected to their company and its success.  If you care less about the company and your colleagues, why would you go ‘above and beyond’ to produce great work? 
  2. Left Out of the Loop: Employees with few social connections at work miss out on feedback that could improve their performance, or on important information that’s often passed through informal channels. 
  3. Cynicism: without connection, it’s hard to build trust, and this can breed cynicism.  This raises the “transaction costs” between employees, so they’re less willing to share information, which means they don’t collaborate effectively.  The result? Productivity and creativity decrease. 

Let’s put this in real terms.  Imagine, for instance, a Customer Success Manager who was hired remotely and whose only work interactions are with members of the Customer Success team.  She feels like ‘no one knows me here,’ and because she’s relatively isolated, she doesn’t have access to the informal flows of information that would help her succeed.  This disconnection makes it hard to do great work, and makes it easy to look for the next opportunity.  There’s no one making her feel she’ll be missed if she leaves.  She feels like she’s interchangeable to the company, and so the company feels interchangeable to her.  

The Connection Crisis Is Especially Bad on Remote and Hybrid Teams

Remote and hybrid employees experience a profound lack of connection when compared to their in-office peers.   Even though remote work doubles the number of meetings on average, the increase in communication volume hasn’t led to an increase in feelings of connectedness. 

Remote workers are 71% less likely to have spontaneous interactions.  And if remote workers actually exert the same level of effort to create connections as their in-person colleagues, their networks are 36% smaller, according to BetterUp. 

It’s no surprise: relationships are a byproduct of working in the same physical space.  When we were in the office, we shared stories about our dogs, our weekends, families, and more.  With these stories, we sparked connections at the coffee bar or happy hour.  

With the move to remote work, those informal social spark plugs disappeared. That’s why companies need a dedicated virtual space where employees can build relationships and feel they belong. At Spokn, we call this a “Remote Culture HQ”. If you’d like to learn more about how Spokn can help your employees build social connections, give us a shout.

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