How Leaders And Employees Can Close The Connection Gap In The Post-Pandemic Workplace

Imagine a stranger walks up to you at a train station and asks for $ 100. In another scenario, a colleague at your company walks up to you at the train station and asks for $ 100. Your mind is on overdrive assessing the request’s authenticity, the individual, and the environment. Who is more likely to get the $ 100, the stranger or your colleague? 90% of the audience I ask this question always go with the colleague at their company. Why? There is higher accountability and trust with a co-worker than with a stranger. From the audience’s response, the exercise concludes that people are unlikely to place big bets on strangers.

You were probably taught as a child to be wary of talking to strangers. This mindset continued until adulthood. As a result, you presumed strangers were guilty until proven innocent. What’s the implication of being a stranger, especially in the post-pandemic workplace? If your stakeholders perceive you as a stranger, they would be cautious and reluctant to place big bets on you. If your stakeholders are strangers to you, it would be difficult to be your authentic self and speak up. Why? A crucial component of feeling safe is predictability. According to Amy Edmonson, author of “teaming,” the absence of psychological safety in a relationship or environment can foster negative feelings such as anxiety, fear, frustration, and anger. These negative feelings drain your energy and impact your performance, productivity, and ultimately the speed of innovation. If the stranger status doesn’t change over time within an organization, you go from doubting yourself to blaming the system to resenting the people you work with to quitting.

Many employees who joined the workforce or changed jobs during the pandemic haven’t met their colleagues or managers. Think about its impact on these individuals, their teams, and organizations. Research in positive psychology suggests that social relationships are the most critical predictor of wellbeing. The Microsoft Work Trend Index report showed that the top reason employees quit in 2021 was personal wellbeing. How is the post-pandemic environment affecting employee wellbeing? During the pandemic, the prolonged social distancing and working remotely resulted in emotional detachments. We lost the power of touch; handshakes, hugs, and a pat on the back make us feel connected physically and emotionally and boost our wellbeing.

During a recent webinar I facilitated, an engineer said, “I am afraid to ask questions of my team because I feel like a stranger, and I don’t want people to judge my knowledge ability.” Another said, “I am not good with networking, so I feel alone and lonely not having stronger relationships with my teammates. The excuse for meeting at the office is no longer there. I want to feel safe and learn from them, but I don ‘t know how. ” A 25-year-old veteran said, “In this environment, I feel like a stranger, and I have to keep reasserting my value, and it’s exhausting.”

Collaboration drives innovation, but with more people detached from their teams and organizations, it is harder to build trust — the relationships and networks required to translate innovative ideas into services and products. The connection gap experienced by employees in the post-pandemic workplace is no longer a personal issue; it is an organizational health challenge. People underestimated the power of small talk in building goodwill and getting things done before the pandemic. Post-pandemic, the absence of spontaneous interactions by the water cooler, cafeteria, hallways, parking lots, and cubicles have widened the connection gap.

It takes intentionality to build relationships, especially in a post-pandemic hybrid environment. So it is incumbent on leaders to be visible and act as catalysts in fostering cultures where everyone can bring their whole selves, deepen relationships, and do their best work.

What can employees do to transition from being strangers?

  1. Be present: Rosalie Maggio, the author of “The Art of Talking To Anyone,” says, “choose to be there.” If you hate being someplace or secretly have preconceptions about a person, your attitude will reflect that emotion. Have an open mind toward the people you want to establish a connection with, and remain true to yourself.
  2. Do not take it personally: It’s not about you, and don’t make it about you. It’s human to be cautious towards strangers. Dale Carnegie, author of “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” said, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
  3. Get insurance: You get a car or home insurance before you need it. Similarly, think for the long-term and create a list of people and stakeholders you need to build relationships within your organization. Just as you call the insurance company to sign up, you should reach out to them.
  4. Establish common ground: It is tempting to unload your accomplishments and experiences on the other person to build familiarity. According to John Maxwell, a leadership guru, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Show you care by seeking first to understand than to be understood.
  5. Become a community builder: If you feel isolated at work, other people are probably feeling the same way. Take the initiative to bring people together via team lunches, hikes, volunteering, or happy hours. You will add value by bringing the team together and demonstrating your leadership skills.
  6. Pass the airport test: If you are stuck with a colleague at the airport for a long time, will it be a memorable experience? Interactions build or erode trust. You must be comfortable opening yourself up so that other people feel comfortable with you. Ensure that every encounter you have with a stakeholder is memorable. Remember, all things being equal, people prefer to work with people they like.

What can leaders do to bridge the connection gap?

  1. Purpose is the new paycheck: Connect employees to the bigger picture by emphasizing the difference your company is making to improve lives and society. Also, help employees connect their passions and purpose to the organization’s purpose.
  2. Leverage your organization’s secret weapon: People do not leave companies; they leave their managers. Managers play a vital role in shaping and determining employee experience. So, ensure managers are co-creators and co-owners when designing spaces, systems, tools, and processes that enhance employee experiences.
  3. Humanize your workplace: A Gallup poll asked, “Do you have a best friend at work?” The results showed that employees want more from their jobs than just a paycheck — friendships increase productivity and engagement. Also, according to the World Happiness Report, “social capital” is a predictor of happiness inside and outside work. To humanize the workplace, leaders must create platforms and cultures where employees can connect and talk about things other than work.
  4. Be visible and accessible: Leadership is a competitive advantage in today’s environment. Employees want to work for organizations and leaders they can trust. Build trust by calling new hires when they join the company and treat your employees like you would a customer.
  5. Ask for feedback: There is no silver bullet to address the employee connection gap. So seek regular feedback to understand the employee perspective and deploy your learnings into your designs and solutions.

Closing:

We live in a world where technology connects billions of devices and makes our lives easier. Unfortunately, it is not helping us connect better on a personal level. Research and employee feedback show that the future of work is hybrid. Though the world is still at the early stages of the post-pandemic workplace, the side effects are palpable; isolation, connection gaps, and trust issues. Organizational leaders, designers, and employee experience experts must make creating “meaningful connections” one of the design criteria to close the connection gap and make the post-pandemic workplace successful.

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