Resources and insights

Ask this one question to create meaningful connection

“Another way to think of the Great Resignation is as the ‘Great Disconnection.’”

Adam Smiley Poswolsky

As we emerge from the pandemic and see a shift to flexible ‘work from anywhere’ policies, a huge 65% of workers feel less connected to their colleagues. Employee disconnection is one of the main drivers of attrition, costing companies in the U.S. up to $406 billion a year.

How can we start to address the level of turnover that businesses are currently experiencing? One way is to establish more opportunities for colleagues to build meaningful connections with one another – especially in a hybrid or remote working environment. A 2019 report by The Institute of Leadership and Management found that building close relationships with colleagues was the most important factor in determining job satisfaction by 77% of respondents. (By way of comparison, salary was eighth on the list.) 

People today are feeling more disconnected at work than ever – but this isn’t just the result of the pandemic. An EY survey conducted in 2019 found that over 40% of U.S. respondents reported feeling physically and emotionally isolated in the workplace. This group spanned generations, genders and ethnicities. It’s clear that many of us crave more connection with people we spend most of our waking time with (at work!)

A need for greater connection is even more prevalent now, as the shift to hybrid working has made relationships more transactional, with fewer opportunities to connect socially. “Getting to know each other” often feels low priority, but it becomes all the more important in virtual environments. Without consciously looking to create an emotional connection, detachment will creep in.

And the impact of this disconnection is huge, at a time when we need new thinking to tackle the major challenges we’re collectively facing. The same EY survey showed that employees who felt more disconnected from colleagues 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.

A sense of meaningful connection is what enables high performance

Connection – a high-quality interaction, defined by trust, active listening, and a sense of psychological safety – is critical to building high-performance, impactful teams. Connected teams collaborate more, engage in positive working relationships, and promote knowledge-sharing. 

But connection is not simply making a little time to shoot the breeze or break the ice. ‘Banter’ is not (necessarily) connection. In fact, it’s often not even asking “How are you?” or remembering to inquire after their family.  And connection definitely doesn’t mean forcing team members to act a particular way, or asking them to bend to one idea of connectedness. 

Authentic connection requires intentionally creating time and space to have conversations that go beyond small talk. Research shows that high-performing team members are significantly more likely to spend time discussing “non-work” matters with their colleagues – in fact, 25% more. They invest time connecting in genuine ways, which results in closer friendships and better teamwork later on.

Play is the most natural way that we connect as humans

Play means different things to different people, but whatever shape it takes, it’s what sparks joy. What brings a smile to our face. What gets us into a state of flow where we lose track of time. Play is what makes us who we are. We’ve seen time and again in our work at Playfilled that simply creating space to ask someone ‘How do you like to play?’ is a powerful shortcut to building meaningful and authentic relationships.

Research by Dr Matt Statler at New York University Stern School of Business, Dr Johan Roos Hult at the International Business School and Bart Victor at Vanderbilt University found that regularly engaging in playful activities in teams can develop their capacity to share a collective identity. The evidence shows that when employees see themselves as part of a greater whole – or as a community – it leads to better performance, innovation and efficiency. According to Dr Ronit Kark, Professor of Leadership and Organisational Psychology at Bar-llan University, having this sense of workplace community helps individuals build bridges across differences and increases cohesion among individuals from different backgrounds. 

Team connection isn’t for everyone, and that’s OK

Not everyone needs or wants connection in the workplace; or if they do, it’s to varying degrees. And that’s entirely reasonable! Connection can’t (and shouldn’t) be forced upon anyone. But we can use the idea of play to learn about what connects us in a team, and then build on those connections organically over time.

How might you ask open-ended follow-up questions which invite people to share what’s going on beyond work? Learn about their backgrounds and perspectives? Encourage your team to open up more by being transparent yourself. Discuss your interests, and tell stories about your life. That should be enough to make people feel more at ease and get to know each other’s talents and personalities.

Whilst you don’t need to know every aspect of their lives (and you shouldn’t), understanding what sparks joy for your team is a powerful and much easier way to ask meaningful questions about how they are doing. This will go a long way in feeling emotionally connected as humans – even without seeing each other frequently in the office.

A team that plays together stays together. But do you know how you all like to play?

PS: If we’ve piqued your curiosity, take a look at TeamConnector. It’s designed to deepen team connection in an inclusive and playful way, virtually or in-person, in just 3 weeks (all for the price of a team lunch).

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