Hybrid working has made physical proximity increasingly rare, both to colleagues and to the office as a symbol of organizational values. A sense of connection is no longer obvious. Moreover, the fulfilment of a need for connection is different for everyone, it’s not universal, making it harder to get a grip on it. And what’s more, forging deep connections with every single employee is often a utopia. Does this mean you should stop trying? Definitely not. It takes hard work, with lots of searching and continuous adjustments, but the right efforts will result in motivated and engaged employees. We'd like to give some guidance and share best practices.
In April 2021, 84% of employers and around half of employees indicated that the pandemic was adversely affecting the social aspects of work (study on Covid impact on human capital in organizations by the Antwerp Management School and UGent). In other words, people in a hybrid working environment miss the interactions and connection with their colleagues and the organization.
Yet, self-determination theory suggests that work motivation and growth depend on a sense of connection, along with autonomy and competence. When the need for connection is fulfilled, employees have more trust in their colleagues, managers and organization. This creates a positive, safe working space. People feel valued and are more willing to call on others for practical or emotional support.
Strengthening people’s sense of connection is important, but how do you realize this in a hybrid context? General guidelines are a challenge, as nearly every individual in an organization has different needs for personal connection. Some feel connected when they can collaborate in person, others need repeated confirmation of their DNA match with the organization, and others value a good relationship with their manager. All ways to connect are equally valuable, and all require their own unique approach. For example, facilitating physical collaboration is mainly a practical matter, requiring investment in the right technology.
You should also be aware that for some people, connection is never important, and you should also respect this personal preference. It’s not worth wasting resources trying to reach that final 2%. Don’t let a minority impact the success of connection you do realize. Instead, be more flexible. For example, create both mandatory and voluntary connection-building initiatives.
Your current challenge is to cope with this wide range of different needs. As an organization, you should use multiple tracks, responding to as many employees’ individual needs as possible. Offer something on every level: both physical and mental connectedness, within teams and within your organization as a whole. A persona-based approach can be useful here. And don’t forget your own leadership role – it’s an important lever to embed your vision in your company culture.
Don’t just assume you know what your employees need. Instead, investigate their needs with a representative work group or launch a short survey for the entire organization. Involving your employees in this way helps them feel heard, and by doing so you also foster a sense of connection. Give teams the freedom to make their own arrangements, as long as they are in line with the organization’s culture and goals.