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Why it’s so important for organizations to rebuild connections at work

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Stacia Garr and Priyanka Mehrotra
Stacia Garr is co-founder and Priyanka Mehrotra, is senior analyst at RedThread Research.

Connections are crucial for performance in the workplace. Our recent research revealed that, when managers have more connection with their employees (which we define as a combination of frequent conversations and check-ins), plus a strong culture and high levels of manager capability, organizations are more likely to experience a positive impact on critical business and talent outcomes. (Figure 1)

Figure 1: Impact of connection, culture, and capability of managers on individual & organizational outcomes | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Connections also impact employee engagement, personal goal attainment and professional growth 

So, how are organizations building connections? Which practices are they relying on to drive relationships and impact employee performance and engagement?  

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To answer these questions and more, we at RedThread Research recently launched a survey (please take it—anyone can!—and we will donate $20 to the American Red Cross when you do) to understand the practices that drive performance and, specifically, the role of connection.

Why is connection important? 
Physical and social isolation, precipitated by the pandemic, along with the social and political upheaval of the recent past, have left many feeling disconnected and isolated. The workplace was impacted just as much as the personal space. Connections among people in the workspace weakened as employees’ networks shrank during the pandemic. Employees are feeling less connected and isolated from their colleagues and organizations than ever before.

The impact of this is visible to us. Burnout rates are high while employee engagement is declining. According to recent research by Deloitte, not just employees but leaders too are looking to switch jobs for places that value their wellbeing.

This is where connections come in. They impact:

  • Performance management. Our research found that connection has become a critical component of performance management since the pandemic started. It impacts employee perceptions of manager effectiveness. For example, the study found that employees with high levels of connections were more likely to report that their managers as highly effective. 
  • Bias and discrimination. Developing stronger connections can also level the playing field in a hybrid environment. Employees in the office may have access to more opportunities, while remote workers may feel left out. Proximity or similarity bias can potentially negatively impact remote workers’ performance and experience, while influencing reviews and feedback conversations between managers and employees. Building connections can help prevent some of these biases from creeping in. 
  • Collaboration and innovation. Employee networks impact a team’s ability to share ideas, communicate and innovate. Bridging connections (connections built across groups) are required for collaboration and innovation. However, during the pandemic, these connections deteriorated in the virtual work environment. Organizations need to be intentional about rebuilding these connections to drive growth.
  • Purpose. People seek purpose in their work. If they don’t feel like their job is fulfilling, they will likely be disengaged or seek employment elsewhere. Connection to their work and understanding the impact they create in the workplace can feed employees’ need to do purposeful work. It can help them understand the context—why they do what they do—and build a sense of community.  

How can organizations help foster connections? 
Organizations can no longer rely on managers to take their own approach to building and maintaining relationships. They must be intentional about establishing systems and an environment that drives community and network building and that emphasizes deep, meaningful relationships.  

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Connection building should not be limited to specific events or collaboration sessions. Instead, it should be embedded in the workflow and as part of talent management practices such as giving feedback, career conversations, informal check-ins, coaching, etc.

One of the primary ways we see leaders build a connection with their employees is through check-ins. Our research shows that daily check-ins increased by 8% from 2019 to 2021, while monthly, structured conversations increased by 10% from 2019 to 2021 (Figure 2). 

Figure 2: Percentage increase in daily check-ins and monthly conversations from 2019 to 2021

There are a few reasons we believe this increase in connections happened:  

  • Organizations shifted to more continuous goal-setting approaches that required frequent conversations between managers and employees. 
  • Leaders feared that employees might feel cut off from the company culture—resulting in greater efforts to engage employees through frequent check-ins.
  • Managers lacked previous levels of visibility into an employee’s work in a remote work setting—resulting in managers speaking with their team on a more regular basis.
  • The informal means used before the pandemic to provide “in-the-moment” feedback to employees disappeared—leading managers to set more frequent conversations. 

While a step in the right direction, organizations can leverage several other existing opportunities and create new ones to build social capital. One of these is coaching conversations with managers, coaches and mentors. Our study on performance management trends in 2021 found that employees have fewer coaching conversations now than before the pandemic.  

Another way organizations can continue to emphasize connection building is by giving employees the insights to understand their own networks and capital and clarifying expectations. Our data showed that in 2021 almost 50% of organizations provided employees clarity on what they need to do to succeed in the future, compared to 37% in 2019.

We will update our study with new data collected from the survey, which will be open until Aug. 29. For every response collected, we will donate $20 to the American Red Cross’ Disaster Relief Fund. We look forward to your insights and contributions to the study.