Kaleem Clarkson is the COO of Blend Me, Inc, a remote people operations consultancy that helps startups and small businesses transform into high-functioning remote or hybrid-remote workplaces. He has been featured in Harvard Business Review, and named LinkedIn’s Top 10 Voices in Remote Work. He is passionate about work-life integration and the remote employee experience. He originally published this piece here.
Employee connection is about more than an event photo on a company’s LinkedIn page. Sure, the smiling faces may convey that a good time was had by all, but true workplace connection is more than a single experience.
Emma Seppala, Ph.D. of Stanford Medicine writes that “social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional, and physical well-being.” People who feel more connected to others are more trusting and cooperative, and, in turn, receive more trust and cooperation.
Connectedness is a core, basic need for humans, and feeling disconnected in the workplace can lead to disengagement, isolation, and employee churn. Employees and the company alike will benefit from intentional efforts to promote social connection.
By intentional we mean a thoughtful plan that incorporates feedback from employees, is continuous, and seeks to improve over time. Without a dedicated effort, connections may wax and wane over time. Imagine a core group of employees that have benefitted from several connection-building activities, but a new cohort of employees that join six months later don’t have that same experience.
Consider forming an internal group that focuses on employee connectedness. This volunteer group (because social connection shouldn’t be mandated) should identify overall goals, make recommendations, plan events, and assess results.
1. Start Your Connection-Building Initiative
Your internal group should start with the most basic question. Why? Why is the company looking to improve social connections? The reasons will often drive the starting point for your next steps.
Your organization likely falls into one of these scenarios:
- You try to foster social connection now, but the efforts are haphazard.
- You recognize that your organization lacks social connectedness.
- Your organization is growing, and you worry that teams will become less connected.
The goals for your internal group will be different based on the why. An organization that has little social connection today will need to take a different path than one that is trying to improve existing efforts. The internal group should be very candid about its purpose and what it hopes to achieve.
Logistically, the group should also work out its own structure and organization. How will decisions be made and communicated? Are there any limits (budget, technology, etc.)? Will the group focus only on workplace connections, or will larger social and community events be considered? The group also needs support from the leadership team to ensure follow-through and the necessary resources.
Finally, think about the sustainability of your internal group. Inevitably, employees leave and take new jobs. Consider ongoing invitations to invite employees into the working group. Otherwise, you might find that your internal cheerleaders leave, and the initiative falls apart.
2. Collect Feedback from Employees
Your internal group may be brimming with ideas for creating social connections. However, their ideas don’t necessarily reflect the needs of your workforce overall.
Rather than make assumptions, ask employees what they want. But even eliciting feedback should happen in multiple forms, as not all employees may feel comfortable sharing in the same way. Here are a few ways to get started:
Employee Resource Groups: These voluntary, employee-led groups are based on common interests, backgrounds, or demographic factors such as gender identity, race, or ethnicity. These groups can provide insight into the populations they serve.
Open Forums: A dedicated forum may be organized with leadership at the helm or a representative from your internal group. Employees are given an opportunity in a live setting to ask questions and share feedback. You should also be open to critique of what isn’t working in a forum.
1:1 Check-Ins: This is the most personable and direct way to collect feedback. Managers can ask employees if they feel engaged with their teams and what the company could do to improve connection. Over the course of repeated, frequent check-ins, your managers will establish trust with their direct reports and feedback will become more valuable.
Surveys:Surveys are a powerful tool because of the data you collect. You can use responses to look at trends and make data-driven decisions. Keep your surveys brief and targeted so you’ll get a better response rate (no one wants to open a survey and see “Question 1 of 32”).
Ideally, you’ll use a mix of feedback collection methods since each gives you a unique perspective. Some people may feel more comfortable responding to a survey than responding in a forum, for example. But direct conversation may also elicit feedback that you didn’t think to ask in a survey.
And most importantly, the feedback should be ongoing. If you conduct a single survey and hold one forum, you are capturing only point-in-time feedback. You can’t measure the results of your efforts over time or respond to changing employee needs.
3. Make Recommendations Based on Results
From whatever collection method(s) you use, the information should not sit on the proverbial shelf. You have to do something with the results.
Your plans should include both short-term and long-term initiatives. Think about what you can accomplish in the next 30 days, six months, and one to two years.
At a minimum, you’ll likely be able to identify some low-hanging fruit or easy ways to establish connections between employees. It might be as simple as an additional Slack channel or forming a book group. It’s a place to start while you work on larger activities.
As you review the results, you’ll need to reflect on the diverse needs of your employees. Some may prefer small group activities, for example, while others may prefer large networking events.
And as you plan, think about events that are mandatory versus non-mandatory. Your goal should be to foster genuine connections, not forced connections. If you host a mandatory company offsite, it’s a way for people to interact in person — but not everyone thrives in that type of environment. It may not generate the social connections that you are looking to create.
Separate the events that are good for the company (such as a mandatory offsite) with events that are good for social connections (such as asynchronous activities or small employee-led groups).
4. Plan Activities Around Different Types of Connections
Professional networking and team-building exercises are obvious ways to build social connectedness in the workplace. However, the more opportunities provided, the greater chance that employees will find the right “fit” based on their own interaction preferences.
Your internal group should think of ways to foster connections across the entire organization and encourage managers/leaders to intentionally connect with employees. By creating a culture of connectedness, you’ll improve employee engagement and reduce the risks of loneliness and isolation at work.
Here are a few things your internal group can consider:
- Provide wellness rewards:
Promote healthy activities, provide discounts for fitness apps or stipends for gym memberships.
- Team grants for travel:
Give teams a travel budget so that they can meet up in different locations and experience tourist attractions.
- Provide resources for networking opportunities:
Promote conferences, meetups, or other networking events and offer stipends for memberships or cover registration costs.
- Fun days during a retreat:
Take a break during in-person retreats for a whole-day excursion or split your workdays in half allowing for a fun activity.
- C-suite house dinners:
Invite the team to the house of an executive, which can significantly boost employee engagement.
- Create a social calendar:
A calendar lets people plan ahead for voluntary events such as an escape room or group cooking class.
- Community involvement:
Find volunteer opportunities or raise money among teams to support charities or other worthy causes.
- Small Team Offsite Retreats:
Booking a team offsite in a small boutique hotel like citizenM, offers an intimate and modern setting that is perfect for small teams to connect.
Among remote teams, the opportunities should include both virtual and in-person events, as well as synchronous and asynchronous activities. You don’t want any employees to be excluded because of their geographical location or chosen working hours.
Lastly, consider including your clients in some of your activities! While your primary goal should always be your employees, it wouldn’t hurt to occasionally include your clients in networking or fun events. It will help your team feel more connected to the people that they’re serving and create stronger relationships between your clients and your company.
5. Continue to Develop Your Social Connection Strategy
No matter how big or small an event, your internal group will want to measure its effectiveness. You can use the same tactics to collect feedback, asking employees about the experience through surveys, 1:1 meetings, or forums.
Take the feedback and continue to iterate on your connection strategy. Did an event have overwhelmingly positive feedback? Great — host more like that! If the reviews were more mixed, decide if there are ways to change the format of the event or if the idea should be scrapped altogether.
Your strategy should also continue to evolve as you onboard new employees or as your organization continues to grow. What works today may not work next year, especially as teams get bigger or individual priorities for social connectedness change.
As much as possible, any planned activities should take place during the workday so that they don’t disrupt the employee’s work-life balance. You’ll send the message that social connection is an important part of company culture AND respect the space employees need for social interactions outside of work.