Human connection – creating belonging through meaningful relationships

In recent years we’ve seen the word “belonging” force its way in to an already crowded diversity agenda, but in reality we are no further forward in creating inclusive workplaces where people have connection.


Gallup’s latest State of the Global Workplace reports that 60% of people are emotionally detached from work.


As organizations with (what we used to call) office workers wrestle with their new hybrid plans and try to get people back to the office, it’s time to provide an unequivocal answer to the burning question.


Why do I need to return to the office?


As a self-confessed fan of alliteration, I have seen many responses to this question being thrown around including culture, collaboration, career development, coaching and celebration.


My experience is that another C (the CEO) is perhaps the biggest driver for the return to the office. Often armed with incorrect facts about a decline in productivity and the loudest voice, their bias is having a significant, if somewhat, unsatisfactory impact.


The more compelling answer lies in another C-word – connection.


As legendary Greek philosopher Aristotle (almost) said, “[We are] by nature a social animal”.


At a time when we have been restricted to 2D, half-body, virtual experiences, our brains (and our souls) are craving meaningful social connection.


The impact of Zoom fatigue is real


We have all experienced Zoom fatigue where at the end of an hour-long meeting, you feel like you’ve done a mountain stage in the Tour de France. Columnist and author Arthur C. Brooks has an interesting take on virtual connection.


“When it comes to human interaction, [Zoom] is like junk food: filling and convenient, but no substitute for a healthy diet.” Arthur C. Brooks


He goes on to sight research that explains the limitations of videoconferencing. It does in fact impact our brains by deadening the mirror neurons that help us connect with others, and by confusing our internal GPS that we use to code our location. Yes, that’s why so many people appear confused on Zoom calls – it’s nothing to do with your unique presentation style…!


Although virtual interactions have an important part to play, we need to accept their limitations and shed more light on the power of human connection.


The case for human connection


Prince Harry’s employer, BetterUp has a solid definition of human connection.


Human connection is a deep bond that’s formed between people when they feel seen and valued. During an authentic human connection, people exchange positive energy with one another and build trust.



Similarly, Simon Sinek’s perspective is that human connection helps build trust through those important “in-between” moments when you’re on the way to a meeting or in a lift.


And let’s not forget the other great thinker, Abraham Maslow who identified through his pyramid, our need for love and belonging.


The evidence to support building a connection is strong.


There is a strong case for it being good for our health. Harry’s friends at BetterUp report that:


Human connection also decreases health risks and improves physical well-being and longevity. Strong social connections strengthen the immune system and increase your chances of a longer life by 50%.


In addition, a recent report from The HOW Institute for Society dedicated to human connection identified that the folks who have been able to build stronger relationships reported to be nearly twice as productive as those who had not deepened their relationships.

And if you need any more convincing, Bruce Daisley will report in his upcoming book Fortitude, that human connection is the way to build resilience as evidenced in this interesting report from the health sector.


Answering the why


So how can organizations use the power of human connection as part of their return to office strategy?


Take an activity-based approach to identify meaningful opportunities to connect


Despite the confidence of those aforementioned CEOs, many companies still appear to be hesitant in setting any sort of expectation around days in the office fearful of a mass exodus of precious talent who value their flexibility. Mandates are blunt tools, so a more appropriate approach is to identify those activities that benefit from human connection and are therefore best done in the office – and then to stand by your convictions.


The process of identifying those moments that matter is a very individual one based on your specific way of doing things, but typical activities could include:

  • Any meeting longer than an hour particularly those meetings that Seth Godin refers to as discussion and permission meetings;
  • One to ones with team members where you are providing coaching and mentoring or onboarding a new colleague;
  • Opportunities to celebrate big wins, milestones and other achievements.


Develop human-centric leaders


Human-centric leaders find a natural way of making a connection with people. How we connect matters more than how often we connect with vulnerability and authenticity going a long way to building sustainable relationships.


Team members who know more about their leaders’ nonwork life, for example, report that they are more likely to perform to a high level.


These leaders also encourage a broader connection between team members. This is illustrated by the often cynically viewed Gallup Q12 engagement question “I have a best friend at work” that does predict performance.

Globally, three in 10 employees strongly agree that they have a best friend at work. By moving that ratio to six in 10, organizations could realize 28% fewer safety incidents, 5% higher customer engagement scores and 10% higher profit.


A recent NYT article indicated that the number of people who had a best friend at work had dropped from 22% to 18%.


Build everyone’s attunement skills


Like you, I have some friends who are still not comfortable being in crowds and will not be travelling any time soon, and others who have very much jumped back into the “before-times”. It’s clear that the impact of the last two years has been very individual, and therefore the final suggestion is to support everyone in (re)building their social skills.


Psychologists and authors Edward S. Brodkin and Ashley A. Pallathra outline in their book Missing Each Other and in this related HBR article the value of building attunement:


“Attunement is the ability to be aware of your own state of mind and body while tuning in and connecting to another person. It’s the ability to be “in tune” and “in sync” with both your own feelings and others’ feelings over the course of the sometimes unpredictable twists and turns of an interaction.”


They recommend a four-step process:


  1. Take time to prepare your nervous system through relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises;
  2. Listen to the other person and yourself by paying attention to body language and checking in on your own feelings;
  3. Practice empathy by trying to understand the other person’s situation;
  4. Stay curious.


The power of human connection


Some have described the return to office as “The Great Resistance” as frustrated employees dig in their heels and ignore their leaders’ hollow requests to don office attire and battle the commute. I fear if left to linger, this will result in those previously mentioned mandates being implemented and that would represent a significant step backwards at a time when we’re looking to empower people and move towards a more balanced future.


The case for human connection is strong and one that most people will find compelling. Using it to anchor your key messages will help ensure a smooth transition and create a more kind and compassionate place to work.


Mark Edgar

Mark Edgar – a recovering CHRO and Founder of Goat Rodeo Project, a consulting firm designed to help you predict and avoid train wrecks. For the avoidance of doubt, we’re in a goat rodeo. Follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter for more HR-related ramblings. It would be great to catch-up.