Creating a Culture of Belonging: 7 Practical Ways to Build Human Connection in your Workplace

Posted in Best Practice Thoughts & Culture

Loneliness – once the sole domain of angst-ridden songs and moody poems – has become a major global crisis. 

It's worse for your physical health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, as the much-quoted statistic goes. And terrible for your mental health too, increasing your risk of depression, dementia, cognitive decline and suicide.

In our last blog we exposed the growing loneliness epidemic and now we're continuing our quest to banish workplace loneliness with seven practical ways to help your people feel more connected.


The Importance of Human Connection in the Workplace

The fact is, we spend more than half our waking hours in the workplace – but 37% of us admit feeling lonely at work. And paired with the dramatic global increase in single occupancy households, work might be many people's only social interaction.

That's a big deal, not just for lonely individuals but for the business' bottom line:

Let's talk figures. If your people feel lonely, they're more likely to get sick. Unplanned absence costs an average $587 per employee per absence day. That adds up fast, and has a knock-on impact on team productivity.

It's little wonder productivity is plummeting worldwide.

Lonely employees are twice as likely to look for a new job in the next year.

Turnover costs 0.5 to 2 times annual salary – and it'll be significantly more if turnover snowballs, and becomes an employer brand issue.

The best sales associate at Nordstrom brings in 8x more revenue than the average sales associate at competing stores. Apple's best developer is 9x more productive than average. The best transplant surgeon has 6x better success rate than average. But the best won't join a sinking ship. How do you quantify that?

The fact is, loneliness isn't just a moral problem. It's an expensive one. HR needs to take action.


What Can your Business do to Encourage Connection?

Here's how to set it up.

1 – Reduce the Stigma Around Loneliness 

Many people feel ashamed about feeling lonely, but a culture of silence contributes to a culture of loneliness.

Talking openly about problems is the hallmark of emotional intimacy, which is the cornerstone of connection.

Set an example – encourage senior leaders with personal experience of loneliness to speak out. Make loneliness a must-address topic in performance reviews and HR check-ins. Train managers on how to spot the signs of someone struggling and support them.

E&Y's 'r u OK?' initiative is a great example of removing the stigma around mental health issues. The 12-month program included an extensive roster of e-learning sessions to train everyone to better recognise and help people who are struggling, plus local events hosted by office managing partners sharing authentic personal stories about mental health. E&Y say the response was 'tremendous'.



2 – Prioritize Connection from Onboarding Onwards

As we've said before, onboarding shouldn't focus purely on functional tasks like signing documents, assigning logins and on-the-job training.

Social onboarding helps new hires embed into your workplace and form meaningful connections. (Good news, seeing as 57% of people feel happier if they've got a best friend at work and 24% feel more productive).

Walking new hires around the office and drowning them in names isn't the best way. Instead, help them form deeper relationships little and often. A mentor or buddy program is a great start, and also consider rotating new hires through different teams and encouraging cross-department collaborative projects.


3 – Create Diverse Opportunities for Social Interaction

Socialisation isn't a one-off onboarding task.

HR should create ongoing opportunities for social interaction, within established groups and with new people.  That way, employees have constant new opportunities to form connections – they never get into a connection rut.

Changing the context away from work can help everyone interact on new terms, in new ways. Don't over-rely on one type of activity or you'll risk consistently alienating the same people if they can't or don't want to attend.

Be mindful to encourage connection between new groups. If you only ever do team nights out, for example, employees have fewer options to form new connections.



4 – Increase Collaborative Working

Social events are great because they allow employees to connect naturally in their preferred groups. But, they might not be ideal for employees who are socially shy or already feel disconnected or excluded. Even the most welcoming groups of colleagues can feel unintentionally cliquey.

Give everyone the chance to shine by creating working situations where collaborations happen in different ways, with new people. For example, encourage employees to work in new teams or collaborate on cross-company projects and initiatives.

Plus, collaboration is good for business! Research shows companies that promote collaborative working are five times more likely to be high performing.


5 – Prioritize Diversity

Traditionally marginalized groups are more susceptible to loneliness because they're more likely to feel alienated or discriminated against.

For example, if your whole leadership team is male except for your female CMO, she could feel isolated within her own team. Likewise, your trans sales manager or your wheelchair-using receptionist.

Focus on how you recruit, support and promote people from diverse backgrounds. Nobody wants to be the only one.

And while increasing diversity is a work-in-progress, ensure under-represented groups are over-supported.



6 – Include Remote and Non-Traditional Workers

There's a lot to love about the 'alternative workforce' but it can make creating an inclusive environment challenging. There is a lot of potential for people to feel unintentionally excluded. Small things, like always missing Jeff's homemade cookies on Fridays because you work from home, can add-up to feeling like you aren't part of the team.

That's not to say you have to crack down on Jeff's cookies. But it's about looking at the bigger picture.

Are your freelancers, remote workers and flexi-timers consistently being excluded in some ways? Do you ever ask remote workers to lead meetings, or do they just dial-in and dial-out? Do you invite your long-term freelancers to company parties?

There are few better examples than Ultra Testing –  a quality-assurance software-testing company based in New York. Ultra Testing is special because they actively recruit a neuro-diverse workforce – 75% of their workforce have Aspergers syndrome.

Many of these workers have the perfect skills – like precision, logic, pattern recognition – for Ultra, but the entire team works from home, which can drive social isolation and loneliness. Ultra rely on Slack to create an inclusive, engaged workplace despite their remoteness.


7 – Invite Employee Ownership

Encouraging connection shouldn't just be HR's responsibility. HR can lead the charge but the workforce are the troops. Don't dictate – invite participation and encourage employees to take ownership.

Barclay's 'This is me' campaign shows how well this can work, seeing hundreds of employees across the business share their personal stories of mental health by video or online. Barclays say the response was exceptional, improving trust and engagement, disability disclosure rates and retention.

Start an employee-led 'connection community', with the freedom to implement new ideas from the ground up. Introduce an anonymous feedback box where employees can suggest ideas or raise issues. Recognise and reward employees who go the extra mile to help one another.


The Main Takeaway

Look around – one in two people you see feel lonely at least once a week. That's awful.

But here's the thing. Loneliness rarely happens out of malice. Barring overt bullying, lack of connection happens unintentionally. It's a series of small, inconspicuous moments that add up.

That's actually great news because it means change is easily achievable! Raise awareness of loneliness, lead from the front with some targeted strategic initiatives encouraging connection, and you'll have a culture of belonging before you know it.

Building an inclusive culture starts from Day 1. Enboarder is the world's first experience-driven onboarding platform, helping you create a culture that unlocks the best from every employee, every time.

Here's how it works.