The Great Disconnection: A Chat with Smiley Poswolsky

Posted in Research Thoughts & Culture

Did you know disconnected employees cost companies $4,000 per employee per year? Lonely employees take double the amount of sick days, are about half as productive, and have lower quality work.

Best-selling author and speaker Adam “Smiley” Poswolsky says the “Great Resignation” is really about the “Great Disconnection” – and it’s a serious business problem. We recently sat down with Smiley to talk about the root cause of disconnection and how technology can drive belonging and meaningful moments.

Check out our full interview below.

First off, we have to know how you got the nickname “Smiley.”

The short story is that I smile a lot. I’ve had the nickname “Smiley” for 25 years, ever since freshman year of high school. It was a nickname given to me by my high school cross-country team because I used to smile during all our workouts. Even though I was one of the slowest kids on the team, I was our cheerleader – I’d get us pumped before races.

This was one of my first experiences of true belonging – feeling like I really mattered and was celebrated for who I was. For the full story, you’ll have to watch one of my talks!

You suggested in a recent Harvard Business Review article that the “Great Resignation” is about the “Great Disconnection.” What do you mean by that?

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In the wake of the pandemic, nearly 80% of employees are disengaged and 70% are disconnected from their co-workers. I think a lot of this disengagement stems from the fact that we’ve moved to a remote or hybrid workforce without making space for human connection, without designing for human connection at every stage of the employee experience.

We were in the midst of a loneliness epidemic, both in the United States and globally, and that was before the pandemic, before two years of social distancing, quarantine, masks, and a huge shift to work-from-home. Loneliness has only gotten worse, especially for young people and working parents.

I think many people feel disconnected from their friends and their communities right now, as well as their co-workers. This is contributing to one of the reasons so many employees are unsatisfied in their jobs and are looking for new opportunities.

What’s at stake if we let employees become disconnected?

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Disconnected employees cost companies $4,000 per employee per year. Lonely employees have more missed days at work, double the sick days, nearly 50% lower productivity, lower quality of work, and a higher risk of turnover. Gallup found that employees who do not have a close friend at work have only a 1 in 12 chance of being engaged with their work.

In other words, if we let employees become disconnected, we will have disengaged and unproductive employees.

If that doesn’t compel you, then look at the business case for belonging. According to Harvard Business Review, employees who have high levels of belonging have a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, a 75% reduction in sick days, 18x more promotions, and a 167% increase in their employer promoter score (how likely they are to recommend their employer to someone else). This results in an annual savings of $52 million for a large company.

How can technology help foster belonging and connection?

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Research by Cigna shows that when technology is used to make meaningful connections, employees are four points less lonely on the UCLA Loneliness Scale. This means that technology should be used not just to assign more work or streamline processes, but to actually bring people closer together. To help them connect, do team building, learn from each other, disagree and debate, build empathy, give and receive feedback, grow and develop new ideas, collaborate on projects together, interview and hire new employees, make onboarding all about connection, and make performance management all about people, not just data and checklists.

What’s the most common mistake companies make when they’re trying to drive more connections and what should they do instead?

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I think too many companies think about connection in terms of scale and growth, and not enough in terms of meaning and depth. It’s about the quality of connection, not just the quantity.

For example, many social media companies and venture-backed tech companies think connection is about the number of users or the amount of time spent on a platform. A better metric would be asking, ‘Did someone make a friend today using our product? Did they have a meaningful conversation? Did they learn something new? Do they feel better because of the connection they had?’

Instead of exponential growth, more companies should focus on the quality of every single human interaction with their employees and customers.

Can you share an example of a company or organization that really gets it?

I think one company that does a good job of building connection into their DNA is Asana, a task management software company based in San Francisco. They consistently get ranked one of the best places to work and I think that’s because they take their company values and turn them into tangible programs that reflect those values.

They don’t just talk about inclusion, they have specific diversity recruitment metrics they hold themselves accountable to. They don’t just talk about co-creation and collaboration, they have real-talk events with senior leaders and goal-mapping weeks where everyone can work on projects across the organization. They offer conscious leadership training and coaching to every employee, not just executives.

I also love that they approach onboarding as a connection exercise, not just an information dump, which is so critical in the new hybrid landscape. The most important thing about employee onboarding in a hybrid workplace is not whether a new employee reviews HR policies or learns how to use the company Slack channel, it’s did they make a new friend?

If you want to take a deeper dive into how you can rethink connection in a hybrid work world, check out this report from Enboarder and RedThread Research.

Learn more about Smiley's keynote presentations on his website or connect with him on LinkedIn. Read his Harvard Business Review articles, "How Leaders Can Build Connection in a Disconnected Workplace," and "Gen Z Employees Are Feeling Disconnected. Here’s How Employers Can Help."