Community Protects Against Burnout. Here’s How to Feel Connected at Work

July 25, 2018

Today, the average person has 338 Facebook friends, 930 LinkedIn connections, and 707 Twitter followers. Slack, the digital communication platform for teams, boasted six million users a year ago, just three years since its founding. And in the 25 years from 1988 to 2013, the percent of US workers employed by companies with over 100 people has increased six percentage points to 66%. We now exist as part of larger, more interconnected networks. One would think that we are more connected than ever before.

Such heightened levels of connection should yield great benefits in the psyche of the average employee. After all, the benefits of social connection have been well documented. In their book, The Power of Moments, the Heath brothers say that “connection” is one of four elements that define humans’ most memorable positive moments.

Yet, somehow it’s not all adding up. Just last month, the Center for Disease Control announced that suicide rates have increased by 25% over nearly two decades. Employers are spending over $225B annually to try to prevent and treat mental health issues, which is likely three times the amount they spent two decades ago. Why isn’t our increased connection leading to more positive outcomes?

We are living and working with the illusion of real connection and in reality, suffering from a lack of belonging and feeling known.

It would be easy to blame technology for creating this illusion and look to the regulation of technology as the answer. However, expert on modern connectedness and author of the recently released book Fully Connected: Surviving and Thriving in the Age of Overload, Julia Hobsbawm argues against this approach: “I don’t believe technology ought to be regarded as a pushed substance, in and of itself addictive, and therefore bad, as it is by a growing number of people. I believe the corrective is less about more regulation, and more about culture and attitude and behaviors.”

The way to replace the illusion of connection with its reality is to change our individual and corporate behaviors. Three simple behaviors can begin the journey to a connected life and workforce that will produce the benefits we have expected, but not seen in the age of modern connectedness.

Form accountability partnerships:

An accountability partnership is a relationship based on intimacy and vulnerability, in which people share their struggles and defeats as well as their victories. In accountability partnerships, we have the opportunity to be fully known and receive candid, constructive feedback without fear of consequences.

These kind of relationships satisfy a deep need according to neuroscientist and author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, Matthew Lieberman, who has found that our brains’ default setting is a social one focused on determining at any moment who we love and who loves us. Though Facebook likes and retweets give us a dopamine boost that keeps us coming back to our smartphones for more, they rarely satisfy our deep need to be known. This is because the positive feedback we receive from social media networks is generally in response to the best version of ourselves that we broadcast to the world. Even if we feel admired, we don’t feel known.

Accountability partnerships are rare because, as Brene Brown says in one of the most popular TED talks of all time,

“The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you.” — Brene Brown

Yet, companies and individuals can form these types of relationships with deliberate action. Individuals can invite 2-3 coworkers to meet regularly and share vulnerably. While it may make most sense for these partnerships to be formed among peers, seniority or role is less important than a shared commitment to what Google found to be the greatest predictor of its teams’ success: psychological safety, the “shared belief that the group is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Companies can help their employees create these partnerships, teach them how to create psychologically safe groups, and check-in with employees to see if they belong to accountability partnerships from time to time.

Make time for agenda-less conversations:

Casual conversations are key to creating and maintaining accountability partnerships and other important workplace relationships, despite the assumption that time spent in chatter unrelated to work is a drain on productivity. As Lieberman says,

“The benefits of social interaction in terms of productivity are self-evident… social connection is a resource in the same way that intelligence or the internet are resources. They facilitate getting done what needs doing.” — Matt Lieberman

Lieberman’s point is backed up by research that shows employees with coworkers they consider friends perform better and have higher morale than their peers. It may feel like your afternoon coffee chat with the friend in the workspace next to you is just a needed break, but in reality, that short conversation will likely play a part in facilitating real connection, improving your performance, and increasing your productivity.

Employers can incentivize this type of behavior by reimbursing their employees for grabbing coffee or a meal with certain coworkers. By being specific about which types of relationships employees can enjoy on the company dollar, employers can help their employees create real connections. Hobsbawn recommends having a “social six” (six groups of people one regularly connects with), which includes a professional priority group (“people you must keep top of mind and connected with over the next 3-6 months”) and a professional social group (“those with whom you can share trusted personal confidence and discuss professional matters”). The professional social group, Hobsbawn notes, are “precious people for your productivity.”

Participate in a group of less than 150 people:

The previous two recommendations advocate for a move from the broad social media-style networks we spend much of our time in to smaller, more face-to-face relationships that can restore real connection. While these are important, real connection doesn’t only happen in twos and threes. It can happen in bigger groups, but, as Malcom Gladwell popularized in his book Tipping Point, these groups should be smaller than Dunbar’s number of 150. Once groups exceed 150, members are less likely to feel like they belong.

And social health – as Hobsbawn calls the state of real connection – is in a large part “about connecting to a system and belonging.” In his book, Tribes, marketing guru Seth Godin echoes this sentiment:

“Human beings can’t help it: we need to belong.” — Seth Godin

And groups of 150 or less seem to be the best places for us to find belonging. Individual employees should look to join groups in their workplaces that don’t exceed Dunbar’s number. For their part, employers should ensure there are a healthy number of either formal or informal groups under this size. These groups can range in type from the office itself to role-level cohorts, starting classes, or affinity groups organized around particular areas of interest or similarity. Employers should monitor the size of these groups and look for ways to create sub-groups when groups grow above 150 people.

While these three recommendations may make sense, we won’t implement them if we look at our workplaces and assume that real connection is already happening because of the number of Slack messages or emails exchanged each day or the number of office-wide social events that happen each month. Remember that today’s mind-numbing amount of social media activity hasn’t translated into an abundance of real connection. Yet, by building accountability partnerships, making time for agenda-less conversations with coworkers, and participating in one or more workplace groups of less than 150 people, we can begin to turn the illusion of real connection into a reality, and reap the benefits of real connection at the same time we continue to benefit from the broad, technology-based networks we have grown to love.