Workplace community is often an afterthought to getting work done. But studies have continuously shown that having healthy friendships at work increases employee satisfaction, boosts productivity, and elicits a positive contagion effect that makes us happier across the board.
A study by virtual coaching company BetterUp found that “high belonging was linked to a whopping 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days.” Evidence also shows that having a best friend at work reduces burnout by 41%.
“And yet, there is a global crisis of loneliness,” shared Jon Clifton, CEO of Gallup, a global analytics and advisory firm.
“Even before the pandemic,” he continued in our interview with him, “330 million people worldwide had not interacted with another person in a given time. But it’s not just that: Some 20% of adults worldwide say they have no one to turn to in their hour of need.”
After analyzing global data related to loneliness at work, Gallup found something fascinating. Unhappiness at work decreases our ability to have healthy friendships, which is negatively impacting our experience of work and “having a serious negative impact on community.”
So, let’s simplify:
- Work is unhappy.
- We make less friends (the antidote to unhappiness).
- We become even unhappier.
- We make less friends.
It appears we’re in a friendless loop. With all the benefits that comes with social cohesion, what can leaders do to increase belonging at work?
Here are some practical suggestions:
Reduce Task Loneliness
Task loneliness occurs when people are isolated by their work. In tech, it happens frequently with engineers and programmers working solo on projects all day. We also find this in unsuspecting places like on construction sites where everyone is dispersed on a job or in warehouses where workers share spaces but can’t communicate with each other.
Corporate employees tell me that they travel to an office only to sit side-by-side with their coworkers as they jump on the same Teams meetings — all day long. Not only does this make them feel isolated, but they also can’t see the point of coming to a physical space to replicate what they could be doing at home minus the soul-sucking commute.
To reduce task loneliness, encourage people to find opportunities to work in pairs. On worksites, experts find that workers who share “space, tasks, and the responsibility for one another’s health… makes them safer.” From both a physical health and mental health perspective.
In tech development environments, researchers found, “For a development-time cost of about 15%, pair programming improves design quality, reduces defects, reduces staffing risk, enhances technical skills, improves team communications and is considered more enjoyable at statistically significant levels.”
To reduce task loneliness in hybrid or in-person settings, try new modes of collaborating versus defaulting to video conferencing. Zoom burnout can cause irritability and a lack of social cohesion. When we’re stressed, we aren’t as tolerant and open to new perspectives — not the best for building belonging.
Other options include:
- Stacking productivity with a healthy habit like walking and talking.
- Hosting partial-in-person meetings where teams can gather in one room who are onsite and conference in those who are remote.
- Build in time for creativity by setting quarterly sessions that focus on solving big problems instead of just tasks. This helps people to feel reenergized about the company’s mission and vision.
Spread Positive Gossip
Research finds that “cultures of positive gossip, in which an employee hears good things about a large proportion of group members, signals that befriending others will be rewarded, thereby raising the general inclination to build friendly relations within the group.”
On the flipside, “workplaces characterized by constant backbiting about a large part of the group” create a culture of “strained personal relations, hostility, and conflict.”
Spreading positive gossip is simple. Start with storytelling. Highlight someone’s good work and/or attributes that you respect, and instead of celebrating just the big wins, focus more frequently on the small wins. We tend to celebrate activities with clear measures like sales or completion rates or the end of a project. This doesn’t have to stop, but if leaders want to foster a culture of belonging, they should also celebrate when someone demonstrates kindness, good citizenship, and helping behaviours.
Liz is a manager of an accounting team. After one of my talks, she came up to me and shared that she started a monthly lunch gathering with her staff. Every month, one person makes the meal and shares their story behind the food. It may be tied to their childhood or their culture or a recent memory. Either way, Liz said the storytelling is what makes these moments some of her favourite days at work each month.
In my latest article for Harvard Business Review, I share tips for increasing happiness at work. One of the deficits of work these days is the lack of joy it’s bringing to our lives. I say that it feels like we’re going to school without art, gym, or recess. We need to bring back the parts of work that make it meaningful, and that includes fun.
Evidence validates Liz’s feelings about those lunchtime get-togethers. One study found that when we eat together at work it increases cooperation and trust compared to those who don’t eat together. A survey by Seamless (now part of Grubhub) found that 60% of employees believed that sharing meals with colleagues positively influenced their relationships and teamwork. 72% of respondents thought that lunch meetings were more effective than traditional office meetings.
These types of activities also help build a specific type of energy called “relational energy”, which refers to the positive emotional energy or enthusiasm that individuals bring to their interactions with others in a workplace context. Novel research found that when employees have high levels of energy, they are more likely to self-motivate and engage in constructive work behaviours.
To combat the ever-increasing negative impacts of loneliness at work and increase the happiness of their teams, leaders need to encourage belonging more than ever. These evidence-based, easy to operationalize interventions can help.
By providing more opportunities to collaborate and work in groups, swapping negative gossip for positive gossip, and prioritizing fun at work, leaders can create a ripple effect of positive energy that radiates across their organizations. By increasing belonging we decrease loneliness. Even better, we reap the benefits of a thriving workplace fueled by friendship and fun.
Jennifer Moss is an award-winning journalist, bestselling author, and in-demand workplace culture strategist. Through her inspiring and evidence-based presentations, she helps leaders and their teams find joy and become more resilient and successful.
In her latest keynote offering “(re)Discovering Happiness at Work”, Jennifer explores why we’re still experiencing high rates of burnout, disconnection, and dissatisfaction at work, and how leaders can pro-actively combat this in their organizations.
She draws on the latest behavioural and economic sciences research to explain what makes us want to show up at work and how to tear down the psychological barriers holding us back. Key themes explored include how to connect with a diverse and multigenerational workforce, build cultures of belonging, restore purpose and meaning at work, and more.
Contact us to learn more about Jennifer and to book her for your next event.