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3 Ways to Re-establish Human Connection in the Workplace

Leaders can’t hide behind Zoom

Recently, I went to a concert – my first in over two years. As I listened to Anaïs Mitchell (check her out!) close out with “Real World” in the small Ann Arbor venue (The Ark for you locals), tears started flowing down my N95.

“I wanna cry on your shoulder
Real feelings flowing over
Blow my nose while you
Really hold me close in the real world.”

The drive home took me by our Kumanu offices, which have remained nearly empty through the pandemic. I started thinking about connection. About brainstorming sessions. About epiphanies that arrive from a hallway discussion. About pats on the back. About laughs. About tears. About real human connection.

Sure, we’ve learned to work very well in our bubbles. We’ve become adept at meeting in the meta, sending out little upraised thumbs, and keeping our bunny-slippered feet under the desk during big meetings. We know who hangs art on their walls (not our employee John). Who takes care of plants (Amoolya and again, not John). Who has cats (Ashwin, Brandon). Who has barking dogs (Eric). Who has the cutest dog (me). These are signs of our resilience. We’re not letting a little pandemic keep us down.

Then again, we’re missing the human connection. Many companies still don’t have an option to be in-person and, in fact, may have evolved through the past two years toward paths that are irreversible. Regardless of path, however, there are ways to nurture the soul of an organization to improve esprit de corps. Here are three.

Shared Purpose

Ask any coach of a sports team what would happen without a shared purpose. Add to the team a superstar with pure self-interest and you’re likely to have a losing season. We’ve found in our research that employees who find purpose in their work — purpose through their clients, their work teams, or their overall organization — are far more likely to be engaged and intend to stay than those interested in their own personal gain. This association, by the way, remains after statistically controlling for age, education, income, occupational role, and size of the company.

I believe that shared purpose must come from the top — the C-suite — but is best embraced in teams. The dev team. The marketing team. The QA team. Teams that create their own authentic purpose for existing within the organization. A purpose that can be posted on the wall. A purpose that the team can orient newcomers to, can communicate to others about, and can hold themselves accountable to.

Dignity and belonging​

The feeling that you are a part of a group and that the group respects you and treats you with dignity has, in our research, become one of the most important predictors of work engagement and intention to stay in the job.

My blessing to all of my outgoing students is “May you have a good boss.” This starts with the immediate boss but rises to the leadership of the company. Purposeful leaders let go of their egos (Eckhart Tolle refers to the defensive ego as “the devil”), showing simultaneously vulnerability and strength. Traditional corporate hierarchies often inhibit feelings of belonging and dignity and have, in my opinion, continued to stifle occupational fields that grew up during the hierarchically-minded industrial revolution (car manufacturing and health care come to mind).

My friend Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of the highly-successful Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, advocates “anarchy” (e.g., no hierarchy) and encourages any employee to sit in and participate in high-level business meetings. The result? A dishwasher might come up with a phenomenal idea. Heck, Ari himself started as a dishwasher. He had the phenomenal idea of starting Zingerman’s.

Employees at Zingerman’s can tell you stories about how their lives fundamentally changed after working there. Key to their stories is the new understanding that they are, as Emile Durkheim, the founder of modern sociology stated in 1897, “an instrument of a purpose greater than himself.”

Connection

I recently had a conversation with a well-educated, financially successful person professing wisdom of why we shouldn’t get vaccinated against COVID. “It’s all about evolution, Vic,” he explained. “Through the millennia only the strongest individuals survived viruses and other pandemics. This made our species even stronger. Vaccination [and I had a feeling he was including all other programs to assist the poor, the sick, the old, and the people he didn’t like] weakens the species!”

I suggested to this wealthy but likely next Darwin Award winner that our evolutionary survival has had far more to do with our mental abilities than our physical fitness. If we required only our physical abilities, we’d have been eaten long ago by lions and, for that matter, monkeys (chimpanzees are, for example, far stronger fiercer than us). It’s only been our ability to cooperate, to build rock walls together, to gang up on mastodons, to teach one another to swim, hunt, fish, add, subtract, clean and cook a mastodon, and yes, to sacrifice our lives for one another, that we’ve done as well as we have. It’s our connection with others that makes us evolutionarily fit and it’s our connection with others that makes our organizations fit.

Focusing on these three elements of culture — shared purpose, dignity and belonging, and connection — are essential to the health and wellbeing of your organization, and may be done regardless of whether you’re working in-person or in your bunny slippers at home.

About the Author

professional headshot of vic strecher

Vic Strecher, PhD, MPH

CEO and Chief Purpose Officer, Kumanu

Vic Strecher is professor of Public Health, founder of the Center for Health Communications Research, and Director for Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan. In 2015, Vic launched Kumanu, leading a paradigm shift in how individuals engage in the pursuit of purpose, meaning, and wellbeing. As CEO and chief purpose officer, Vic leads the company as well as its world-class Scientific Advisory Board.

 

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