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How to build social connections at work - post COVID-19

Conversations by the water cooler or drinks after work were often where great ideas and lifelong friendships were made - before coronavirus. So, how can we build connections with colleagues with almost half the British workforceworking from home?

What do you miss most about being in the office? If you’re like the majority of the British public, it’s unlikely to be your commute. Or the cost of all those shop-bought lunches.

What you’re probably missing most are your colleagues. 
The social silence of working from home
Productivity has increased since the shift to working from home.2 But that’s come at a price. Without the random workplace chatter we used to take for granted, many of us are feeling more alone - despite being busier - than ever. 

This is affecting our mental wellbeing. According to one poll of 5,000 HR bosses by London-based HR company The People Collective, the biggest reasons among teams for wanting to return to the office were social and mental health issues, including feelings of loneliness.3

In fact, almost half of UK workers have experienced feelings of loneliness whilst working from home in lockdown, with women and younger workers in their 20s affected most4. While in the office, people would interact with an average of 17 people, whereas while working from home, they were lucky to speak to eight, and even then only virtually, the research4 also found.
Good work needs connection
This social silence could also impact our work output over time, says Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology at Manchester University Business School. ‘We have done well working remotely during lockdown but the downside is that people’s social needs are not being met,’ he says.

‘Creativity, team-building, and overall performance need workplace relationships to thrive and those are best forged in an office environment, during those unexpected moments when people have an ad hoc lunch or chat,’ he asserts.

Certain groups might need the social interaction of office life more than others. ‘The young, professional person who doesn’t have facilities in their shared house or bedsit and also needs the socialising, networking and on-the-job training that office environments provide may find themselves limited in working from home. It’s up to employers to ensure their employees can build and maintain their workplace relationships within the new restrictions.’ 
How the ‘proximity principle’ encourages success
‘Most people would use the office to discuss problems, build ideas and learn from colleagues,’ says Kevin Daniels, Professor of Organisational Psychology at the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Business School. ‘This will be an issue in some industries where the knowledge transfer between people is quite tacit and informal - organisations have to adapt.’ 

Something called the ‘proximity principle’ means we form relationships with those around us. That physical proximity may promote higher rates of innovation, research has shown.5

That could be done in co-working spaces, says Prof Cooper. Groups such as Fora provide co-working spaces across London with new socially-distanced, COVID-friendly6 policies in place and global co-working chain WeWork is piloting a pay-as-you-go office option in 12 of its New York City locations.7

It may be done through casual water cooler conversations. Or, it could be through the sharing of ‘tacit’ knowledge while chatting in a corridor. The point is, ‘Social connection at work is essential to success and companies can’t ignore that,’ says Prof Cooper.

Here are five suggestions from the experts for how to re-create those social bonds in the new workplace.
1. Remote water cooler moments 

Those random chats with Joan from finance matter. In fact, studies of business communities8 have found both formal and informal networking (like that done at the kettle or water cooler) are essential for company growth.

Inspired by the working from home challenges his team faced during the lockdown, CTO Aaron Asaro created a web browser extension that simulates water cooler conversations for remote teams. Chinwag is a bit like Tinder for random video chats with colleagues, by connecting you with one or two other people who are also up for, well, it.

‘When we’re working in an office it’s quite easy to see if someone is up for a chat, they’re either making tea or at the water cooler,’ says Asaro. ‘Chinwag makes that easy for people who are working remotely. If you fancy a chat you just hit the button, and anyone else in a similar headspace can see it and join you. You can create groups for your whole office floor, business unit or your lunchtime knitting circle.’

2. Regular, organised events
Prof Daniels’ team gathered data pre- and post-COVID on which organisations adapted most successfully to lockdown measures.

Though the data is as yet unpublished, preliminary findings suggested the importance of varied, high quality remote events such as weekly lunchtime gaming sessions and chats.9 ‘It meant people would stop working for a bit and get on Teams or Zoom and interact in an informal way with their colleagues,’ he says. ‘The organisations that did this best were proactive about organising these events, rather than waiting for the employees to do it.’

Whatever bonding social events you organise for work – whether it’s lunchtime gaming or an actual socially distanced meet-up – make sure they’re regular and ongoing, advises Prof Daniels. ‘You can’t just have a one-off virtual party,’ he says. ‘These things require maintenance and they have to be inclusive, so everyone wants to attend. Canvas opinion from your team and find out what people want to do.’

Bonding can also happen through normal workplace activities too, he says. ‘Setting up remote problem-solving groups can be a great source of social contact for people who wouldn’t otherwise come together.’ 
3. Outdoor meetings 
In its Future of the Workplace report, released in August this year, health and safety company Citation recommended team meetings take place outdoors, such as in parks, outdoor cafes and even beer gardens.10

‘Having more meetings outside is a great way to connect with colleagues,’ says Prof Cooper. ‘If you can do it while walking it can help creativity too, especially if you’re brainstorming.’ In fact, Stanford researchers found a person’s creative output increased by around 60% while walking.11
4. Activity-based training
To learn effectively, adults need to be engaged in activities, says Prof Daniels. ‘So while the technology for remote training is getting better, it’s still quite passive and staring at a screen while trying to grasp a new concept is not good for either learning or mental health.’

So, if your organisation has access to an office, schedule training days there and make sure they involve plenty of activity such as problem-solving, he suggests. If you don’t have access to an office, make the training sessions as interactive as possible, regularly setting tasks and getting input from the team.
5. Scheduled spontaneity with regular check-ins
Successful teams are comfortable asking one another questions, ‘brain dumping’ or simply ‘bouncing off’ a concept or thought with another colleague, Prof Daniels says. ‘But many of them do this by simply picking up the phone and talking it through with a colleague,’ he said. That’s easy enough, right?

‘Encourage people to talk to each other, when problems arise or when they’re stuck,’ he says. ‘Daily online check-ins with managers12 can help as the teams get to build rapport by seeing each other every day, as they would in a workplace. It’s not the immediacy of the corridor chat, but it’s a kind of scheduled spontaneity, which is a next best thing. If you don’t want to do it daily, have a weekly check-in and encourage people to store their problems to bring to the catch-up where you can all come up with solutions. The key is encouraging people to talk to each other and find answers – especially when problems arise.’
1 https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/bulletins/coronavirusandhomeworkingintheuk/april2020

2 https://workplaceinsight.net/workers-more-productive-at-home-according-to-research/

3 https://www.theguardian.com/money/2020/jul/14/end-of-the-office-the-quiet-grinding-loneliness-of-working-from-home

4 https://www.totaljobs.com/advice/lockdown-loneliness-the-collapse-of-social-life-at-work

4 https://www.totaljobs.com/advice/lockdown-loneliness-the-collapse-of-social-life-at-work

5 http://destinationinnovation.economist.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2016/07/Destination-Innovation-Spatial_alchemy_why_proximity_matters_for_innovation.pdf

6 https://www.foraspace.com/new-standard/

7 https://www.bisnow.com/national/news/coworking/wework-gives-member-expanded-access-pilots-pay-as-you-go-program-105494

8 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/radm.12261

9 https://whatworkswellbeing.org/blog/working-in-isolated-and-confined-conditions-long-term-the-potential-risks-and-how-to-avoid-them/

10 https://www.thehrdirector.com/business-news/the-workplace/new-health-and-safety-study-reveals-the-ways-offices-could-adapt-post-lockdown/

11 https://news.stanford.edu/2014/04/24/walking-vs-sitting-042414/

12 https://www.propelhub.org/long-term-isolated-and-confined-working-the-worst-possible-outcomes-and-how-to-avoid-them/