The Importance of Human Connection in Remote Work

May 27, 2020 Mervyn Dinnen

4-minute read

woman on video call

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle first told us that humans are social animals. The energy and trust we build from social interactions have long been the bedrock of successful team building; connections help us collaborate, creating exceptional outcomes. In his book, “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect,” Professor Matthew Lieberman writes that our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for food and water; we suffer when our social bonds are threatened or severed.

The COVID-19 pandemic has suddenly put the strength of our workplace connections to the test in what Time magazine calls “the world's largest work-from-home experiment.” The social bonds and connections we have with our colleagues have been interrupted. Leaders had little time to prepare for lockdown, and many employees are trying to balance childcare and home-schooling duties alongside their work responsibilities.

In the recent Workhuman® Livestream, Workhuman CEO Eric Mosley said the real killer of productivity is a lack of connection. At the same time, Gartner research shows better communication and collaboration can increase productivity by 25-35%. Eric also shared how working from home means we miss out on the serendipitous conversations and interactions that happen when we’re together. There is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that these unplanned interactions are key drivers of creativity and engagement. So how can we maintain our social connections while working remotely? And what are some of the issues that remote working might pose for our employees?

Two years ago, I was involved in a project that surveyed 14,000 jobseekers and included some questions about remote and home working. Now seems like a very relevant time to look more closely at what they told us.

For two-thirds of our respondents, being able to have easier interactions with colleagues was the top benefit of being office-based, while almost half also said it was the social side of being around other people that helped. Both of these findings powerfully underline the importance of Eric’s observations. The other key benefit people found from being office-based was the opportunity to keep work life and home life separate. Leaders need to find a way to enable social interactions to continue, and to make sure their employees maintain a balance between work and home.

Culture is at the forefront of driving this. While 88% of respondents indicated they had the tools and technology to work from home, only 24% believed their organization’s culture was supportive of it. Leaders should ensure their culture helps support and empower their people. As Simon Sinek said during Livestream, “In a weak culture, people will hunker down and protect themselves. In a strong culture, people will show up and take risks and take care of each other.”

One big issue the survey uncovered was a feeling of isolation. Only 34% of our respondents said they never feel isolated while working from home, with a similar proportion indicating isolation was a problem. For people to be able to achieve their best results, leaders must find a way to help them combat feelings of isolation and find a balance at home. As comedian and “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah advised, “Be careful that your work doesn't become home and your home doesn't become work. I really think it's nice to have that disconnect “.

We can see how things are evolving to combat isolation from the language employees have been using in their digital interactions. Data from Workhuman recognition platforms indicated that in the early days of the pandemic, the most used words were “continuity,” “flexibility,” “resilience,” and “adversity” – all words indicating a challenge. Now the main words used are more human – “friend,” “kindness,” “connectivity,” and “compassion.” Data shows an increase in recognition and support among peers. There is also a difference in the tone of words between the genders, as women have tended to use language that is supportive and interpersonal, while men’s language has been more direct and tactical.

Trevor Noah observed that the COVID-19 pandemic is not supposed to be business as usual. “This is when you should take care of your mind and make sure that you can come out on the other side of coronavirus sane.” I think this is a strong point. Many leaders might look to previous economic or financial crises for inspiration, but this one is different. It’s a health crisis, which means that it’s personal. Each individual will be feeling isolated in different ways. Some may be missing close friends and relatives, others missing out on celebrating major life events. Many people may be ill at some stage and may also know others who have been ill or sadly passed away.

Simon Sinek poignantly closed his Livestream talk with this: "There's no such thing as compartmentalizing trauma. Be aware. Be alert. And please, ask for help.” Human connection has always been central to our work, well-being, mental health, and productivity, but as we now work remotely, and often in isolation, it’s essential.

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About the Author

Mervyn Dinnen

Mervyn is an HR and talent analyst, researching the emerging trends that impact hiring, development, and retention. He is author of the books "Exceptional Talent" and "Digital Talent."

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