Keeping social bonds strong
In order for leaders to create high-performing organizations, it’s now more important than ever before to ensure that their employees don’t feel as if they’re “bowling alone” at work. That’s a direct lift from a Forbes magazine article, circa 2017. In other words, long before the pandemic atomized the workplace, and long before the term “social distancing” became part of the lexicon, attention was being paid to the growing importance of our places of work in building social connections, and therefore well-being.
The American political scientist Robert Putnam drilled into the loss of what he termed “social capital” two decades ago in his best-selling book “Bowling Alone.” Putnam compared the vibrant connectivity in the 1950s and ’60s made through civic, political and religious engagement — and bowling leagues — to an increasing disconnect in the decades after.
Increasingly, social capital was being sought through work. It’s important to note that Putnam was writing at a time when Netflix was still shipping DVDs to subscribers by mail and “TheFacebook” had yet to be founded.
And now here we are. The days grow shorter in yet another gloomy season of COVID uncertainty, the workplace cannot be relied upon to dispense those social nutrients that Forbes argued are indispensable to human wellbeing, and at last count almost 74 million consumers in Canada and the United States are streaming Netflix.
Worse, organizations are proving themselves lousy at effectively communicating the return-to-work model, leaving in limbo those workers who not only crave but rely on social interactions for the sake of their mental health.
As the Star’s Christine Dobby reports, many major employers have pushed return-to-office plans down the road again and again. The result is not only growing anxiety among employees but, in some cases, growing anger and cynicism. Human resources expert Paula Allen described a worker population that’s “on edge.”
No one is advocating incautious return-to-work plans. But as Dobby’s reporting shows, employees are not feeling valued, are too often not receiving feedback from managers, and managers too are struggling with their own mental health. As Paula Allen notes, “What we need as human beings for resiliency and for managing stress is a sense of connectedness to other people and a sense of belonging.”
Sure, working from home suits some better than others. But what may not have sunk in in the executive suite is that ultimately the organization also suffers when workers find themselves struggling in a bowling-alone world. Increasingly, that feeling of being disconnected from an employer is leading employees to unplug from that workplace permanently. That employees who feel undervalued tend to become less productive should come as a surprise to no one.
There are some obvious remedies. Clear and consistent communication is one. Laying out plainly what a hybrid model might look like. Constant updates as that evolves. Wellness check-ins. Refreshed guidance for managers on how effectively to stay in touch with direct reports. Championing good work: how hard can that be? Remember when guiding mediocre work to a better result was a hallmark of employee satisfaction?
It’s imperative, as that Forbes article stated four years ago, that our workplaces nourish the brain’s need to share, to collaborate, to create. These are “vitalizing bonds our species requires.”
Those bonds were withering before the pandemic. They are stretching dramatically now, in some cases beyond repair. It is up to companies to creatively reinforce those bonds, and by so doing pay more than lip service to the cause of mental health. The weather will soon push a retreat to indoors. The time for companies to get ahead of the darker days is now.