31 Jul 2023

Conference roundup: Building connection in the workplace

In her Memcom conference session ‘The Social Brain: Hybrid Working and Working Culture’, Samantha Rockey described the keys to a thriving culture. Drawing on her experience as a researcher and practitioner, Samantha suggests five simple ways to foster a sense of connection in your organisation.

Samantha Rockey: "AI is brilliant. But it can't release an endorphin when you're having a wonderful conversation with someone whilst you’re breaking bread together. It can't allow for a dopamine hit, it can't allow for real time engagement of other people."

It is the work of leadership to design a social strategy for our organisations, just as you would establish a marketing or HR strategy. This involves consciously designing in ways for people to connect, have psychological safety and bring their gift into the workplace.

The ‘thrive model’
We know from 30 years’ of research and experience that the six elements listed below influence performance, innovation and impact. Bear these in mind when thinking about how to create the conditions for your team to thrive.

Humans love connecting with other people. When we are truly seen by someone else, and we see them, the experience creates a powerful bond and gives us an energy boost.

Culture is something that is felt - the habits, rituals and behaviours of the workplace that build up over time. There's nothing more joyful than being in a culture in which people know what the rituals are. That could be Monday morning meetings, cake on a Friday afternoon, or the way we check in with each other.

Learning together is not only a great way to build a sense of connection, but also a powerful predictor of a team's performance. In addition, it is a predictor of the individual’s growth and value as a team member. A focus on group work, even if it's for short spurts, creates an uplift in engagement. It also builds pride, enthusiasm, and excitement.

A shared purpose can help us decide how we spend our time.

When people share a common set of principles, they feel emboldened to do the right thing.

Belonging means that you are contributing to the story at a particular moment in time. Our role as leaders is to invite people in and enable them to contribute to the organisation’s story.

Five simple ways to begin:

  1. Eating together
    Find ways of eating together, in person. Sitting opposite each other and sharing a meal causes the release of endorphins for 20 – 30 mins, and sharing plates is another powerful way of connecting. Sit your team at long, narrow tables so participants can look at the people around them, but don’t feel trapped.
  2. Walkshops (not workshops!)
    Two people walking in synchrony is the ultimate in bonding. Send team members out to walk and talk in the fresh air.
  3. Learn together
    Find opportunities for your team to learn together, or ask them to teach each other something.
  4. Singing together
    Music is one of the most powerful bonding experiences. You sing for five minutes with somebody and suddenly you feel a sense of connection and closeness to them. So try to build in opportunities to sing together.
  5. Laughing together
    Humour is another magical component. When you laugh with other people, it’s uplifting, you feel like you've known them for years.

More benefits of face-to-face time
Research suggests that relationships degrade quickly when we go long periods without meeting in person, so time spent in each other’s company, perhaps enjoying some of the activities above, is an essential element of a social strategy.

Furthermore, innovation tends to come from random face-to-face conversations, which are difficult to replicate on Teams. For example, scientists Drew Weissman and Katalin Kariko were working independently at the University of Pennsylvania when they happened to meet at the photocopier. The conversation that followed revealed a shared research interest, sparked a collaboration which pioneered mRNA technology, which was later applied in the development of the Covid vaccine.

Samantha Rockey is co-author of The Social Brain: the psychology of effective groups, along with Prof. Robin Dunbar and Tracey Camilleri. Find out more.