Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, William Russel Kelly Professor for Business administration at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business explains how companies can re-build connections as we all begin to start working from office.
Companies have a unique opportunity to tend to re-entry anxiety by rebuilding meaningful connections when employees return to in-person work.
As more organizations in the Middle East are returning to the full-time office or adopting a hybrid setup, they are worried that their employees are hesitant, anxious and unsure about a return to normal. These concerns are not unfounded, as a recent research found that working from home has made UAE workers feel more productive and happier. The majority of surveyed workers favor a “hybrid” model that allows them to either work from home entirely or in the office only part time.
A recent survey by Citrix also found that leaders tend to overestimate office appeal. Indeed, 90% of Born Digital employees (Millennials and Generation Z) in the UAE do not want to return to full-time office work post-pandemic, preferring a remote or hybrid model instead.
However, 73% of leaders believe that young workers will want to spend most or all their time working in the office.
One of the key takeaways from the Citrix survey is that to attract and retain the next generation of leaders, organizations need to invest in a reimagined flexible and highly engaging work environment.
Steps Toward Meaningful Interactions
How do organizations facilitate belonging at work? Our core idea is that leaders need to design what we call immensely human interactions (IHIs). IHIs are moments in which social interactions, including those in the course of the workday, are interwoven with empathy, curiosity, and humility. They can take place both during and outside of the traditional meetings required for collaborative work. Done right, IHIs help grow and nurture profound ties with coworkers and can help rebuild lost feelings of connection and culture at work.
Based on our analyses of research and conversations with company leaders, we offer six strategies for designing IHI moments in organizations:
Use IHIs to reinvigorate strong ties
Redesigning work to allow for moments of intensely human interactions can powerfully reinvigorate our strong connections with colleagues, which is so important for reducing loneliness.
A web design company with remote working staff, encouraged employees to do one-on-one walk-and-talk phone calls. In one-on-ones, people are particularly likely to reinvigorate their strong connections, even without using a camera; the voice alone can convey two dozen emotions. Our interviews revealed that people so strongly associate their virtual office setups with work that using the same setup for one-on-ones or informal get-togethers such as happy hours are often viewed as mere prolongations of the workday. Shutting down cameras and moving away from desks is useful. (One of 10up’s IHI activities involved people trying a handstand challenge asynchronously and then sharing their pictures
Efforts to rejuvenate strong ties
can also benefit when leaders are willing to put their money where their culture lives. As restrictions on face-to-face interactions are lifted, leaders should consider allocating funds to enable teammates who live in the same area to get together for drinks, dinners, and other joint activities. Let each regional group decide what it wants to do, to avoid overprescribing culture. Keep these events optional and small, and encourage groups to vary the range of activities to increase inclusiveness. Suggest occasionally inviting members of local professional organisations, to broaden outside connections — which are also helpful for reducing loneliness and stimulating a sense of belonging.
Infuse serendipity at work. The random moments when we pause and engage with others — often as a result of how our physical environment is designed — matter. Unfortunately, physical isolation has not allowed for spontaneous interactions in the elevator or at the copier. In the absence of these, workers are less likely to feel a part of a larger collective that extends beyond their direct reporting relationships. The consequence is a weaker sense of belonging to the organization at large.
Being intentional about seeding agenda-free conversations is necessary. Bill Lovejoy, a professor of technology and operations at the University of Michigan, offers a wonderful example of how serendipity can be deliberately infused into an organization’s culture. For years, Lovejoy would open the white pages of his school’s faculty directory, randomly pick a number to call, and invite the person on the other end to coffee. After years of doing this as a personal practice and finding immense value in the resulting conversations, he helped get it institutionalized within the university. Now, anyone can sign up to be randomly paired for a 30-minute coffee meeting through a program called Innovate Brew. These meetups contribute to the school’s reputation for cross-disciplinary dialogue and collaboration.
Engage in the practices of high-quality connections
High-quality connections are punctuated moments that foster the immensely human dynamics of trust, mutual positive regard, and reciprocated curiosity. Many of these moments are quick: They can be as short as 30 seconds and take place through an email exchange, a conversation, or a single interaction in a meeting. High-quality connections grow and strengthen our relationships in the long term. They contrast with low-quality connections — those distracted moments that deplete connection. Our colleague Jane Dutton, a professor emerita at the Ross School of Business, noted that “in low-quality connections, there is a little death in every interaction.”
The key to high-quality connections is practising respectful engagement. Show up and be present, turn toward the other person, and give that person your full attention. You can’t have a meaningful meeting if you’re simultaneously checking your email or shopping online.
Eye contact is also important. One of us worked with an executive who, unbeknownst to him, consistently appeared to others to be disrespectful during virtual meetings. As he thought about a question, he would turn his gaze away from the screen. Although he may have been focused on the problem at hand, to the meeting’s participants he appeared distracted, as if he were multitasking.
Other active listening techniques make a difference too. An occasional nod to show agreement or understanding, a comment to draw a parallel to a coworker’s argument, or a question to learn the other person’s point of view — all can go a long way toward building high-quality connections.
Run “humility huddles"
Organizations need to create safe ways for people to brainstorm ideas and to interact when they need help answering a question.
Many people hesitate to share ideas that are less than fully formed. Criticism can affect people’s sense of self-worth, and people can be reluctant to reveal anything that is half-baked. But in humility huddles, individuals are encouraged to be explicit about the incompleteness of their ideas and the desire for others to roll up their sleeves and help make these ideas better.
While introducing new ideas at an engineering company, the manager always coupled it with comments indicating it isn’t set in stone, he didn’t have all the answers and that the idea may evolve over time or even fail.
The rules are simple: No slides. No presentations. Just share an imperfect idea or articulate a problem and how you are currently thinking about it, in the spirit of learning from others. The mindset is “How can we make this idea better?” or “How might we solve this problem?” An indicator of an IHI in this situation is when individuals are suffciently humble to say they don’t yet know the solution.
Instead of allowing the conversation to become a traditional critique (“Will that even work?” or “Can you show me your net present value analysis that proves it would have a positive ROI?”), leaders must restructure the way others engage with ideas. The goal is to have others behave like collaborators. Humility huddles are not about sugarcoating flaws but about fostering productive exchanges that explicitly maintain a clear sense of humanity about them.
Embody curiosity with purpose
Curiosity with a purpose is about learning about what others find meaningful so that we might adjust our actions accordingly. In doing so, we convey that we are present and attuned to them as human beings.
A senior vice president of business development at a branded merchandise company shared her approach with us. In Zoom meetings, where her direct reports are often broadcasting from personal working spaces at home, she notes clues about what the person cares about from what she sees in the background, such as photographs and decorative tchotchkes. She uses those insights to customize small gifts she sends on special occasions, such as birthdays. To an employee who had adventure travel mementoes in the background, she sent a gift certiicate to the outdoor activities store REI. To another who had prominent displays of family back in Australia, she sent a box of Tim Tam biscuits. With these small gestures, she was able to use curiosity to elevate the human dimension to workplace interactions.
The gold standard of curiosity with purpose is to make heavy use of follow-up questions in conversation. By definition, follow-up questions are contingent upon what the other person contributes to the conversation, and they explicitly convey an elevated level of attention on the other rather than the self. These interactions can lead to surprising information that pays off in unexpected ways.
Enable people to share their stories
Imagine spending a few minutes of a weekly team meeting spotlighting one member. That team member could be asked to share how she chose her profession or what defines her at work or outside of work. Or team members could be invited to share what they were grateful for during the past year or what they learned about themselves during the height of the lockdown. Such exchanges, infused with empathy and curiosity, can lead people to see through differences. Moments of storytelling help people see their inherently shared human values — values that transcend the work-nonwork boundary.