Blog Post / Jan. 13, 2020

Take the workplace from loneliness to friendliness

Written by Claudia Williams

Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote a Harvard Business Review article in which he describes a major workplace problem: loneliness.

It isn’t only employees who feel lonely. Over half of CEOs report feeling isolated at work, and over half of them believe it negatively impacts their performance.

Murthy explains that the result of loneliness at work is lower performance, limited creativity, and impaired reasoning and decision making. In short, the problem is a lack of employee engagement, and that’s a costly problem. Actively disengaged employees cost companies between $450 billion and $550 billion each year. The solution, he says, is for companies to do more to foster social interactions among employees at work.

If you think millennials are driving this issue, you’re wrong. The research cited by Murthy involves adults who were 45 or older at the time. The research, however, is consistent with what millennials need and want from work: a human experience, not just a financial one. And this is all happening at a time when society is more “connected” than ever thanks to the ever-growing availability of social media. It just isn’t enough.

Okay, but how do we solve this problem? Small steps. Small connections. We can’t just show up at work tomorrow and tell our employees that they must be best friends as a condition of employment. Instead, we need to start fostering workplace friendships in a meaningful way.

Yes. I’m telling leaders to be friends with their employees. This is something I advised against when I was a practicing attorney. It was all about the risk of bias or perceived bias. If a leader couldn’t make unbiased employment decisions, I envisioned a flood of lawsuits. But I was wrong. So wrong.

To avoid building workplace friendships is a gross miscalculation of the realities of the workforce, and it places an insurmountable burden and limitation on the ability to lead teams, departments and companies. If I had the necessary business acumen as a lawyer to conduct a proper risk-reward analysis, I would have realized that my advice was saving the company in the short term, and it was crippling the company in the long term. Besides, great leaders can have relationships with their teams and make the necessary decisions for the business.

Muhammed Ali said, “Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It’s not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.” If friendship isn’t something you learn, then how do you know when you have it? Every friendship is built on three main principles: trust, loyalty and respect. These principles are built from the small moments that add up over time.

So how can you encourage your employees to develop bonds that extend past their professional duties? Try the following to bring your staff together on a deeper level:

Facilitate communication. Make it easy for your staff to communicate with each other. If you have the space in your office, create an employee lounge for breaks. If office space is tight, create an online message board or private Facebook group where staff members can connect. Foster dialogue at meetings and give employees a chance to get to know each other.

Celebrate! Celebrate successes. Celebrate occasions. Small celebrations of any kind can create lasting impressions of feeling connected at work. A large hotel in New Jersey has Employee Appreciation Day once a month, every month. An “employee of the month” is selected, and he or she receives a certificate and a gift card, and a special lunch is served to all in staff dining. A general meeting is held to acknowledge the achievements of the month, raffle off prizes, and get the staff all together. Even if you can’t pull off something that big, bringing your staff together periodically to celebrate accomplishments can help to encourage a team mentality.

Organize social events. Getting together outside of work to socialize is a great way to encourage deeper bonds among employees. Outings like baseball games, barbecues and holiday parties bring employees (and sometimes their families) together. Use the time for a specific and meaningful purpose, such as the United Way Day of Caring or another charitable organization. Having a “paid” day to do good in the community reinforces that the company cares about the places where its employees live and work.

Fostering deeper relationships among your employees will increase productivity and retention. It will also help your staff develop a sense of pride in your company and what they do. What do you have to lose?