Overcoming the disconnect in a hybrid working environment

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Sha-En Yeo
Feb 18, 2022

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Sha-En Yeo
Sha-En Yeo is a TEDx speaker and a graduate of the prestigious Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at the University of Pennsylvania. She has been featured on national TV documentary ‘Chasing Happiness’, Straits Times, Business Times; and on radio 938LIVE & MONEY 89.3FM. Recently, she was identified as one of Linkedin Asia’s top mental health advocates to follow. As the Founder of Happiness Scientists, she has trained more than 20,000 people in Singapore & beyond. Her clients include VISA, GIC, Capitaland, and Love, Bonito.

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Working hybrid and feeling disconnected? You’re not alone.

According to research done by Bain & Company, only 22% of frontline workers report feeling connected to others. Given that connection has a huge impact on (a) individual well-being and (b) the ability to stay resilient and navigate change, knowing how to overcome or address the issue of disconnection is huge, both at the individual and company level.

Humans are wired to connect, and being snubbed can feel as painful (if not more) than physical pain. As such, having been through two years of the pandemic, followed by the current situation where hybrid working conditions seem to be the norm, disconnection can feel downright painful.

In fact, in one of the longest studies conducted by Harvard Study of Adult Development, following 724 men since they were teenagers in 1938, Dr. Waldinger found that “personal connection creates mental and emotional stimulation, which are automatic mood boosters, while isolation is a mood buster.” People who have strong connections to others are healthier and live longer.

How then can we overcome this disconnect, given the current context? The answer to this is not straightforward, and depends quite a bit on one’s unique situation, but here are some ideas to get us started.

I’ve divided the solutions up into three levels, so feel free to scroll down to read the part most relevant to you:

  • Individual level
  • Manager level
  • Company level

At the individual level

One of the things I think we can all do is to be conscious connectors. This means being intentional about connecting with others.

Pre-covid, we probably saw our co-workers everyday and thus didn’t feel the need to connect with intention. We also had lots more spontaneous moments in the pantry, walking to meetings, and so on.

Such micro-moments of connection, are what Dr. Barbara Fredrickson calls “positivity resonance”—emotions resonating with the other generating positive feelings and breaking down barriers, allowing us to see the whole person. Experiencing these micro-moments goes a long way in boosting our well-being.

Here are some ways you can do it:

  • Identify some co-workers whom you have not connected purposefully with for awhile (could be from your team, other departments, or other regions). Perhaps you had a fleeting thought about them, or saw that they had posted something on LinkedIn, and you intended to comment (but didn’t).
  • Reach out with a message about catching up. This could be face-to-face (if your home country restrictions allow) or even a short virtual catchup, with a coffee/tea in hand.
  • Be present in each other’s presence. This could mean, putting aside the phone or minimising distractions around you. In that moment, focus on the other person and come from a place of curiosity and being interested. Sometimes, because we are nervous or don’t like silence, we tend to talk too much and that ends up being a one-way conversation.
  • When you’ve finished, share what you’ve appreciated about them (or the conversation). If you’d like to add a cherry on the cake, you may even take a picture to capture the moment!

Here is a picture I took with my friend (and collaborator for work). She is currently based in the US and despite the time differences (she is in California), we made it work:

Of course, this may feel a little daunting and uncomfortable for some of us. Perhaps you’ve gotten used to just sending updates via WhatsApp, and getting your work done.

If you are meeting in person, maybe you have yet to have your hair cut and don’t really want to get all dressed up to meet someone.

However, when situations around us change, it also prompts us to re-think the way in which we normally do things. What we can do is to take the next step and give it a try.

At the manager level

If you manage a team or department, you can make a huge difference to bridging this disconnect:

  • Empathise and see things from their perspective. Some have been isolated for a long time, away from family members; some have gotten used to the comforts of home, and re-entry into face to face meetings might feel awkward; some are just exhausted and stressed out.
  • Spend time to listen. Whether it is their concerns, feedback, or them needing some advice, listening can really help to build that connection. This means trying to understand the situation as objectively as possible, refraining from judgement. When you listen well, your team member will feel valued, heard, and supported. They will also know that you care beyond just getting them to do the work.
  • Acknowledge and appreciate. When trying to hit deadlines, and facing a lot of pressure from your own superiors, you might forget to devote attention to acknowledging the work done by your team, or appreciating the effort they have put in.

    However, when you take the time to recognise their efforts (“Thank you for working hard on that project, and getting it ready in time for the event.”) and appreciate their strengths (“Your perseverance really paid off. After 3 months, we finally closed the deal with the client!”), they will feel that their effort is justified.
  • Bring some fun into the daily routine. It will not be uncommon for your team members to be rushing from one meeting to another. Instead of starting your meeting with “What’s on the agenda?” or “What must we complete by today?”, inject some fun such as a quick Kahoot! Quiz, or an ice breaker like 2 truths 1 lie. Getting to know each other (and not just how each other works) can help to strengthen connection.

At the company level

Thinking about connection on a large scale, such as across the company, across regions—sometimes involving hundreds or thousands of people—can be daunting.

It would be easier to think of this broad guideline: consider a multi-prong, cascading approach.

Multi-prong means that you design a variety of solutions, with further segmenting according to the groups with specific needs, the general population and/or the region.

Cascading means, that there is a flow of how connection is going to happen (instead of assuming it will “naturally” happen), such that eventually, everyone has the experience of connecting with and hearing from a trusted manager or supervisor.

Here are some ideas:

  • For groups with specific needs, consider the difference between people who have just been onboarded (and remotely) and a people who have been around for more than a decade – their needs for connection will likely be different.

    For example, people new to the company may need more touch points and assurance that they can assimilate despite being in hybrid working conditions. People who have been around for more than a decade, may want more autonomy to build their own projects, or create their own communities. In other words, more ownership over how they connect.
  • For the broader population, create the infrastructure for connection to be easily accessible and relevant. For example:

    – Leveraging existing platforms e.g. town halls, team huddles, tea with senior management etc, can be a good way to get a sense of how people are doing.

    – Identifying and creating a network of ambassadors on the ground who can listen to what’s happening around them, provide support or resources to help people get unstuck, or think of informal ways to bring people together.

    – Empowering your managers with training to learn how to empathise, create safety within the teams, and let them innovate some new ways to connect e.g setting up their own chat group, or makan (eating) sessions while back in office.
  • For regions, given that different regions have different cultures, you may want to consider connection in ways that are appropriate for their culture.

    For example, Kiwis love rugby football, so beginning a conversation or using rugby terms/language may be a way to foster connection quickly. Each region has also varying degrees of hybrid. Some might be 100% remote still, while others have the opportunity to meet face to face.

    They could also be at different parts of the pandemic journey, with some facing more restrictions than others. Hence a greater level of support and intentionality may be needed for some regions.

Being intentional

As you read through the above, you’ll notice a common thread: people want and have a basic need to forge connections.

It comes back to being intentional about creating space for that to happen and fostering a sense of belonging in the team and the company. No one should have to feel that they are all alone, and suffering through these volatile times by themselves.

“The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

Dr. Robert Waldinger, director of Harvard Study of Adult Development

This article was first published on LinkedIn.

About Author

Sha-En Yeo
Sha-En Yeo is a TEDx speaker and a graduate of the prestigious Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at the University of Pennsylvania. She has been featured on national TV documentary ‘Chasing Happiness’, Straits Times, Business Times; and on radio 938LIVE & MONEY 89.3FM. Recently, she was identified as one of Linkedin Asia’s top mental health advocates to follow. As the Founder of Happiness Scientists, she has trained more than 20,000 people in Singapore & beyond. Her clients include VISA, GIC, Capitaland, and Love, Bonito.

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