The Importance of an Employee Connection Strategy

by Tom Devane

We sat down with Tom Devane, author of Integrating Lean Six Sigma in High-Performance Organizations, co‑author and co‑editor of The Change Handbook, and vice president with the Energage Professional Services Group.

What an employee connection strategy is and why it is important

Employee connection is at risk right now. With so many working from home, the work environment is isolated. It’s also isolating for those continuing to work onsite. An employee connection strategy formalizes a plan for keeping connections strong in three areas:

  • Connection to people at work. This includes peers, managers, and senior leadership.
  • Connection to the organization. Employees want to feel connected to – and part of – your organization.
  • Connection to a bigger purpose. Research tells us that employees are driven by a sense of meaningfulness, which has a direct impact on engagement.

Because these connections are less likely to happen when people are working remotely, there needs to be an intentional strategy in place.

The human brain is wired to connect

In today’s world, we tend to think of connection as instant messaging and email. It’s important to note that these are very different kinds of connections because they aren’t personal.

Matthew Lieberman, a pioneer of social cognitive neuroscience and author of Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, talks about how humans are highly motivated by the drive for social connection. When we don’t have that in the workplace, it has a negative impact on the employee experience as well as organizational performance.

Impacts caused by the lack of an employee connection strategy

Companies without a connection strategy will see the employee experience suffer. Eventually, that leads to reduced performance and profits. Here are a few examples:

Impact #1: Becoming disconnected from the organization.

Without a connection strategy, employees become disconnected from the top of the organization – or at the very least, they’re not connected in a healthy way. Neuroscience tells us that humans are cognizant of status. A dependency forms when employees have to wait for a broadcast from the company leader. People tend to shut down while they wait for direction.

Impact #2: Becoming disconnected from the team.

Very little today goes on at the individual contributor level. The fact is, teams are the new natural work performance unit. When everyone is working remotely, people aren’t able to read body language – and we know how important that is. Miscommunications happen when your only view is an isolated screen. The inability to communicate both verbally and nonverbally results in individuals mapping their biases onto interpretation.

Impact #3: Not connecting to a purpose.

These days, it’s easy for people to get disconnected from that higher purpose of work. The remote work environment becomes a series of interactions with groups of people on a two‑dimensional screen. Employees get up in the morning and sign on. And after a while, the workday starts to seem like a continuous loop of The Brady Bunch.

Many of today’s online meetings are largely transactional because the focus is on technical work. People don’t allow for informal communication that allows us to build bonds and relationships that occur naturally in a meeting room.

Impact #4: A lack of team bonding and forming of informal relationships.

Teammates need to be able to work together and swap information. All kinds of work studies suggest there is more to successful teamwork than solving a technical jigsaw puzzle. In addition to that, these teams are comfortable working together and individuals are more likely to challenge assumptions and each other. In fact, a recent study at Google revealed that one of the most important elements of teamwork is psychological safety.

Impact #5: Failing to synthesize information and pass it up to leadership.

In any organization, it’s important to filter information through the various levels of hierarchy. Oftentimes, the information is synthesized incorrectly. This isn’t a natural task for people, especially when it needs to be done online. There are skills and steps people need to take to ensure the right message is getting delivered without passing on filtered biases.

Impact #6: Leaders are not connected to the rest of the organization.

Without an intentional strategy, leaders will find it difficult to stay connected to the organization. We see this in our research and also in survey data. And now that the workforce is dispersed, there is a greater chance of this happening unless there is a specific effort in place to ensure there is communication up and down throughout the organization. 

Four quick wins to jumpstart an employee connection strategy

1. Start by making two-way communication possible.

Let’s face it: One-way communication is far simpler. It’s very easy for leadership to send out important, companywide messages to staff. Instead, enable two-way communication by designing ways to get timely, honest feedback so you know if messages have landed – and landed correctly.

2. Enable two-way communication in virtual meetings.

Establish norms so employees know it’s ok to raise their hand when they’re unclear or want to make sure they fully understand what’s happening. This is more important than ever. Two examples include:

  • “I want to make sure I understood that last point. Could you go over that again?”
  • “This is a complex topic. Let’s repeat what you heard me say. I want to make sure that I got my point across.”

3. Connect using a variety of media.

Offer different types of media for communication and consider using it in different ways. For instance, host coffee hour in the morning where people get together – virtually — in small groups. Allow participants to move from one group to the other. It’s an easy way to get that informal communication bond I talked about.

Virtual happy hours are another popular idea. One team here at Energage got together and played charades on Zoom. It was really successful. Whatever the idea, encourage interactions that build human interactions beyond just technical tasks.

4. Make time for informal conversation.

Initiate this as a meeting norm within your culture. Leave time at the start of each meeting for informal conversations. Check-in with people. Allow them to catch up and share what’s going on. This is a simple way to connect people.

Get ahead by creating a longer-term connection strategy

It’s likely we’ll continue to see more dispersed teams and remote workers moving forward. So, let’s wrap up. What are some big-picture ideas you can consider in the near term? Now’s the time to establish that connection strategy. You’ll be in a good position to do well against the competition, win in the marketplace, and be ready for growth.

Maintain informal opportunities for connection.

I mentioned this as a quick win, but I can’t stress its importance enough. Try to make interactions and virtual meetings more personal. When people understand they can do both the informal and formal with technology, it will help.

Focus on role clarity.

Role clarity is very important, both in meetings and on tasks. Be intentional and be clear about who is doing what and when.

  • Coordination: Decide who will act as the coordinator for the task or project.
  • Next steps: Assign responsibility for the immediate action items.
  • Preparation: Determine what the needs are and who will do it.

Establish – or re-establish – a culture of appreciation.

People like recognition for what they’ve achieved. Different people like appreciation in different ways. Still, it doesn’t hurt to say, “Hey, Bob, I thought that was a great report that you did. We’re going to use that moving forward.” and say it in front of the entire meeting or group.

Synthesize up.

This is all about taking information from the lowest level of the organization and filtering that up through the team and department level to senior leadership. Make sure people feel good about it and that they’re comfortable. Ensure the synthesized information reflects what’s actually going on at the lowest level. Create new feedback loops to help synthesizers to improve. Synthesizing information well is a skill, a muscle that you build.  

Capture employee feedback.

We like to say that all great changes start with a conversation. An employee engagement survey is a subset of the connection strategy. It gives employees the chance to voice their opinions and state what they’re observing on the frontlines. It clues-in senior leaders to what’s really happening in the organization and guidance for mission-critical decisions.

First, collect the employee feedback data you need. Summarize the findings and communicate the insights throughout the organization. This is how you start the conversation. Annually, you can ask a robust set of questions that characterizes how culture is impacting strategy.

But an annual survey alone isn’t good enough. Nowadays, and especially during this period of rapid change, it’s even more important to drill down on topics using smaller, more frequent pulse surveys. We do this at Energage and our customers are finding it to be a critical tool as well.

Make two-way communication part of your connection strategy