Connection | Hybrid Work | Performance

How to Build Connections in the Era of Digital Strangers

An illustration of a man sitting at his desk talking to three people over his computer

When I first joined NLI, there were a few colleagues I hit it off with right away. We started talking at a work happy hour and pretty much never stopped. I knew immediately we’d be friends.

The next week, as I struggled to find resources for an article I was writing, I wasn’t shy about messaging one of them to ask for her guidance. It wasn’t part of her job — in fact, we didn’t even work on the same team. But she was happy to help. In just a few minutes, she pointed me to slide decks, articles, and videos I didn’t even know existed. As a result of our social bond, I got up to speed quickly and began making meaningful contributions right off the bat.

To an organizational psychologist, the explanation here is simple: My colleague and I had high “relatedness” — the reciprocal liking and social connection that foster a sense of belonging and community. Relatedness led to helpfulness, and that helpfulness increased my productivity.

In “the Before Times,” this type of interaction wouldn’t even warrant an anecdote. It’s just what we all did: form connections as a natural result of the informal interactions in hallways, cubicles, and break rooms. Organizations didn’t have to do anything.

But in the hybrid workplace, there are no unplanned interactions. When you’re working from your kitchen, there’s no way to chat with a colleague except on purpose. The result is fewer close relationships.

Research by Microsoft found employees have been feeling more isolated and less connected since the shift to remote work — a troubling finding considering the brain registers social isolation much like physical pain. Microsoft also found that employees now have smaller social networks, which means less access to information and resources when they need it. Fewer interactions with colleagues translates to less innovation, less strategic thinking, and less collaboration. “As people shifted into lockdown, they focused on connecting with the people they were used to seeing regularly, letting weaker relationships fall to the wayside,” Microsoft’s researchers report. “Simply put, companies became more siloed than they were pre-pandemic.”

Sure enough, since NLI switched to fully remote operations, I haven’t made any new friends — at least not people I interact with outside of work. I now work on a team of 13 people, only two of whom I’ve met in person. The rest are “digital strangers” — people I interact with online but have never met in real life.

It’s true, we have team meetings via video conference, and some of my teammates have visited one another when they’re in the vicinity. But it’s just not the same as playing on a kickball team together, singing karaoke, or doing tequila shots on the Lower East Side.

I’ve also found the organic helpfulness, at least for me, no longer happens automatically.

Colleagues helping colleagues

When co-workers feel connected, they interact differently. They talk through problems and solutions. They bounce ideas off each other. And when they encounter helpful information, they share it. What’s more, once you help a colleague, they’re more likely to return the favor, creating a virtuous cycle of reciprocity and goodwill that benefits the entire organization.

Scientists call it by various names: generosity, altruism, “organizational citizenship behaviors” — when one colleague steps up and helps another even if it’s not their job. Studies show helping has a powerful effect on organizational performance. A meta-analysis of 38 studies examining 3,500 organizations found that organizational citizenship behaviors correlated with higher performance, lower absenteeism, and lower turnover — as well as efficiency, productivity, and overall profitability. Which means organizations need to find ways to foster social connections despite the obstacles presented by remote operations. Here are a few ways to do just that:

1. Bring people together in person

There are many aspects of operating a business that actually work better digitally: team meetings, onboarding new employees, and learning and development. But meeting new people and building social bonds are things that simply work better in person.

Even small amounts of in-person time can have a powerful impact on relatedness and, thus, organizational citizenship behaviors. So, when possible, make the effort to gather people together in person — ideally in a fun setting with food and festivities — even if it’s only once a quarter.

2. Build a culture of help

When employees are digital strangers, that doesn’t mean helping doesn’t happen; it just isn’t as organic. So encourage employees to ask themselves, “How can I be helpful to my colleagues today?” You can also prompt people by acknowledging help when you see it happen.

Employees also need to understand that helping their colleagues is a critical part of their job. Too often, leaders ignore the work employees put in helping each other solve problems. To encourage helping, organizations need to actively value it by reminding employees that helping each other is part of their job description, incorporating helping others into goal setting and performance conversations, and rewarding it in a way that encourages repeat behavior.

3. Make time for social connection

Let’s face it: No matter how much you have in common with a colleague, you’re probably not going to become besties just from hanging out in the same virtual meeting. That’s especially true now that everyone’s experiencing Zoom fatigue, leading many teams to dispense with small talk and pleasantries altogether. Too often, meetings get straight to the point and end abruptly, with barely a moment to catch up.

But it’s a mistake to cut out social time in the name of efficiency. Employees need to understand that building social connections with colleagues is an essential part of work, not wasted time better spent on tasks.

To support employees in building social ties, normalize informal chatting at the start of meetings — and consider leaving time at the end just to check in and catch up. When a new employee joins, ask existing team members to schedule one-on-ones just to get to know each other on a personal level. Even a 30-minute video call can be enough to make someone feel less like a stranger. And create opportunities for ongoing social interaction to allow bonds to strengthen over time.

Lately, I’ve made a special effort to try to forge those connections — the bonds that would have formed on their own in the past. I’m sharing personal stories, reaching out just to check in, showing up early to Zoom calls just to see people’s faces and ask about their weekends. It’s amazing what a difference it makes. Recently on a team call, I recounted a risqué anecdote about a former colleague — a remnant from those boozy happy hours on the Lower East Side — and noticed how even a fleeting moment of shared laughter and bonding suddenly made us feel less like digital strangers.

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