Even though many of us like working in our pajamas, with access to a kitchen full of our favorite foods and our loving pets within reach, there’s been a cost to COVID-related social distancing and the rise of remote work: a loss of social connection with our colleagues and coworkers. Recent research from Microsoft found that our professional networks have shrunk significantly and that our feelings of loneliness and isolation have increased since before the pandemic. The Great Resignation and all this “quiet quitting” may have multiple causes, but a sense of disconnection and disengagement is a big one.
That’s because social connection is the single biggest driver of our happiness and one of the biggest drivers of our engagement and productivity at work—and, yes, that’s true even for introverts. Building social connections at work doesn’t mean being besties with our colleagues. But when we can see our colleagues as human beings with their own goals and needs—the baseline of social connection—it makes achieving collective goals easier and helps each of us to feel valued, happy, and like we belong.
Given the mishmash of remote, hybrid, in-person-but-masked, and other environments we now operate in, the comfort we have in our aforementioned pajamas, and the embarrassment-inducing loss of social skills many of us experienced over the past few years, how do we rebuild these connections?
The power of “micromoments”
First, it’s important to understand what drives social connection. While that sense of togetherness can come through extensive time together or grand gestures, research shows it is more often built through a series of “micromoments” that occur over time.
Think of a time when you felt in sync with another person at work, you felt connected and heard, and you both felt energized and enthusiastic in the conversation. Observing connections like this, you would see a physical mirroring of the two people—similar facial expressions, physical gestures, and tone of voice—and if you monitored more deeply, you would see the same parts of the brain activating together and the release of the connecting peptide oxytocin.
Positive psychology researcher Barbara Fredrickson calls this “positivity resonance,” and the teens in my house call it “vibing.” In her book Love 2.0, Fredrickson says this not only increases the energy of the interaction, but, more importantly, that shared experience builds a sense of emotional warmth, openness, trust, and mutual care.
Research has shown that regularly experiencing these micromoments of connection is essential to individual flourishing and team effectiveness. They increase our learning behaviors, cognitive function, creativity, engagement, commitment, and performance. These short interactions leave us with a renewed sense of energy and vitality, ready to tackle whatever comes next.
Plus, it is these small experiences of synchrony that are the building blocks of strong relationships. They can help expand your network of connections and build stronger friendships at work.
Micromoments of connection don’t need to take much time and don’t require deep personal knowledge—a quick moment of eye contact, a couple-minute conversation about a fun weekend activity or important relationship, a shared challenge or celebration, or a bit of appreciation will do.
How to create more micromoments
How do we increase the number of these micromoments of connection in our workday?
Be intentional. Consciously look for opportunities to create micromoments of connection. In-person workers regularly move through a sea of people—when we arrive at our workplace, on our way to meetings or lunch, during shift changes, or even as we take a bathroom break, we are in close proximity to our coworkers—but we are often so focused on the next thing on our to-do list or checking our phones that we completely ignore them. Take advantage of these opportunities.
Remote workers have fewer opportunities to run into coworkers in the hallway or chat after a meeting, so informal information sharing and learning about one another doesn’t happen without concerted effort. But the opportunities are there: before a video meeting starts, in casual interactions on Slack, or when kicking off a one-on-one call. You can schedule informal Zoom lunch dates with colleagues who aren’t nearby to simply catch up. While you can’t force these micromoments to happen, you can create opportunities for them no matter your work situation.
Get into connection mode. Take a few seconds at the beginning of any interaction to get into connecting mode. Take a couple deep breaths to center yourself, and ask yourself: What can I learn from this person or people? How can I help them? How can I show up as a human and share a little more about myself, instead of jumping straight to tasks?
Convey your presence. Once you are in a conversation, bring all of your attention to that person. Our bodies communicate whether we are listening in so many ways. Look them in the eye. Lean in.
Most importantly, put away your phone. We’ve all experienced that sense of smallness when someone answers a call or continues to look at their phone when we’re trying to have a conversation. Recent studies find that simply having the phone visible, even if it is flipped over and never makes a sound, reduces the sense of closeness, connection, and quality of a conversation.
Get in the habit of putting your phone in a pocket or drawer. In a virtual meeting, make sure your phone is out of the shot and that you align the video as close as possible to your camera so it feels like you are engaged in a face-to-face conversation. And don’t check your email or multitask while pretending to pay full attention—you aren’t fooling anyone.
Ask more, tell less. Author Dale Carnegie said it best: “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get others to be interested in you.”
One of the most powerful ways to create these moments of connection is to ask more questions. Getting others to talk about themselves triggers the same reward centers in their brain as food or money. Rather than diving right into your agenda, start off conversations with casual questions about plans for the weekend, how their kids are doing, or a shared hobby or interest. While some coworkers might balk at talking about their personal life at work at first—don’t press if they resist—most enjoy an opportunity to share and connect.
Create opportunities for connection in your meetings. Whether in-person or online, kick off meeting agendas with a few minutes of a good connecting exercise. Some examples:
- Check-in questions. These can be a fun way to learn about your colleagues. If it’s a small team, start with a quick check-in question around the table: “What was your first job?,” “What is your non-work-related superpower?,” “What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?,” “What’s happened recently that you are proud of?,” or any of hundreds of others that can be found on the web. If it’s a bigger team, have everyone pair off to share their answers.
- Pecha Kucha presentation. This one comes from Scott Crabtree, a positive psychology speaker in the Pacific Northwest. Ask everyone to pull together 10 digital photos from their life outside of work. Then, each week, ask a different person to present their photos in two minutes or less; the goal isn’t long stories, just quick hits. It’s a great way to learn about teammates, seed offline conversations, and find unexpected commonalities with your colleagues.
Focus on the positive. In his book, Are You Fully Charged?, Gallup senior scientist Tom Rath says that we should aim for 80% of our interaction time to be positive at work—talking about successes and strengths—and only 20% for areas for improvement or difficult conversations. These positive exchanges increase “our ability to communicate, collaborate and trust others.”
Be on the lookout and actively celebrate when someone shares good news. Notice the positive, slow down for it, and ask interested questions. This is the good stuff! For example, you might use this strategy when a coworker reaches an interim milestone, solves a problem for the team, or shares exciting plans for the weekend.
Be primed with some good news to share as you interact with your team members, like celebrating progress on a goal or something exciting in your personal life. Have a series of go-to positive questions that you regularly ask—“What’s going well? What are you looking forward to? What’s been a highlight of your work?”—and then really listen to the answers.
Make room for difficulties. Obviously, there will be times when people are struggling with something difficult: a fraught work relationship, stress about meeting an immediate goal, or something in their personal lives. Forcing the conversation to be positive in those moments can seem insensitive; instead, listen with empathy and compassion. Inviting discussions about difficult topics can be scary for many people, but if you understand that you don’t have to solve the issue for them, simply listening is powerful. Any conversation can be a micromoment of connection as long as you are actively listening.
As COVID guidelines ease, we have the opportunity to rebuild important social connections with colleagues that were lost or put on hold during the pandemic. Reaching out and connecting can be difficult. Many of us are out of practice in the social game, and it can feel vulnerable to reach out or start the sharing. But so many people are feeling lonely and isolated right now; many of them will appreciate your efforts, even if they are a bit skeptical or confused at first. And it’s worth the effort. “Vibing” with others feels good, makes us happier, and helps us be more successful in our work.