Ensuring a Safe Return to the Office While Fostering Employee Connection

Most people know what to do; whether they actually do it is a different matter.

How can we protect people in the workplace so they don’t contract COVID-19? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released guidelines for offices that include temperature and symptom checks; encouraging employees who have COVID-19 symptoms or sick family members to stay home; prohibiting hand-shaking, hugs, and fist bumps; wearing face coverings; physical distancing of work stations (or separation by plastic shields); and eliminating seating in common areas. 

Will people follow through and do their part for the good of the whole? What can be done to increase compliance with these and other requirements so that the risk of virus transmission is minimized?   

Mass General Brigham has kept COVID-19 cases at a minimum among its 75,000 employees despite being in Boston, one of America’s hotspots for the disease, and treating sick patients. In a recent article, Dr. Atul Gawande, the noted surgeon and author, described in detail the hospital system’s four-part strategy combining hygiene, distancing, screening, and masks. Dr. Gawande writes that culture is a fifth element in order to achieve success and it is “arguably the most difficult.” It’s culture that moves people who know what to do, to actually do it.  

How do we cultivate the type of culture that motivates people to care about others and, as Dr. Gawande described, “rigorously and thoroughly” comply with the tasks that minimize virus transmission? Diligence in undertaking the protective tasks will be especially important as workplace research shows that virus transmission overwhelmingly occurs inside buildings. Furthermore, periodic forced isolation from resurgences of COVID-19 may lead to dopamine-driven cravings for connection that will make it more difficult for people to maintain the willpower to adhere to protective practices. A pent-up desire to socialize will lead some to ignore guidelines. We saw that over Memorial Day weekend with videos of people congregating on beaches or packed together at a pool party.

Moving from Me to We

Dr. Gawande points out in his article that properly wearing a mask at all times is primarily to prevent the wearer from transmitting a virus to others when he or she sneezes, coughs, and talks.The mask is a barrier to protect you, not me. In other words, it’s our regard for others that motivates us to be diligent about properly wearing a mask. And here’s where the issue of culture in the workplace comes in.

For many years now, we have been helping organizations develop healthy, high-performing relational cultures where people expand from operating primarily out of self-interest to also caring about others and their group as a whole. We’ve learned relational cultures can be thought of as falling into three types and that it’s not uncommon for organizations to have a mix of relational subcultures if left unchecked. 

The first type of relational culture is the culture of control where those with power rule over the rest. Implicitly or explicitly, the leader conveys, “Do as I tell you or suffer the consequences.” People comply with the dictates of those in power but some will work against the interests of the organization. Gallup describes these employees as “actively disengaged” and estimates they represent 13% of the U.S. workforce.

The second type of relational culture is a culture of indifference where people are so busy with tasks that they don’t take time to develop and maintain supportive relationships. In both cultures of control and cultures of indifference, people are more likely to act out of self-interest, especially if they feel left out, lonely, or undervalued. They don’t feel leadership actually cares about them as a person or they see that care as lukewarm at best. 

The third type of relational culture is a culture of connection. In a culture where connection is cultivated, people feel a sense of community on their team or in the organization, and they feel connected to their supervisor, colleagues, and the people they serve through their work. The bond people experience makes it more likely they care about others, and will act and contribute in ways that benefit the group. 

It is our expectation that in cultures of control and cultures of indifference, where people feel disconnected or ambivalent about their coworkers, people are less likely to be internally motivated to rigorously and thoroughly comply with the CDC’s standards. In cultures of connection, however, the communal bond makes it more likely people will be diligent about complying with the protective practices.

Cultivating Connection 

Bonds of connection in an organizational culture arise from shared identity, empathy, and understanding. We developed a simple, memorable, and actionable framework to help leaders cultivate a culture of connection. Put simply, connection is formed and maintained when leaders:

  • Communicate a vision that unites people. 
  • Value people as human beings rather than thinking of and treating them as means to an end.
  • Give people a voice in matters that are important to them.

An easy way to remember it is Vision + Value + Voice = Connection. 

In organizations that have a high degree of connection from the element of vision, people benefit from a shared identity that inspires and motivates them. You’ll often see leaders communicate a vision that is prosocial in nature. Examples include Costco’s “Do the Right Thing,” TCU’s “Lead On,” Yale New Haven Health System’s “Healthier Together,” and New York-Presbyterian’s “Amazing Things Are Happening Here.”

In organizations that have a high degree of connection from valuing people, you’ll find a tendency to hire managers and leaders who have a genuine interest in people, a practice of paying people fairly and providing generous benefits, and a commitment to invest in training and developing employees to achieve their potential. Because they care about employees’ wellbeing, they don’t tolerate jerks.

In organizations that have a high degree of connection from giving people a voice, colleagues are generous about sharing information, supervisors keep people informed about matters that are important to them, and leaders seek the opinions and ideas of others and actually consider them before making decisions. People have the ability to “be in the loop” and they feel heard.

In addition, our research and the research of others has found that connection boosts employee engagement, increases strategic alignment, improves decision-making, increases innovation, and makes organizations more agile and adaptable. A culture with a high degree of connection is a win-win for individuals and the group as a whole.

Today, because of the abrupt shift to remote work and sheltering at home, people are more acutely aware of their need for connection. We’re optimistic that this will lead to greater connection going forward as well as an awareness on the part of leaders of the necessary role that connection plays in the health and performance of individuals and organizations.