To feel a sense of connection and belonging are basic human needs, regardless of what people do or where they live.
From an evolutionary perspective, belonging to a group increases safety, and our brains are wired for it: Research suggests that a sense of belonging affects cognitive processes, as well as physical and emotional health and well-being. When people feel connected to something bigger than themselves, they’re more satisfied and perform better at work, helping the organization achieve its goals.
It’s not surprising, then, that one of the most common concerns we hear about flexible work is that it will erode a company’s culture and its employees’ ability to connect with one another. Without a sense of connection and belonging, many executives fear that creativity, innovation, and collaboration will suffer.
Forging a sense of connection and belonging is a legitimate concern, but the notion that needs to be challenged is this: Is gathering in an office really what forges those connections?
In fact, research suggests the opposite: Flexible work is a critical tool in improving a sense of connection and belonging.
The assumption that being in an office together builds our sense of connection ignores an important fact: Traditional office culture was never the right fit for everyone.
In Future Forum surveys conducted during the pandemic, when most employees were forced to be physically separate and work outside the office, we saw camaraderie actually increase among employees. Employees with time flexibility reported a greater sense of belonging (+36%) as well as an overall higher satisfaction with work (+50%). This was especially true for those in historically discriminated-against groups. Black employees in the U.S., in particular, have continued to see improvements in belonging quarter over quarter as organizations have settled into more flexible, distributed work.
As for the related concern that creativity and innovation will suffer if we’re not together in the office, that, too, is a bit of conventional wisdom that isn’t universally true. The reality is that where someone works has little bearing on how creative the team feels.
What does have an impact on creativity is psychological safety: whether a person feels like their team is willing to take risks, and whether that person feels comfortable asking the team for help. Crucially, neither of those has anything to do with where people are located or whether they’re working on flexible schedules.
What’s more, the assumption that being in an office together builds our sense of connection ignores an important fact: Traditional office culture was never the right fit for everyone. Despite the preference some people have for it, office culture never really fostered connection and creativity for everyone in the same way. Consider some of the most common forums for connection in a traditional office space:
- Meetings: Meetings have become a real issue for employees at all levels. They too often drain energy and creativity rather than inspiring them, and interrupt people’s ability to do important focused work. In addition, we almost surely all know someone, or have been someone, who’s found meeting room dynamics challenging. It may be the introvert whose ideas and opinions get drowned out by louder voices in the room or, for that matter, on a video call. It may be the junior employee who’s reluctant to speak up in front of senior colleagues. It may be someone who’s new to the organization and hasn’t yet found their footing. In many teams and departments, the same few voices tend to dominate and drive conversations, and not always because they have the best ideas and opinions.
- Lunchrooms: Where to sit? Who to sit with? Should I sit alone or just bring food back to my desk? While eating together can be a great way to build relationships, for some—like new employees, shy people, or anyone who doesn’t fit in easily with the prevailing demographics—it can be a context where they feel excluded, not connected. “It was so silly, but it felt like being back in high school and not in a good way,” one employee said about navigating the social situation at lunch in her new company when she looked around and realized she was one of the few people of color in the room.
- Happy Hours: For people who are less social, these kinds of gatherings, which are common at so many companies, can make them feel more awkward than connected. We know of one person who, as a recovering alcoholic, found the department’s weekly beer chat to be something he dreaded each and every Thursday. A similar thing has happened with newly pregnant colleagues who’ve had to field questions they weren’t yet ready to answer about why they weren’t drinking during team dinners. A lot of people like these sorts of events, but quite a few people don’t.
We don’t make these points to suggest that you can never have these sorts of gatherings or that people need to be shielded at all times from any potential awkwardness or discomfort. We make them to ask the questions: When you plan such things, what makes you so sure they’re actually building connection as they’re intended to do? For whom are they building connection and at whose expense? Might there be better ways—ones that are more likely to be effective and inclusive of more people, not just those who are louder, more extroverted, more senior, and more likely to fit in?
Yes, gathering is about connection, but it’s also about power. Pretending power dynamics don’t exist will make you a less artful gatherer.
“Yes, gathering is about connection, but it’s also about power,” says Priya Parker, author of The Art of the Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. “Pretending power dynamics don’t exist will make you a less artful gatherer.”
Each of the forums listed above, from meeting to informal gathering, can be opportunities to build connection. Or they can be instances where connection is undermined. The difference depends on the level of intention with which they are planned and executed. It’s that intention that’s most important—not the forum in which the gathering takes place. Furthermore, while these may be the forums we’re most used to, they’re far from the only ones in which connection can be built.
Connection and belonging are important, to be sure. But if companies and their employees really believe these are essential elements of their culture, then they need much more than just office space to make sure that they are.
Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from How the Future Works by Brian Elliott, Sheela Subramanian, Helen Kupp. Copyright © 2022 by Brian Elliott, Sheela Subramanian, Helen Kupp. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and eBooks are sold.