Surgeon General’s Workplace Strategies for Restoring Social Connection—Lessons from Our Remote Workforce Innovation Laboratory
You might say we saw it coming. In 2009, when our then fledgling business processing outsourcing company transitioned to a fully remote workplace, one of our biggest concerns was that the isolation and loneliness of working from home could derail our momentum. We knew intuitively and from our research that the need to connect socially with others is baked into the human operating system, and thus committed ourselves to developing connection-enhancing technology and practices to promote the health and well-being of our employees. Admittedly, we never could have imagined that the questions we wrestled with back then would come to bear so urgently, and widely, in 2023.
Yet this month, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an 81-page advisory laying out a framework for a “National Strategy to Advance Social Connection.” Given that more than half of American adults are considered lonely, which poses a health risk comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, Dr. Murthy maintains that we should be “making the same investments in addressing social connection that we have made in addressing tobacco use, obesity, and the addiction crisis.” Notably, the report clarifies that advisories like this are reserved for significant public health challenges that require the nation’s immediate awareness and attention.
Among the many high costs of loneliness and isolation specified in the report is worse performance at work and higher rates of absenteeism, with ripple effects extending to communities and society at large. In our industry, where absenteeism and retention pose major challenges, this advisory serves as a reminder of the role that social connection can play in creating workplace satisfaction, not to mention a healthier bottom line: Data cited from the Cigna Loneliness Index shows that stress-related (avoidable) absenteeism costs employers an estimated $154 billion annually. And lonely employees are nearly twice as likely to quit their jobs within a year’s time. Hence, elevating workplace strategies for fostering connection to national prominence feels validating, and long overdue, in our view.
Actionable steps to workplace connection
To further the conversation around the surgeon general’s strategies for increasing and strengthening social connection in the workplace, and to help answer the report’s pivotal question—”What actionable steps can we take to enhance social connection so that we can all enjoy its benefits?”—we thought it would be useful to look at Dr. Murthy’s general recommendations for what workplaces can do, adding the context of our real-world experience in developing an evolved, connection-centered model of remote work and, more recently, hybrid work. We believe that these actionable steps are generalizable and should be viewed as a springboard for broader innovation.
- Make social connection a strategic priority at all levels (administration, management, and employees). In our organization the concept of social connection has always been our north star. From the beginning, we understood that the promise of a 100% remote workforce—namely, tailoring jobs precisely to the talents and preferences of people regardless of location—could only be realized in an atmosphere of trust. Since high-quality connection is the basis of trust, we remain committed to making sure that employees feel connected to each other, connected to leadership, connected to our clients, and connected to the mission of the company. We also reality-check ourselves periodically. Just before the pandemic, for example, we held a week-long leadership retreat to examine our social connection practices at every stage of the employment lifecycle, including recruiting, onboarding, training, production, coaching, and leadership development. And as expectations of work continue to evolve, we never underestimate the power of connection and trust as catalysts for spurring collaborative innovation.
- Train, resource, and empower leaders and managers to promote connection in the workplace. Operating on the advisory’s premise that socially connected employees are more engaged, productive, collaborative, loyal, and healthier both physically and mentally, we developed our Bhive virtual workplace platform over a decade ago. It enables team members, including top management, to glance up and see a side view of their colleagues working from home, creating the same contextual awareness as working side by side in an office. We find that this added dimension inspires more spontaneous interaction and creates rich opportunities for mentorship and making friends, two things often lacking in remote-work settings.
- Leverage existing leadership and employee training, orientation, and wellness resources. In keeping with the advisory, another goal of ours is being intentional in empowering our contact center employees to withstand the stressors of escalating consumer expectations. A few years ago, we created a structured, branded virtual program called HiveLife that offers casual, interactive, and intimate workshops to help build stronger relationships with other team members while exploring an activity of mutual interest, such as cooking or yoga. We have found that these programs, mediated through Bhive, strengthen social connection, self-efficacy, and physical and mental health all at the same time.
- Create practices and a workplace culture that allow people to connect to one another as whole people, not just as skill sets. The mainstream shift to remote work has forced companies to, first, consciously define the elements that define their culture, and second, create experiences that reinforce those deemed essential. For us, one of those elements has been the surgeon general’s appeal to employers: “Allow people to connect to one another as whole people, not just as skill sets.” That’s why we have a profile page in Bhive for each employee where we display hobbies, non-work interests or accomplishments, and mementos from company-wide activities such as “Random Acts of Kindness Day.” These profiles pique people’s curiosity about one another outside of work and often lead to genuine connection.
- Consider the opportunities and challenges posed by flexible work hours and arrangements (including, remote, hybrid, and in-person work). It’s no secret that many business leaders are still experimenting to find the sweet spot between remote and in-person working. The ideal situation would combine the comradery of in-person interaction with the flexibility of working from home. But as we learned in developing our work-from-home (WFH) model with thousands of customer service representatives handling back-to-back calls, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Increasingly, hybrid work is emerging as the arrangement most likely to hit the sweet spot for the broadest swath of workers. Our recent experience establishing small recruiting and training hubs in under-served rural towns offers an example. This hybrid initiative, called Hive, combines high-quality WFH jobs with the anchor of a physical location for in-person activities, ranging from training and handling calls to socializing and community service. Although still in the pilot phase, Hive exemplifies how an infrastructure designed around connectedness and flexibility can expand opportunity not only for individual workers but also their broader communities.
Given the surgeon general’s urgent prescription that increased social connection corresponds with a host of benefits across every life domain, it behooves employers to prioritize social connection as a value proposition. We believe sharing ideas and innovations in forums like this is an important response to the advisory—a reminder of what can be done in small and large ways, immediately and over time—and look forward to the work ahead.