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The Rewards of Practicing Human Connection at Work

If there was anything good to come from the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a global sense of "we're all in this together." Everyone united against a common enemy. Friends and neighbors checked in on one another, even if they couldn't do it in person. There was a renewed sense of empathy for people who were ill, lost loved ones, or feared contracting the disease.

This empathy extended into the workplace as well. Employers pivoted to respond to government mandates as well as their workers' concerns. Leaders shared their fears and vulnerabilities. Companies tried maintaining business operations while attending to workers' physical and mental wellbeing.

And employees noticed. In 2020, Gallup reported that 49% of their survey respondents "strongly agreed" that "their employer cared about their overall wellbeing." This was up from 25% in 2014. But since then, this percentage has dropped to pre-pandemic levels.

Employers need to reestablish a human connection with their workers. This is best accomplished by creating a company culture that shows they care about people as unique individuals.

The Business Case for Human Connection

Human beings are social creatures, and we desire connection with others. Given the time we spend at work, the workplace is where most personal interaction occurs. With the restricted opportunity for human connection during the pandemic, it’s meaningful that workers felt their employer cared about their welfare.

Gallup found that when employees believe that their employer cares about their wellbeing, they are:

  • 69 percent less likely to actively seek a new job
  • 71 percent less likely to report burnout
  • Three times more likely to be engaged at work
  • 36 percent more likely to be thriving in their overall lives

These statistics translate to higher employee and customer engagement, profitability, and productivity. It also leads to lower turnover and safety incidents. Given these findings, it’s alarming that workers’ perceptions about how much their employer cared about them declined precipitously in the last two years.

Companies did a good job of communicating with staff members during the pandemic. And employees appreciated the ways that remote work contributed to their work-life balance. But now employers need to reassess how to connect with their workers. As management professor and author Brene Brown notes: “Workers won’t care about the company’s agenda until it’s clear the company cares about them as individuals.”

Why Don’t We Care about Individuals?

In CultureWise CEO David Friedman’s Fundamentally Different, he theorizes why we don't practice human connection:

  1. We define and teach business processes as transactions
  2. Our orientation is toward efficiency
  3. We tend to be self-absorbed

Think about how a new retail employee is trained. The focus is on processing transactions using the register – cash, credit, and returns. It’s typically not about how to welcome customers or interact with them.

We seek ways to handle large volumes of customer interactions quickly. We have metrics about the number of transactions processed. We examine call center wait times. We use chatbots to answer common customer questions and issues. We gather troves of data about our customers, their buying habits, and desires. Yet we typically don’t focus on how to show those customers that we care about them as individuals.

Further, as a society, we are becoming more self-absorbed. The pandemic created a detachment from others, both voluntary and involuntary. The explosion of social media has also played a role. While we may have more “friends” than ever, much social media posting is “all about me.” Societal obsession with celebrities and appearance has also contributed to a focus on self and a lack of empathy for others.

As Friedman observed, "Noticing other people requires us to be paying attention to something other than ourselves." We are too busy thinking about what we need to do, the pressure we're under, and what our friends post on social media. Yet people want to be noticed and acknowledged as individuals. We crave a genuine connection with others. So as business leaders, how do we address this?

Human Leadership

A 2022 Gartner study found that employees want “human leadership” – bosses who lead by showing empathy.

Gartner identified three characteristics of human leadership:

  • Authentic: Acting with purpose and enabling true self-expression for both themselves and their teams.
  • Empathetic: Showing genuine care, respect, and concern for employees’ wellbeing.
  • Adaptive: Enabling flexibility and support that fits team members’ unique needs.

Unfortunately, only 29 percent of those surveyed believe they have that kind of manager.

Bill George's book, Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value, defined authentic leaders as those who have:

  1. A sense of purpose
  2. Values, or integrity, which stand up to tests and are not compromised
  3. True relationships with colleagues and employees
  4. Goals and self-discipline
  5. Genuine heart, self-awareness, and compassion

Authentic leaders know who they are. They stay true to their values and principles, even under extreme pressure. Research supports authentic leadership as a significant predictor of an employee’s job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and workplace happiness.

Genuine compassion and empathy for employees' well-being gained heightened importance during the pandemic. Now that we are through the pandemic and facing economic concerns, leaders must continue to show employees they care.

Many employers are requiring workers to return to the office. They are eliminating other perks, and some have begun layoffs. Leaders must put themselves in their employees' shoes to consider the human impact as they make these decisions. Authenticity, empathy, and support continue to be needed as employers and employees work through the changing world of work.

Leaders need to spend time one-on-one with team members to check on their wellbeing as well as the status of their work. Good leaders build trust by becoming more real, vulnerable, and human. When employees feel that their managers care about them as people, they, in turn, care more about the organization.

Customers are People, Too

Customer service or customer experience (CX) has recently become all about technology. High-volume transactions lend themselves perfectly to tech solutions, so it’s no wonder. Chatbots can address routine customer inquiries much more quickly than customer service staff.

But as Joe McKendrick and Andy Thurai wrote in the Harvard Business Review, providing quality CX should not just be the concern of the IT staff. The authors noted:

“First of all, CX needs to be recognized as more than presenting slick user interfaces or arming customer service staff with the latest and greatest analytics platforms. Rather, it is all-encompassing, focusing on not only the mechanics of transactions and engagements, but also customers’ feelings about their time spent with a company. Was it surprise, joy, disappointment, or frustration? Or does it leave them feeling dirty dealing with this company?”

Customer service is much more than effective tech interfaces with customers. Automated processes that provide quick customer response are essential. But leadership needs to engage directly and frequently with customers. They must ask questions about what the consumer likes and doesn’t like about the company’s products and services. They need to experience the CX as would a customer.

One of the ways to approach this is to build a customer-focused culture. McKendrick and Thurai said,

“Executives and managers not only need to devote more technology, budget, resources, and training to CX, but also paint the vision of how their companies want to treat employees, communities, as well as employees themselves.”

Leaders need to demonstrate business empathy, taking the time to understand customers’ emotional needs. They must put the customer first and treat them as business partners, not just transactions. 

It’s The Little Things

While metrics and data are useful in ensuring customer satisfaction, the “little things” are just as essential. Chick-fil-A is an example of a company that does customer service well. Their website says,

“Customers love Chick-fil-A  because of the Team Members who serve them. Team Members are encouraged to do the little things every day to make a difference for someone else: as simple as a smile or as inspired as running after a customer because they forgot a straw for their milkshake.”

Encourage your team members to notice what makes your customers unique. For example, note their birthdays, anniversaries, favorite sports teams, and alma maters. A quick note or an emailed article lets your customers know that you care about them as individuals. Even a phone call rather than an email makes interaction more personal.

The Power of a Handwritten Note

One powerful but simple gesture is to send a short note of acknowledgment to your customers and employees. Customers will feel honored that you remembered significant dates and milestones. Employees will feel appreciated for their accomplishments and efforts. These notes are personal and acknowledge people’s uniqueness.

CultureWise CEO Friedman is an advocate of handwritten notes. He wrote in Fundamentally Different:

“The very fact that you wrote it out tells the recipient that, at least for the few minutes it took you to compose the note, you were thinking specifically about them. On the contrary, receiving a printed note where my name has been inserted by a mail-merge program does not make me feel unique.”

While he was CEO of Campbell Soup Company, Doug Conant handwrote over 30,000 notes of genuine thanks to employees at all levels of the organization. These notes were never gratuitous — they celebrated contributions of real significance. It was not unusual to find these notes tacked up in an employee’s workstation; employees cherished these personal messages.

Handwritten notes are an effective way to thank people for their work as well as their business. Plus, it can be a rewarding experience for the writer.

It’s All About the Culture

Company leadership must define, model, and reinforce specific behaviors to create a culture in which employees believe their employer cares about them. An emphasis on listening, showing meaningful appreciation, and walking in others' shoes are examples of desired behaviors.

This mindset also extends to treating customers as more than transactions. It's all about making human connections—acknowledging each person's uniqueness and significance.