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There are multiple types of resilience—physical, mental, emotional—but one that I have found especially intriguing during the pandemic is community resilience. The feeling we experience when everyone pulls together in times of crisis to overcome them. We see that in people on their balconies clapping every day to express their gratitude and support for essential workers.

In the past, we have witnessed compelling instances of community resilience during the Blitz: war-torn London provided many stories that exemplified that sense of shouldering hardship together. One of the elements that defined London during World War II was the intense social connection. People spending nights packed together in bomb shelters. The togetherness was both physical and psychological, the shared hardship created a strong bond. With COVID-19, though, while the whole world has experienced the pandemic, we have been asked to do so alone: without our collective support network, by ourselves. Some of us had families, while others were entirely alone. This has become our ‘new normal’, and it has taken a toll on our lives and relationships.

When productivity and wellbeing crash

Of course, we have Zoom, Messenger, and FaceTime, to name just a few of the digital tools we have come to rely on so much. But on a screen, it is easy to miss a half-smile, or a slight movement of the head indicating doubt, especially when there is a time lag and the image gets distorted. As a result, we miss many cues that would allow us to better understand what others are thinking and feeling.
With the pandemic, the lockdown, and varying levels of self-imposed isolation creating a myriad of individual experiences, the physical distance we have had to accept has increased the psychological one. Huddling together has not been an option.
This social disconnect has come to matter for work too. But why? Why is that disconnect an issue in the context of getting things done in our job? Haven’t a lot of people said that they have become more productive during the lockdown?

Well, those of us who are parents and had to juggle work, homeschooling and other caring duties may have felt like we were not getting anything done well! Last year, I juggled two children, a 4 day/week job, and building my business during lockdown, and for the first time came very near to a burnout! Some of us have felt like we were not doing anything well OR completely for more than a year!
However, many of us have reported getting more work done. Not losing time in the commute has been a big plus. Not being constantly interrupted by colleagues coming to our desk has been another. Focusing at length on a project or a task has been great! So much so that many of us have also developed an inability to switch off. The burnout and stress that workplaces had in high levels before the pandemic have actually been put in a pressure cooker during the last 16 months.
So yes, self-isolation was good for productivity, until it wasn’t.

Supporting relationships at work

Wellbeing in the workplace is essential for employee engagement and long-term productivity. Interestingly enough, studies show that employees’ levels of engagement and productivity are strongly linked to their relationships at work. According to Gallup, their research “has repeatedly shown a concrete link between having a best friend at work and the amount of effort employees expend in their job. For example, women who strongly agree they have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged (63%) compared with the women who say otherwise (29%).”
The concept of friendship at work may make some sceptical. Whether you are result or process-oriented, the idea of having a work friend may sound like a nice-to-have, at best. There is so much to do already that there is no time to make friends. And what’s the point anyways? Dr Jody Aitken, who specialises in the study of wellbeing and complex systems change, has a great answer:
“It goes to the basic desire to be healthy and happy in life. You go to work eight hours a day. Friends energise you; they make you feel better about yourself. They make you laugh but can also challenge you. But it’s also highly functional at the organisational level. People will help friends in a way that they won’t help colleagues. If I see you’re struggling and you’re my friend, I’m going to help you. And I’m more likely to ask for help from my friends than someone I just perceive as a colleague. You get much more reciprocal exchanges between people that are friends in an organisation. So yes, it’s good for the individual, but it’s highly functional for organisations.”

People’s relationships at work are improved when they take care of each other. When they take the time to listen, for example, or give positive praise and well-communicated recognition. Getting interrupted at your computer by a colleague who is also a friend is not such a bad thing, is it?

Social connection boosts performance

Humans are social animals, and that is true at work too. It is the view developed by historian Rutger Bergman in his book Humankind: A Hopeful History, and by anthropologist Brian Hare and writer Vanessa Woods in their book Survival of the Friendliest. They argue that we have existed in tribes for millennia and that we are smarter, more capable, and do better work when we work together, communicate, and use kindness.

The social animal concept is particularly relevant as it also brings us back to our physiology. In her article, The Importance of Positive Relationships in the Workplace, positive psychology researcher and writer Elaine Houston cites a few studies that show the physiological impact of relationships in the context of work. For instance: “when relationships in the workplace are characterised by cooperation, trust, and fairness, the reward center of the brain is activated which encourages future interactions that promote employee trust, respect, and confidence, with employees believing the best in each other and inspiring each other in their performance (Geue, 2017)”.

Investing in friendships at work does not only create more collaborative and supportive cultures and organisations, but it also fosters higher-performing ones. Our team members can be our cheerleaders and our challengers. As our cheerleaders, they celebrate our successes and keep us motivated in our times of doubt. As our challengers, they stimulate us by asking the right questions to move in the right direction. They have the distance needed to help us see what we are missing. They can fulfill this mission precisely because they are our friends. There is a sense of trust and connection that enables them to focus on giving constructive feedback, which is not going to be experienced as an attack by its recipient. Friends want to help us, and we understand that, so we listen. The key ingredient here is psychological safety.

The process to great performance as a source of wellbeing itself

A recent episode of the WorkLife podcast* hosted by organisational psychologist Adam Grant provides us with a great example. His guest, playwright and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, who created and starred in the Broadway musicals In the Heights and multi-award-winning Hamilton, describes his creative process and the importance of teamwork in making his musicals. He explains how one of his main collaborators understood that Miranda thrives on deadlines and decided to set up Friday morning meetings where the playwright could bring his new material for discussion. Miranda was enthusiastic about the result:
“[…] it became a joy to work towards that Friday meeting. And that’s how In the Heights gets made. That’s how Hamilton gets made is by knowing that if I bring, if I work hard—and writing is always hard—I’m going to get to bring it into a room with smarter folks than me. And we’re all going to get to kick the tires on it and make something better.
Working with his team has been essential in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s creative process: not only did the deadlines give him a sense of structure, but the meetings also enhanced the quality of his output thanks to the brainstorming. Notice how he uses the word “joy”: That emotion is evident in the process he describes. There was a sense of joy in collaborating.
The deep connection allowed Miranda’s team to work effectively together and enjoy the process, thus ultimately also adding to their overall wellbeing.

Teams are our communities at work

This brings us back to our current situation. When we think about the ‘old’ world of work, what has been missed the most?
It’s the connection, the positive energy, the camaraderie.

Relationships are part of our four areas of happiness at work. Doing meaningful work, together with great people, is how work gets done. It is not a given, though. Working effectively with a team requires developing and nurturing the connection between the team members. They need to feel psychological safety to get comfortable. They need to know they can share their opinions, give feedback, and disagree without fearing a backlash of any kind. They want to feel that they have each other’s back. They need to feel they are part of a community, in the best sense of the word.

Do you wonder how to nurture this connection in your team? At Happy Coffee Consulting, we help teams create better relationships together with our Happiness@Work training & coaching programmes. If you would like to know more, get in touch with us. We’ll connect over a (virtual) coffee!

*WorkLife podcast by Adam Grant: June 29, 2021 episode