Updated: May 1, 2020
by ARC Laureate Professor Sharon Parker
Sharon is a globally-renowned expert in the field of work psychology. As the Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design, she leads a team concerned with improving the quality of work. She is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow; a Chief Investigator in the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing, and a 2019 Highly Cited Researcher.
The other day, one of my friends and work colleagues called me up, and we had a lovely catch up. I was sharing with her some of my challenges. A bit later in the conversation, she made an offer help me out with a problem. She showed me two important things with her offer – first, that she had really been listening to what I was saying, and second that she cared enough about me to go out of her way to want to help me. I got off the phone feeling so grateful to have this person in my life.
We humans are fundamentally social. Going right back to the very earliest times, being part of a group has been crucial, because by working together, we were able to survive. Because of this evolutionary advantage of being in group, our brains and bodies have evolved to both connect with other, and also respond positively to connection with others.
Benefits of connection
There is a great deal of scientific research that shows the power of connection- for cardiovascular, neuroendocrine, and immune systems. Connecting with others is also important for our personal identity, for development, for support, and for recovery, and of course, connections are crucial for our organisations’ performance and productivity (see Heaphy and Dutton, 2008, for a review of the effects of connections).
So it is not surprising that research shows that one risk of remote working is social isolation and loneliness (see the systematic review by Charalampous et al., 2019). Making and sustaining good relationships is key to the success of remote working. Right now the twittersphere is rife with recommendations about connecting with others, and tips about how to do so. I agree with these advices and we’ve put a list of these ideas below.
Tips for how to connect when working remotely:
Make room in your calls with co-workers to talk about things unrelated to the job
Where possible, call rather than email
Share a funny story about your adventures at home
Take some time to think of questions you can use when conversation stalls
Aim for videoconferencing (eg Zoom, teams, whatsaspp, etc) if at all possible
Reflect and ask yourself how you can protect yourself against feeling isolated
Use technology to help stay connected e.g., set up a WhatsApp group with your family
Set up virtual morning teas, virtual social activities, etc.
High quality connections
Here, I want to go beyond these ideas and focus not just on connecting, but on high quality connections. Professor Jane Dutton from Michigan University and key in the POS movement considers a high quality connection as one in which you feel energized by the interaction – so not one of those emotional vampire episodes where you feel someone is sucking your vitality out of your soul. A high quality interaction has positive regard, that is, you both see the best in each other. And a high quality interaction has mutuality – both people are engaged; its not a monologue.
Professor Dutton gives lots of advice on how to do this, and in the blog, I share links to her work. I focus on two strategies here: respective engagement and task enabling action:
Respectful engagement is many things, but one of the most important is about really being “present” with another person, giving them your full attention.
Not chatting to them on the phone whilst doing online shopping, or mentally planning what you are doing next. Attention is precious. Try giving someone your full attention. Connection isn’t about talking, it is about making contact with a person.
Respectful engagement also means really listening. People speak at about 100 words per minute, but we understand about 600 spoken words per minute, so it can be very tempting for people’s minds to search for something else to do. Some people listen by waiting for a gap in the conversation to insert their own point of view or story. Listening is about hearing what the other person is saying, and it requires effort.
According to Dutton, listening that engages respectfully has two features:
It is empathic, with the aim of learning about his or her point of view.
It is active and responsive. For example:
Paraphrase – express in your own words what you just heard someone say (“Are you saying that you are concerned we wont achieve our sales target?”).
Ask questions to clarify and understand (“e.g., What do you mean what you say you need more resources?”)
Summarise (“So, our plan is to plan a strategy, then communicate, then disseminate to all”)
Ask for feedback (e.g. “Am I getting what you are saying?”).
So in your next connection with someone today, try to be fully present and attentive, and listen fully. When people feel heard and attended to, they feel valued and respected.
A second way to create high quality connections at work proposed by Professor Dutton is to engage in task-enabling behaviors, which very simply means helping someone to do their work.
This might be by providing some very concrete and practical help. You might share work resources – which could be time, advice, motivation, money, or right now, help with technology. Maybe you know someone who is overloaded right now – can you help by picking up one of their tasks? Maybe you know someone who is struggling with their self-confidence – can you express appreciation for their work, and show you value them.
So ask yourself: How can I help my colleagues? What might help them to succeed? What assistance would they value? What small act can I do to make someone else’s day better?
So this is not about being instrumental and helping someone just because it will put you in their debt. This is about building relationships and connection by showing you care enough about someone to want to help them. Here is a wonderful example of a task-enabling act:
Thinking back now to the story I told at the beginning, you can see that my friend engaged in both respectful engagement and task enabling behaviour. She fully attended to me, listened deeply, and found a way to help enable my success.
So today, my suggestion to you is not just to connect with others, but to engage in a high quality connection.
For ideas on task-enabling behaviors:
For more on high quality connections in general:
For a video, see: https://vimeo.com/63169635
Look at the “R” for Relational in our SMART model of work design. This model advocates for designing work that has social contact, social support, and that enables people to make a differences to others’ lives.
Charalampous, M., Grant, C. A., Tramontano, C., & Michailidis, E. (2019). Systematically reviewing remote e-workers’ well-being at work: a multidimensional approach. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 28(1), 51-73.
Dutton, J. E., & Heaphy, E. D. (2003). The power of high-quality connections. Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline, 3, 263-278.
Dutton, J. E. (2003). Energize your workplace: How to create and sustain high-quality connections at work (Vol. 50). John Wiley & Sons.