The business benefit of relationships with colleagues and how the design of post-Covid offices can foster valuable connections.
Editor’s Note: This is the fifth article in a six-part series on five different work modes. The first piece outlined a framework for each work mode, while subsequent posts explore a single work mode in greater depth — including focus, collaborate, learn, socialize and rest.
In the early days of office work, socializing and building friendships at work was not tolerated. In fact, it was perceived as taking attention away from the task at hand. The world has since learned, particularly during the pandemic, that socializing at work is a critical building block of trust, innovation and wellbeing in organizations. Numerous research studies, beginning with a pioneer 1920s study on a team of factory workers at Western Electric Company, show that social support and group interaction between colleagues create powerful, positive benefits not just for employees, but companies too. This includes greater social cohesion, wellness and a healthier life overall, which fuels higher engagement, productivity and organizational success.
Given these immense benefits, social activities in the workplace are essential for healthy employees and companies. However, once the pandemic forced most organizations to work from home, many people lost this vital in-person interaction. Remote work has inhibited important face-to-face social connections with colleagues, teams and the community as a whole.
In the post-Covid office, it will be more important than ever to have space to unite teams and celebrate success, to boost wellness and reduce stress. The below outlines four ways the workplace can create comfortable, welcoming experiences that encourage genuine human connection.
Provide alluring social spaces that address movement, culture and routines to foster a natural rhythm of shared connections. As social activities in the workplace are unique to each company, team and individual, it is essential to offer a variety of areas in the office — from the comforting to the unexpected — to support both routine and unplanned social moments. This can include rethinking the experience of the “journey.” Transition or “in-between” spaces typically used for travel such as hallways, paths or stairwells can become unique areas for connection. This can also mean offering alternative, social gathering zones that go beyond multipurpose meeting rooms. Read on for a few strategies to help employees build closer connections and friendships.
Explore existing social moments and routines — including their higher purpose and goals. As with other types of work activities, it’s key to first examine and establish a culture of socializing and building relationships in the workplace. Consider guiding questions, such as: What is the intent for socializing? What types of social engagement are most valued or preferred? How can we build social cohesion with our teams? Keep in mind the three main scales of social activities, such as larger team gatherings like community networking events, smaller group connections including lunches, and one-on-one chats like a coffee break. To help build community within and outside an organization’s walls, office spaces should address social preferences that make it easy (and fun) to organically connect.
Consider the journey. Even before an employee arrives at the office, the meeting room, or their desk, it’s important to consider the sequence of spaces that come before. This could include the larger experience of traveling through a headquarters’ campus from the bus stop or parking lot, through a building lobby or a shared welcoming area or café. How can these areas promote opportunities for shared social connections? One way is to create irresistible and engaging places for serendipitous discovery. For example, a workplace headquarters project in South Korea features a series of pathways that cascade up 15 stories to become a unique walking route primed for social interactions. Colleagues can stroll up and down its ramps for not just walking meetings, but for informal conversations too, and also cross paths with visitors. In addition, benches and nooks along the way provide natural moments to extend a conversation. The outdoors can be a part of the journey as well. For example, a special arrival and exit zone can simulates a walk in the woods with lush native plants, gently winding paths and natural materials like stone and wood. Ultimately, it’s not about the distance traveled, but the experience of the journey and the movement through space as a shared experience.
Create a compelling destination. Creating “destination” social spaces encourages colleagues to get out of their normal routine and most important, feel comfortable enough to build strong social connections. For instance, a lobby in an office building or front desk zone in a workplace can become an interactive destination that welcomes and delights employees, visitors and local residents. Inviting digital media walls and installations can be tailored with inspiring graphics that change depending on the occasion, movement or touch, to create truly customized environments.
Enhance the ritual of socializing through design. Finally, design can encourage a regular cadence of socializing for better idea-generation and problem solving. For example, it can be helpful to provide spaces that support everyday routines or special traditions to help remove barriers. One way is to build relationships around the ritual of hospitality, including meals or drinks. For instance, if a team typically gets a morning coffee or connects over a Friday lunch to discuss ideas, inviting, “neutral” spaces for gathering can help further these friendships to create a sense of belonging. This could include cozy seating zones inside an office that mimic the feel of gathering together in a favorite pub. Outside, a central campfire space with outdoor staircases nearby can host large employee gatherings. In addition, underutilized areas in a building’s ground floor or lobby can become pop-up spaces for partnerships with local restaurants, coffee shops and juice bars. Outdoor areas can also become valuable community resources for connection. At Samsung’s North America headquarters, nature-filled courtyards transform into areas for fitness, recreation and family activities. This creates a unique workplace that is both restorative and generative — better integrated into the social fabric for improved relationship-building and idea generation.
Socializing is critical to trust, learning and growth. The workplace of today — and tomorrow — can foster a sense of belonging, providing opportunities for employees to connect with one another and the community in a way that is unique to their values. Ultimately, teams that have strong social bonds are more likely to stay with an organization longer, generate new and more innovative ideas and deliver work more effectively.