Creating Workplace Community: Why Bother?

Many workplaces feel a vague sense of responsibility when it comes to fostering community among employees. A company might host an annual picnic or holiday party. Or, perhaps, work teams are encouraged to participate in a monthly happy hour. Often these activities are undertaken without a lot of thought — little more than events to check off a to-do list. “Social activity complete. Time to move on with our work!”

This attitude toward community building in the workplace is unfortunate because, believe it or not, community matters. It matters in terms of fostering an enjoyable, supportive environment, and it matters for the company’s bottom line. In workplaces that actively emphasize community, the employee retention rate is much higher than in companies that lack community. And according to the 2020 Work Institutes Retention Report, community is one of the key reasons employees stay in their jobs. Retention can have a huge impact when it costs thousands of dollars to hire and train a new employee.

Why does community make a difference in the workplace experience? Part of the reason is rooted in neuroscience.

People are naturally social creatures. From the dawn of humankind, we have relied on groups to survive. We hunted together, planted crops together, raised children together, and milled flour together. Civilization itself is the result of successful interpersonal interactions.

Effectively operating within a group involves interpreting others’ emotions, self-sacrifice, and empathy. As it turns out, the typical human brain is well-equipped to handle these skills. We could point to parts of the brain that seem to handle the bulk of social interactions (the highly developed prefrontal cortices, for instance), but that is an oversimplification. Neuroscientists today are finding that the entire brain appears to be geared toward social tendencies. Dr. Steve W.C. Chang, who teaches psychology and neuroscience at Yale University, puts it nicely when he says, “Many brain regions may belong to the social brain by virtue of our brains being fine-tuned over evolution to operate in social settings.”

On the other side of the coin, social isolation and exclusion can cause overwhelmingly negative effects.

Remarkably, the pain of isolation or exclusion may not be all that different from physical pain. In a recent study, scientists examined participants’ brains in an MRI machine while they played a simple virtual game. The game involved passing a ball between a few people in a group. After a while, the other virtual players only passed the ball between themselves, excluding the participant. When this occurred, certain regions of the participants’ brains were activated — the very same regions that process physical pain. In short: It seems social pain and exclusion are interpreted by our brains in much the same way as physical pain.

And this is far from the only study that links emotional pain to physical distress. Scientists have found links between loneliness/social isolation and sleep disorders, heart disease, compromised immune systems, and even premature death.

So…what to do? How can we create a meaningful community in the workplace and lessen social isolation and exclusion?

While there’s no magic bullet, you might start with these three steps:

1. Foster community-building opportunities

Community building can take many forms — networking or affinity groups (women’s leadership groups, racial minority groups), hobby groups (a cycling club, a self-development book club), online forums/chats (to seek feedback or start conversations), public service committees (litter cleanup, Habitat for Humanity). To successfully start and maintain a community group, it’s helpful to gather input first. What are your employees seeking? What support or resources would they find helpful? With whom would they like to connect?

Chat with employees one-on-one or send out surveys to discover how your organization can improve its social offerings. A company’s leadership team should not assume they know what employees want. Rather, it’s important for community-building and social efforts to feel natural and be employee-led.

2. Put inclusivity at the forefront

Even if your organization is relatively small, you’ll likely find a variety of different people with different backgrounds, needs, identities, and interests. Instead of attempting to homogenize your workforce by encouraging people to fit into the “company culture,” commit to celebrating differences! Encourage people to make meaningful connections through company-facilitated forums, activities, or affinity groups.

Workplace affinity groups can connect people who share a similar background or social identity. By making these connections within the workplace, employees can offer support, share resources, and collaborate on efforts to advance positive change. Wells Fargo is one company that has successfully facilitated affinity groups. Its “Employee Resource Networks” focus on professional development, community outreach, recruitment, and more, and there are currently over 160,000 members in these networks.

3. Pay attention/evaluate

How do you know if your company’s community-building efforts are paying off? The metrics for “employee satisfaction” are less straightforward than calculating profits or loss, but there are ways to gauge your success. Has your employee retention rate improved? Is HR fielding fewer complaints? Has productivity improved? If you send out employee surveys or hold one-on-one meetings, are most people expressing satisfaction with their jobs? Do they feel positively about their social life within the company?

Understand that you might not nail your community-building efforts on the first go. You may have to add different options/offerings or rethink how a group or event is facilitated. The important thing is to engage with people, have candid conversations, and encourage feedback (in meetings, through surveys, or through online company forums). Be open to others’ thoughts, opinions, and perspectives. LISTEN and encourage a dialogue.

Community matters. Our social inclinations are coded in our DNA and imprinted in our brains. Is it any wonder that those who feel isolated or excluded will have a difficult time thriving at work? It’s time to center the workplace around meaningful community-building initiatives. Success is a group effort — a community effort.

To explore our community-building programs, including Refuel! For Teams, please visit The Disruptive Element’s website.

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The Disruptive Element is a leadership performance company. We are coaches, consultants and executives who bring a been-there-done-that perspective to clients.