This month marks the publication of Work Better Together: How to Cultivate Strong Relationships to Maximize Well-Being and Boost Bottom Lines, by Jen Fisher and Anh Phillips. In addition to being the Chief Well-being Officer at Deloitte, Fisher is also Thrive Global’s Editor-at-Large for Life-work Integration (you can read her columns here). Phillips is a management consultant, a research director at Deloitte, and a longtime writer and researcher on the intersection of technology and humanity. The book couldn’t be more timely — even before the pandemic suddenly forced much of the world into remote work and introduced us to virtual fatigue, the ideas of connectedness, belonging, how we use technology, and the value of relationships were moving to the center of the conversation about work.
As the authors note, studies show that close relationships are more essential to our well-being, longevity, and happiness than money or other outward forms of success. And yet, so many forces in the modern world — especially how we work — keep us from authentically connecting. “If social psychologists invented a global experiment to determine human capacity for surviving paradox, they’d come up with something resembling the modern workplace,” they write. “We can achieve more from our desktops than ever, and yet we are physically and mentally exhausted. Our best work is fueled by positive emotions like empathy, creativity, and shared purpose, and yet we measure our worth exclusively in quantitative terms.” But the book is also about very practical solutions, showing how individuals, teams, and organizations can, as the title puts it, work better together. “Becoming more human at work, and nurturing the best in our relationships,” they write, “is the next great innovation.” Thrive Global recently sat down with the two authors to talk about how we got to where we are, and how we can create better relationships in order to thrive in the hybrid workplace of the future.
Thrive Global: You write that the main ideas in the book are “dualities with a feeling of tension between them,” and one of those is that we’re more connected than ever, but also more lonely than ever. Why is that?
Anh: There’s this common impression that because you’ve got a lot of connections on social media, you must have a robust social life, but what’s missing is quality. It’s like the concept of “work-ism” we write about — because we’re putting in X number of hours a day, we have this illusion that we’re being productive. But when we sit down and think through what our real priorities are, it may be that we aren’t focusing on the things we really need to focus on. Because quantity is so easy to measure, we forget how to focus on quality.
Jen: It was not lost on us that as we started to write the book the pandemic hit, and we had no choice but to use our technology to stay connected to one another. So like everybody, on one hand, we’re grateful for the power of the technology that allowed us to at least stay connected. But I think everybody quickly realized that connection through technology is not nearly enough. Once that in-person connection was removed from our lives, we realized the value of it. It was a really interesting time to be writing a book about relationships in the workplace and our relationship to technology.
TG: You lay out the personal and health costs of burnout and loneliness, but what’s the business case for connectedness?
Jen: You get where you want to be — both as an organization and as an employee — on what we call trusted teams. Those are teams that value both strong relationships and individual well-being. People are nicer to one another. It’s a kind workplace. You attract and retain more diversity, and people feel comfortable showing up and being their authentic selves.
It creates psychological safety, so people are able to give and receive feedback and make mistakes. When you work on a trusted team, you have an abundance mindset, and your organization tends to be more innovative and resilient.
Anh: On top of that, you can step back and look at the data. Fifty percent of people have at some point in their career left a job or a position to get away from a manager — that’s about connection. Other studies show that people with significant relationships at work have a higher engagement rate. If you have strong connections with a team and feel you can trust them, you’re more likely to share information with them. So in a knowledge economy, it’s extremely important to have that sense of trust and to be able to feel like you can share.
TG: You also talk about work style myths — what’s an example of a myth that makes it hard to create trusted teams?
Anh: That work is not a place for fun, or work is just business and therefore it can’t be fun. These beliefs can make people miss out on an opportunity to elevate their work to a new level.
Jen: Not everybody at work needs to be your best friend — that’s not what we’re saying, and it’s not possible. But we do need to see each other and recognize each other in our full humanity. That’s the foundation of a relationship.
TG: Let’s talk more about technology, which is one of the main themes of the book. Why is our relationship with technology so important?
Anh: When we talk about how to live with technology, ultimately it boils down to this: We’ve adopted all these technologies, but we haven’t adapted to them. Technology is there to serve people and what we value. But sometimes we lose sight of what’s important to us because we’re caught up in the technology. We’ve been programmed to reach for our phones. So it’s important to put guard rails around how we want to use technology. Is it more important for us to sit there and have a conversation with our family at dinner, or more important for us to know whether or not someone at work has sent us an email in the evening? Really understanding the relationship we have with technology takes a lot of self-reflection.
Jen: We’re not technology bashers. It’s more about asking how we can use technology in a way that enhances our relationships in the workplace and in our lives.
TG: You write about the role of emotions in the workplace, and why even negative emotions are important in creating trusted teams.
Jen: One of my favorite topics! If you want to create trusted teams, it means encouraging and supporting people to bring their whole selves to work. Human beings are made up of emotions. There’s this old thinking that we should check our feelings or emotions at work — basically telling people: Don’t show up as who you truly are. But emotions, whether they’re positive or negative, are really a signal of the things we care about. By telling someone not to bring emotions into the workplace, you’re stunting creativity, growth, innovation, connection, and understanding. So we should be acknowledging and celebrating both positive and negative emotions in the workplace, and acknowledging that they’re real.
Anh: Emotions are information. And understanding where your team members are, and the context in which they’re showing up, is a key to empathy.
TG: You write about designing well-being into the flow of work, as opposed to the “bolt-on” approach many companies have now. What does this look like in practice?
Jen: It happens at three different levels. At the organizational level, it means looking at operational programs and policies, including the technology that people use and the clarity around that technology. Technology is so ever-present, and there aren’t a lot of clear policies around how and when to use it. So employees are often left to their own devices in figuring it out, and that impacts well-being.
At the team level, this is where the magic happens, because we also know that the people who have the biggest impact on our day-to-day well-being are the people that we spend the most time with. This is where relationships really come into play, but also setting norms — asking ourselves, who do we want to be as a team? What do we want the environment and the culture on our team to be? What do we want things like standard working hours to be? What do we want our communications protocols to be? How do we get in touch with each other after hours so we’re not always on?
And then, the individual level — everybody has to take responsibility and agency for their own well-being. You have to set boundaries that allow you to be a whole person. An organization and a team can only do so much, so each individual then has to take that ball and run with it themselves.
TG: What about what you call “the role of the C-Suite?” How do leaders fit into this?
Jen: Role-modeling behavior is incredibly important. If I can point to a leader and say, they’re not just talking about it, they actually live it, that gives employees permission to do the same. They want to know that decisions to support their own health and well-being and career growth aren’t going to be viewed negatively, or make it seem like they’re less committed to their work.
Anh: And that impacts the culture of the organization. Leaders very often set the tone and reinforce key aspects of the culture just by their actions.
Jen: At the same time, it’s important to be vulnerable and authentic about when you’re not walking the talk — when you made a mistake, when you said one thing and you did another, when you screwed up. Leaders are human too, so they’re not going to get it right all the time, and nobody expects them to. But we should expect them to be open and authentic. You can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on apps and programs and tools, but if people don’t feel empowered, if they don’t feel permission to take advantage of it — and that comes from the top — you’ve essentially wasted money.
TG: A question we get a lot at Thrive is some version of: All this talk about well-being is great, but what can I do if I’m at an organization that doesn’t prioritize it?
Jen: This goes back to relationships. We all work with other people for the most part. So if you work in an organization that doesn’t value well-being, get together with colleagues you think might be like-minded and start having the discussion. Then collectively go to leadership with a group and propose something. Help them find solutions. It doesn’t have to be at the organizational level. In our research at Deloitte, we’ve found that it’s most powerful at the team level, because those are the people that you spend the most time with, and that have the biggest impact on your well-being. The cultures that do the best around well-being are those with constant feedback between the employer and the employee.
You have to get clear on what your boundaries are so you can play the long game. Because if you’re following someone else’s vision of success for you instead of your own, you’re going to end up being miserable and probably burned out.
TG: You write that you hope the better impulses that a lot of people have shown during the pandemic will continue after it ends. How do you see the concepts in the book playing out in this emerging world of remote and hybrid work?
Anh: My hope is that we’ve learned that we really do need this human connection, and that we’ll be more intentional about figuring out ways to create that connection and take advantage of the opportunities we have when we do finally get together in person.
Also, the genie has come out of the bottle with respect to remote work. A lot of organizations are going to have a hard time putting it back in and saying, “We’re not going to do remote work anymore.” So more and more organizations are trying to figure out a way to give people some of that flexibility. My thought — and my hope — is that it will stay.
Jen: I think the organizations that will truly thrive in this hybrid work future will recognize the value of the human in the workplace. It’s not all just about more hours and more work and more productivity. Yes, machines will be able to do things that humans will never be able to do. I hope organizations will realize that what have historically been viewed as “soft skills” are actually essential skills, like being able to build relationships and be empathetic and compassionate and creative. All of those actually require you to be well in order to do them on a long-term, high-performing, and sustainable basis.