Can You Stay Physically Distanced But Socially Connected As You Work?

Despite ongoing calls from leaders and media outlets around the world for us to be “socially distanced” from each other, the World Health Organization has cautioned that what is actually required is physical distance and social connection.  Why does this change in language matter?

One of the most consistent research findings, when it comes to caring for our wellbeing, is that our relationships with each other help to support our mental and physical health.  In fact, studies suggest that feeling alone ranks alongside smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity in terms of its effects on your health.

“It’s a really important time for us to be connecting as we work, partly because of the magic of what connection does,” explained Professor Jane Dutton from the University of Michigan, when we interviewed her recently.  “It’s an extraordinarily powerful booster shot or vitamin that we can take to help us be psychologically and physiologically and socially stronger.”

Jane’s research has found that high-quality connections – connections in which you feel positive regard, mutuality, and vitality – can strengthen your cardiovascular system, make your immune system stronger, and elicit hormones, like oxytocin, that make you trust people and want to help others.  Psychologically, high-quality connections have been found to increase your capacity to think, improve your capacity for resilience, help you be more creative, and activate prosocial motivation that strengthens your relationships.  And organizationally, high-quality connections have been found to support learning behaviors, boost commitment and engagement, and improve efficiency and performance.

“At this time of great uncertainty and upheaval in our workplaces, we need to appreciate the incredible power of these social connections,” explained Jane.  “Even short-term interactions that we have with strangers can be powerful.”

To improve our ability to physically distance and stay socially connected as we work together, Jane suggests the following:

  • Engaging respectfully  –  People’s time is precious, so come prepared to connect.  How can you show the people you’re connecting with that you genuinely care about the time you’re spending with them?  For example, be fully present by turning off your phone or notifications, and turning on your camera if you’re online.  What can you do to convey genuine interest and curiosity about how someone is doing?  For example, come prepared with questions you can ask to engage them in conversation – see Jane’s great suggestions here.  Do you need to set ground rules around the frequency, duration, and format of online communications?  For example, Jane suggested 45 minutes may be the ideal length of time for an online meeting.
  • Enabling tasks  –  Make it easy for people to ask for help and to support each other.  To set the stage, kick off your meetings by asking each person to share what they need help with at the moment.  Hold a reciprocity ring or start a reciprocity board, where people can easily ask for help, and others can offer support.  Facilitating opportunities to help each other is an easy and effective way to build connections.
  • Creating rapid trust  –  Creating safe spaces, where you can be vulnerable with each other, activates trust.  Make it safe to talk honestly about the struggles people might be encountering during this unprecedented moment in history.  Know that struggle is not a sign that people are breaking but rather that they have an opportunity for learning and growth in front of them. 
  • Being playful    Play is an important way that we build connections.  Prioritizing time to share silly memes, funny stories, good music, and activities that bring a smile to people’s faces, is an important way to facilitate positive emotions, like joy and interest, and to help people stay resourced during this challenging time.  Be willing to experiment with new ways of playing together while you need to maintain physical distance from each other.
  • Staying grateful  –  Expressing gratitude and appreciation for others supercharges our connections.  Take the time to thank people for showing up, for the conversation, for what you learned, for the help you valued, for the smiles you shared.  Make sure that you follow through on any promises you’ve made so that people know how much you value them.
  • Reaching for compassion  –  Be mindful that there is always pain in every room.  Everybody, in some way or another, is carrying pain or suffering, and everybody is doing it in unique ways, so try to hold back judgment and be generous in your interpretations of other people’s actions.

What can you do today to fuel social connection with the people you work with while you’re physically distanced from each other?