Loneliness and loss of connection, a workplace epidemic that has grown increasingly disruptive, is spreading and threatens the cultural bonds within many businesses.Inside of any great problem, however, is the possibility for great opportunity. By understanding the drivers of loneliness, and the instigators of our loss of connection or sense of belonging, we might discover simple action steps that any organization can take to foster a resilient culture. We might also, in turn, create more meaningful workspaces for the return of our teams.
One of the most compelling drivers of connection is our sense of propinquity. This is the natural human tendency to develop tight interpersonal bonds with the people and things that are closest to us. Propinquity exists at the core of every successful team, every intimate relationship, every social bond we create. Propinquity is why the physical workplace matters as much as it does.
Twenty plus years ago, I supported a workplace design project with one of the largest U.S. banks as that organization transitioned into a flexible work model it called “Future of Work.” It was an early attempt at agile teleworking before those concepts became mainstream. In many ways, this way of working was incredibly successful. Employees reported a 41% increase in workplace satisfaction, a 10% reduction in lost time to distraction, and a 12% increase in satisfaction for the time they had for concentration.
These statistics tell a powerful story about the benefits of giving people choice over their work experience. These numbers also hid a curious side effect. The organization was known for its tight workplace culture. Team members quickly developed meaningful and familial relationships with the co-workers they sat next to every single day. They would attend each other’s children’s birthday parties and host weekend cookouts together. This is not an uncommon experience in many workplaces. When teams transitioned to the “Future of Work” model, however, something changed. An insight shared with me by the “Future of Work” project manager was that when employees stopped sitting next to the same people every day, those relationships fractured, and the culture of those teams ultimately suffered due to the lack of daily connection. People stopped going to each other’s children’s parties and weekend cookouts. What the organization was experiencing was the power of propinquity. Unfortunately, they were experiencing the negative impact: what happens when an intense sense of connection fades.
- The Rule of Proximity
- The Rule of Frequency
- The Rule of Affinity
The Rule of Proximity“The closer you are to someone the more likely you are to develop a bond.” Similar to what teams found in the “Future of Work” project, our proximity to each other leads to deep connections. Sharing the same physical space (or possibly virtual space) increases our chances that a relationship will develop and that our cultural influences will intertwine.
The Rule of Frequency“The more often you connect with someone the faster that bond with grow.” As we develop bonds, they are strengthened by the frequency of our interactions within them. The more often we see, touch, and engage each other the more resilient the strands of that bond will become.
The Rule of Affinity“The more similarities you share with someone the stronger that bond will become.” This is perhaps the most troublesome rule as it presents within it the risks of unconscious bias. It is our nature to be drawn to and to think only about people and things most like ourselves or our own interests. We seek out and develop fast connections with the people, and ideas that we most intimately and innately understand. As we shape our teams and our workplaces, we must be mindful to create experiences that promote and support a diverse experience for our entire organization, and to consider the needs and affinities of both those most like and unlike ourselves. Sharing the same physical space (or possibly virtual space) increases our chances that a relationship will develop and that our cultural influences will intertwine.
To help teams adapt to this changing world of work, consider how you might apply some of the following approaches to foster propinquity among and within teams.
Listen to the Voice of the Employee
It is important to get a pulse on how employees are currently experiencing life at work and how the elements of propinquity are playing a role in both employee engagement as well as the organization’s success. Gather feedback and listen to your staff to learn more about what is working well, areas of opportunity, and future needs .
About the Author:
Christopher Good is Chief Creative Officer at One Workplace, and Co-Founder of +One Work Culture Consulting. His work is dedicated to changing the way we think about our relationship to work and the workplace. He is an advocate of the design thinking process and is a frequent speaker and presenter at events across the country, leading active workshops to solve big problems. Most of all he believes in the power of design to do good things for other people.