Propinquity: Connecting for Success in the New World of Work

The world of work is now distinctly different from the one that we recently left behind. Organizations that once insisted that their teams could never successfully work in a remote environment have suddenly been convinced that distributed teams and working from home is an effective and productive work mode. Contrarily, organizations that have long promoted remote work have suddenly realized that sending people away from the office wholesale has come with dramatic side effects.

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.

Propinquity is an emotional response. It is driven as much by our hormones as it is by our intentions. Neurotransmitters produced in deep recesses of our brains, such as oxytocin, influence our sense of trust, emotional bonding, and connectedness. These automatic responses can be left to chance, or they can be shaped and influenced by intentional experiences that we design into our workday – both physically as well as virtually. Whether working from home or from the office, the following three principles are central to defining and nurturing propinquity.

  1. The Rule of Proximity
  2. The Rule of Frequency
  3. 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. Proximity increases the chances of developing propinquity.

The Rule of Frequency

“The more often you connect with someone the faster those bonds will grow.” The more often we see, touch, and engage each other the more resilient and fast-growing those bonds will become. Frequency of interactions increases the speed at which propinquity is developed.

The Rule of Affinity

“The more similarities you share with someone the stronger those bonds 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 think only about people and things most like us or aligned to 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. Affinity helps strengthen propinquity.

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.

Redefine Employee Experience

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.

Prioritize Communications

We are all on a journey into the unknown and that kind of uncertainty can lead to fear and resistance by our teams. Be open about the journey you are on—the good, the bad, the unknown—and reinforce your focus on leading with the best interests of your mission and your people in mind. There is no such thing as overcommunication when it comes to the bridge between your teams and their sense of connection to the organization.

Rethink Your Workspace

As your teams make their return to the office, consider ways to celebrate the reason your spaces exist. It is no longer just a place to sit at a desk. Our workplaces must now become a place to connect, reinforce culture, share in our propinquity, and serve all the work experiences that are better than any individual desk could ever be.

Connect to What Matters Most

Define and clarify your organizational ‘north stars’ and help employees align their mindset, behaviors, and work to these critical navigational tools. Whether it is the organization’s mission, vision, or values, use these constructs to keep the organization marching together.

Plan. Activate. Assess. Course Correct. Repeat.

The reality is that no one has this new ‘world of work’ thing figured out. Apply the same approach you do to problem solving and innovating to serve your mission and your customers. Design a data-drive plan. Put the plan into motion. Set milestones and check progress along the way. Determine what is working well and what might need to be adjusted. Ask for feedback on things you can shift and evolve.
Remembering that our human community is both resilient and interdependent allows us to have faith that no matter the challenge we will continue to benefit from and seek the power of our positive interpersonal connections. For those leading teams of people through this time or helping organizations transition to ever greater use of remote work, it is important that we remember that frequent connection builds trust, aligns goals, and fosters workplace culture. With a mindful approach to the influences of propinquity we can each ensure that our workplace culture can remain strong no matter where or how we work.

Interested in learning more about how to apply propinquity in your workplace? Click here.

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.