Employee connections hero

Forget Return to the Office. Focus on Employee Connections.

The debate continues about returning workers to the office, even if i4cp research makes clear that mandating face time isn’t a great idea. There’s even a strong case that CEOs are the people least qualified to make return-to-office decisions, given that they tend to operate and experience work differently than just about anyone else in their organizations.

CEOs and business leaders often cite the value of in-person collaboration, innovation, and intangible social benefits as justifications for in-person work models. While there is something to be said for casual hallway interactions, what leaders are really talking about—whether they know it or not—is the importance of building and maintaining powerful employee connections.

More specifically, these leaders are saying they can’t see these connections happening. The reality, however, is that it has never been easier to observe, analyze, and make intentional changes to the way employees connect.

Why employee connections matter

Following the onset of the pandemic, many workers went remote for the first time, and companies heightened their focus on relationship-building, especially during new employee onboarding. Their aim? Helping new workers quickly establish connections with strategic stakeholders—on their own teams and enterprise-wide—to support healthy, effective networking and improve outcomes in multiple areas:    

  • Collaboration
  • Innovation
  • Time-to-full-productivity
  • Talent retention

High-performance organizations (those that excel in revenue growth, market share, profitability, and customer satisfaction) are much more likely to be intentional in connecting employees; and to train, encourage, and incentivize managers to think strategically about how to facilitate those interactions. In fact, i4cp research shows that leaders at high-performance organizations are 8x more likely to actively help others build effective networks.

Further emphasizing the benefits of forming intentional connections, a Gallup study on team performance found that the top 20% of teams (in terms of their connectedness) see 59% lower employee turnover and 41% lower absenteeism.

How to bring employee connections to the forefront

It is possible to visualize employee connections, the quality of those interactions, and track improvements over time by applying organizational network analysis (ONA), an approach that in the past was very challenging to execute but now can be easily implemented to:

  • Identify go-to people within an organization who otherwise might be hidden in a traditional hierarchy chart
  • Find individuals who may be overburdened by too much collaboration (these may be go-to people—valuable superstars to be shielded from burnout)
  • Discover people who are underutilized and on the fringes of employee networks—those with expertise to offer but who aren’t being included (or, more negatively, who may be avoided)
  • Analyze culture and/or engagement at the local or group level to identify pockets of toxicity or disengagement
  • Monitor energy levels of interactions—for example, if an individual is a bottleneck for a particular workflow and is known for being hard to work with, ONA will bring this to light. Conversely, identifying employees who are energizing in interactions can inform promotions and project leadership choices

Some companies conduct passive network analysis by monitoring email/messaging communication flow between employees— this can be helpful to understand the frequency of collaboration within your organization, but not the quality.

i4cp suggests a more direct and transparent approach, which asks employees to complete a short survey identifying their main collaborators and rating the quality of their interactions.

Such a survey can be set up in a matter of minutes (i4cp has a platform that does this), and results can provide a detailed view of employee connections, where effective collaboration is—and isn’t—happening, and more. Over time, regular repetition of the survey provides a mechanism for tracking key performance indicators and gauging networking success.

Data yielded by the survey enables varied responses to drive positive change where needed. i4cp’s extensive research on employee connections and tips for improving collaborative approaches are supported by an ongoing, community-driven working group dedicated to identifying and exploring newly emerging techniques in employee networking.

As with other types of surveys, it’s important to conduct them periodically to track KPIs and measure success.

Will returning to the office make employee connections better?

Some business leaders believe that employees need to return to the office to connect, collaborate, and innovate effectively, but such beliefs ultimately miss the point. Yes, employees who work side-by-side and perform similar work are likely to connect more frequently, but consider these questions:

  • Does having your entire workforce back in the office mean that Leah in product development will suddenly start interacting with Mohammed in sales more frequently?
  • Will your newest employee know where to find answers, or who to ask? What about your employees who work on the other side of the planet, or in the next city over? Does having them onsite make it any easier to collaborate and innovate? 
  • How do you know that in-person connections are effective (or energizing)?

Honest answers to the preceding questions may reveal that leaders should focus less on returning to the way things were and more on facilitating employee connections that result in happier and more productive workplaces.

Interested in better understanding how employee connections can be measured and improved?  Contact us for a research briefing.

Erik Samdahl
Erik is the head of marketing at i4cp, and has nearly 20 years in the market research and human capital research industry.