In a Hybrid World, Every Worker Will Need to Feel Essential

Posted 05.04.2021

Back in the days when I lived outside of Washington, DC, I was always fascinated by the snow days that were so big they pretty much shut the Federal government down. The guidance broadcast on the television and radio stations on those mornings was that only “essential workers” should report to work and that “non-essential workers” should stay home. I always wondered what it felt like to be deemed “non-essential.” Not good, I’d think. Does anyone really want to be categorized as non-essential? Since just about all humans need to feel needed, I’d guess most people would answer no.

As we move to hybrid work environments where large numbers of people work from home or remotely all the time or part of the time, I think organizational leaders will need to be careful to not set up situations where lots of folks end up feeling non-essential. For organizations to be fully successful in the emerging hybrid world of work, every worker will need to feel essential – like they and their work matter. For leaders to create that feeling for their teams, the connection experience at work will generally need to be of much higher quality than it’s been before.

The risks of not getting it right are high for both the organization and the people who work within it. As cited in a recent column in the Financial Times, recent surveys show that the majority of workers in the US and UK who have been working from home during the pandemic are not that excited about going back to the office. Studies conducted by researchers from INSEAD and Boston University show that the reluctance is not so much because people enjoy working from their couch but because the way the work was organized before the pandemic had left a majority of them feeling lonely and disconnected from the people they work with. As work has gone more and more global and 24/7, many professionals have ended up working in teams that are fluid, asynchronous and temporary. People come and go and drop in and drop out which leaves everyone feeling disconnected. As a result, during the pandemic, many professionals have found that they’ve gotten more of the human connection that they naturally need while working from home than they do in the office.

If you’ve been working from home for the last year, you may be nodding your head in agreement because you’re among the many people I’ve talked with in the past year who didn’t realize how much they’d appreciate the time and connection they’ve had with their family members and how much they’d been missing meaningful connection at work. Or maybe you’re thinking, “Really? I’ve talked in more meetings more often on Zoom in the past year than I ever have in my life!” Yeah, that could well be true but talking doesn’t equal connection. You’ve been in back-to-back Zooms for the past year because the situation demanded tightly scheduled days to get all the content you had to deal with through the pipes. And, if that’s you, you’re likely feeling disconnected, burned out and exhausted with work these days. Maybe even a little bit lonely from too much “contenting” and too little connecting. That’s why I’ve been writing and speaking so much lately about the need for companies to get the balance right between driving the content of the work and nurturing the human connection that makes the work possible.

The importance of doing that well is made clear in a recent research paper published in the Harvard Economic Review. The authors surveyed 130 millennials about loneliness and work. Forty-one percent of them regularly feel lonely and 56 percent believe loneliness affects their productivity. The paper goes on to cite other historical and recent studies that bear out their findings across other age groups including one by Gallup that estimates the economic cost to the United States of lost productivity due to the disengagement triggered by loneliness to be around $500 billion a year. At a personal and physiological level, the Harvard paper points out the well-known impacts of loneliness on health and well-being including a 29 percent higher risk of heart attacks and a 32 percent increase in the likelihood of strokes.

So, if we’ve been dealing with a loneliness at work problem before and during the pandemic, it’s likely that, in the absence of leaders making some smart choices, things are going to get worse as we move to a hybrid model coming out of the pandemic.  The disruption and learning curve of learning to work that way could easily cause connection to fall further through the cracks. To keep their people feeling essential and engaged, leaders and organizations are going to have to innovate and invest in creating connection experiences that are of much higher quality and impact than what we’ve done up until now.

In next week’s post, I’m going to share three of my early strategies for doing that. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on anything I’ve shared in this week’s post or any high-quality connection experiences you’ve had during the pandemic or in these very early post-pandemic days in the US that made you or others feel essential, valued and engaged. Please share your thoughts in a comment if you’re reading this through LinkedIn or by sending me an email if you’re reading this directly on the Eblin Group blog.

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