July 13, 2023
The Covid-19 pandemic made connecting on an interpersonal level more difficult, sparking many people to suddenly realize how much they value social interaction. While restrictions on travel and recreation have largely fallen away, remote work is here to stay in some form or another. As a result, the disruption of our social ties in the workplace have been more enduring than in our personal lives. The more recent push by some companies to return to in-person work has raised important questions about the role of workplace social connections.
We recently surveyed senior people leaders at Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work about community in the evolving workplace, with a special focus on how remote work has changed workplace relationships and the most effective strategies to build workplace connections on remote or distributed teams.
Survey respondents overwhelmingly agree that workplace social connections are important to employee engagement and that the workplace has become more socially isolating in recent years. The panel was sharply divided on whether it is more difficult to build interpersonal ties on remote or distributed teams. Respondent commentary suggests substantial nuance underneath this consensus.
The panel overwhelmingly agreed that workplace social connections are important to employee engagement (69% “agree” or “strongly agree”), and that most managers have a good sense of whether their employees are happy in their jobs (76% “agree” or “strongly agree”). But the panelist commentary suggests some caveats. One respondent noted that “a recent round of internal anonymous surveys yielded that there was not conclusive evidence that there is direct correlation between social connections and engagement,” and another noted how “it’s not a magic bullet” because some workplace social norms can be exclusive rather than inclusive. With respect to how attuned managers are to their team’s wellbeing, one respondent noted that “given remote, hybrid, etc. I am not sure how many managers really take the time to connect with their team on a regular basis.”
The panel also agreed that the workplace has become more socially isolating in recent years: 69% of respondents “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with the statement. Respondent commentary pointed to the obvious reason: Remote work. “Work is more transactional vs. relationship driven [as a result of hybrid and remote work],” one respondent noted, while another said “many companies (including ours) still have a remote onboarding ‘hangover’ when it comes to building deep relationships.”
Respondents did not necessarily think that social isolation was an inevitable result of hybrid or remote work: “The ability to socially interact with one another is very possible, and effective, in the hybrid work environment. It just requires more intentionality, as well as a desire to seek each other out for meaningful conversations and connection points.” One respondent who “neither agreed nor disagreed” with statement had a pointed observation: “Remote work doesn't seem to be the reason people don't feel as connected. I think everyone's workload has increased tremendously over the last few years and that's the main reason for the disconnect.”
People leaders were more divided on the question of whether it’s more difficult to build trust on remote or distributed teams: 44% of respondents “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed” with the statement while 38% “agreed” or “strongly agreed”. (The remaining 17% neither agreed nor disagreed.)
One respondent who agreed with the statement noted that “most companies are not doing this well, and have not yet pivoted from investing in physical workplaces to investing in regular team building and travel across all levels, and/or programs to unite remote/distributed teams.” Another comment had a similar sentiment: “It’s not impossible, it can be done. But [it] take[s] much more time, effort and diligence on all team members’ parts.” Among respondents who disagreed with the statement, commentary tended to focus on new habits: “Trust can be built even if the teams are remote depending on the conversations held even virtually, how each team member supports one another and how much transparency is maintained within teams.”
Workplace relationships – like relationships across many communities – can be deep and narrow (like the typically strong bonds within a nuclear family), or diffuse and shallow (like the broader set of bonds of varying strength among neighbors). Responses to a follow-up question suggest that senior people leaders believe the core challenge for remote or distributed teams is more of the latter: It’s less a challenge of coordination and candor with a handful of close collaborators, and more a challenge of building a broad web of workplace relationships.
Only 4% of respondents “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that remote work makes honest conversations more difficult, and only 14% pointed to difficulties coordinating across time zones. By contrast, 68% “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that remote work leads to a smaller set of workplace connections beyond direct teams and collaborators, and 75% “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that it leads to fewer spontaneous conversations. The panel was almost evenly divided on the question of whether remote work has a negative impact on non-verbal communication: 36% “agreed” or “strongly agreed”, 33% “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed,” and 36% “neither agreed nor disagreed.”
Finally, we surveyed the panelists on what they view as the most important policies to promote connection among remote or distributed teams. Budgets for periodic in-person on-sites were, by far, rated as the most important policy – rated as “very important” by 62% of respondents. Peer learning tools, and interest- or identity-based virtual communities followed, with 39% and 38% of respondents respectively rating them as “very important.” Only 7% of respondents cited advocating for a return-to-office or hybrid workplace as “very important.”
Overall, senior people leaders at Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work are attuned to the irreplaceability of in-person connection. There is no free lunch when it comes to building the overlapping web of both deep and diffuse relationships that allow communities – workplace communities included – to thrive. But the respondents were also cognizant that those connections can be built and developed without a complete return to the pre-pandemic status quo.
Perhaps the most obvious outcome is to expect periodic cycles of enthusiasm and despair regarding the future of remote and in-person work. The professionals on the frontlines of the companies where employees report the highest levels of overall satisfaction appear to be neither trapped in the past, nor blinded by an illusory future when it comes to community and connection in an ever-evolving workplace.
Survey respondents were asked to what extent they agree or disagree with each of the following statements.
Respondents were also asked to rate how confident they were in their responses on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is “not at all confident” and 10 is “extremely confident.”
Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work People Leader Survey is a quarterly, invitation-only expert panel survey of the awardees recognized by Glassdoor’s 2023 employee-choice Best Places to Work and designed to guide People Leaders as they navigate a historically challenging moment for talent acquisition and management.
Responses were collected from Best Places to Work awardees in the United States (Large 100) and United Kingdom (50) between May 1st and May 19th, 2023. For companies recognized on both lists and where applicable, we attempted to identify distinct People leadership in each country. Where there is a unified people leadership for both countries, responses were double-weighted. A total of 29 weighted responses were received.
For each question, respondents were asked to rate their confidence in their response on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is “not at all confident” and 10 is “extremely confident”. Aggregate results are reported both unweighted and confidence weighted.
Respondents included C-suite executives (Chiefs), Senior Vice Presidents, Presidents, and Senior Directors responsible for People, Human Resources, Recruitment, Employer Brand, and Workplace Experience functions. In total, respondents reported 440 years of People Leadership experience (average 15.2 years). Nearly one-in-four respondents was a Vice President or C-Suite executive. The complete list of companies invited to participate in the survey can be found here.