Once upon a time before the pandemic, Washington, DC was a city bustling with professionals decked in suits and accompanying charisma. Almost every evening, somewhere in the nation’s capital, a professional happy hour drew crowds to listen to honored speakers and meet other professionals. Conversations at these networking events continued during follow-up meetings over coffee or back at the office the following day.
Working from our home offices this past year, we’ve missed out on opportunities to connect with our colleagues in person. Instead, we relied on technology to keep us connected. New York Times best-selling author and leadership expert Dan Schawbel points out that despite its benefits, teleworking can lead to feelings of isolation. Physical isolation from our co-workers presents a challenge when trying to establish relationships. Though seemingly inconsequential, work relationships can impact our attitudes towards our jobs and our work performance. According to a LinkedIn survey, 46% of professionals see a correlation between work friendships and happiness. Relationship-building in the workplace positively impacts work satisfaction, cooperation — and ultimately your output.
So in the coming weeks and months, as employers make plans to bring us safely back to work, how can we make up for that lost human connection when we return?
One way to approach being back in the office is to make a conscious effort to connect with colleagues in a respectful and empathetic way. C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “If you could see humanity spread out in time, as God sees it, it would look like one single growing thing - rather like a very complicated tree. Every individual would appear connected with every other.” Indeed, the collective memory of a prolonged pandemic is a thread that will tie us together long after the pandemic is over.
As Catholics and social beings, we are called to strive for human connection - to recognize the bonds that tie us together. Whether you’re getting to know new colleagues or seeing longtime colleagues after months apart, here are a few tips to help you connect as you transition back into an in-person setting:
1. Getting to Know a New Colleague: Start with a simple opener.
This type of question helps break the ice by starting with a simple topic that does not require much thought. It’s a way to acknowledge your colleague’s presence and offer a listening ear.
Example: “How was your commute today?”
2. Catching up with Colleagues: Strive to relate.
In nurturing human connection, we should look for similarities with others. However, even if you find that you do not have similar interests, this question can help you learn more about your colleague.
Example: “Have you picked up any good books or TV shows lately?” or “Did you catch the game this past weekend?”
3. Talking to a Colleague Whose Work Doesn’t Overlap with Yours: Ask about current projects.
Stay up-to-date on the latest projects that your co-workers are undertaking. Doing so can bring fresh ideas to their decision-making process and create an opportunity for you to ask for feedback on your own work.
Example: “Tell me about one of the projects you are working on.”
4. Keeping the Work Relationships Going: Plan to meet in person (while respecting their comfort level).
Throughout the Bible, Jesus shows us the importance of sharing a meal in making human connections. Suggesting an in-person coffee or lunch is a great way to catch up with colleagues, so make sure to introduce the possibility of an in-person meetup if they’re comfortable with this idea.
Example: “Would you like to join us/me for coffee or lunch?”
While professionals across the country might not be signing up for a happy hour talk anytime soon, there are small ways that we can restore human connections when we return to the office.