• Becky Hain

Expert Insights: Sheree Nicholas

The importance of connection in the workplace


The way we work has undergone such rapid transformation over the past 2 years, and continues to do so. There’s been a significant shift from work being the purpose, to people seeking out more purposeful work, and employee expectations are changing.

During such times, creating purposeful connections in the workplace, inclusive of collaboration, learning and wellbeing has never been more important.

We were lucky to have Sheree Nicholas, Founder of People Factors Ltd and international Executive Coach, join us to explore the significance of connection in the workplace as we navigate these changes.


Social behaviour and connection is a critical part of how we function as humans. Can you share some insights on the neuroscience behind this?

Neuroscience impacts hugely the experiences we have at work. We are continuing to learn about how our brains function, and findings are relatively recent, with the first MRI only developed in the mid 1990s. Until then, we couldn't see what was happening in our brains and, more importantly, what was happening in our brains when we were interacting with other people. Now, we understand a lot more and a crucial learning is that social connection is fundamental to how we do things.

We're one of the few species that are born helpless. So without a tribe around us, we don't survive. We need to feel appreciated, that we belong, and that it's safe. If anyone's ever changed organisation, school, or country, there's a huge period of disruption where you don't feel like you belong due to having to learn the unspoken norms – from cultural norms to ways of working.

The non-conscious part of our brain is seeking out connections – assessing commonality, how to connect and, critically, whether there is enough trust to provide psychological safety.

Without this, we get that sense of not being fully able to engage the higher part of your brain, which is where all the magic happens. It's where our knowledge and experience sits, our ability to discover, share, connect, to brainstorm and co-create. If we don't feel fully connected, this doesn't fully engage. That’s why connection and belonging is so important.

 

Given the importance, what are some ways organisations can create opportunities to build connection and trusted relationships, particularly in a hybrid or remote working environment, where informal interactions happen much less frequently?

This is a really interesting one at the moment. Historically, the security we needed came from knowing our role description, who we report to, who's in our team – increasingly, this no longer applies. The world is changing so fast that by the time we write a whole lot of this stuff down, it's out of date. We need to look at setting people up to best use their skills and experience, but also provide them with access to opportunities where they can achieve a sense of purpose in the work they do, and seek to understand what they want to learn more about. Bringing these elements together is really important as it engages the part of our brain that enables us to think about complex problems, to come up with creative solutions, to move on the fly, and tap into all that knowledge. And connection here is critical. Multiple brains are going to come up with a better approach than a single one.

What I’ve seen both here in New Zealand and in the work I'm doing internationally is the strong sense of connection people felt being in the physical workplace - connected to their tribe, the familiarity of interacting with the person at the front desk, the security guard, wider teams. It's difficult to keep that same sense of connection in a fully remote environment.

We’ve seen connections weaken and a huge upsurge of people choosing to do something different. We’re seeing the impact of the great resignation, but other changes too, such as people deciding to retire early, and others resigning with no role to go to, taking time out to reevaluate what’s important to them. Individuals have different needs and therefore the sense of disconnection can vary.

When you're in the office, you can see and experience how other people are doing, you get a real sense of whether they’re having a good or bad day and we have the ability to check-in in a way that we can't do virtually. Finding alternative mechanisms is key. For example, finding various ways such as using online collaboration tools to foster social connection and create space outside of meeting agendas, to unite people as members of these tribes. The other thing worth noting is that there’s no right answer - it's important that we are open to understanding each other and experimenting to see what works best for us as a team, stimulating co-creation and connection.

 

How does a sense of purpose and creating meaning within the work we do link to the future of work?

Research has shown that there have always been fundamental drivers as humans in the workplace, but over the last 10 years, purpose has become one that wasn't there before. At an organisational level, this means giving people opportunities to understand how what they're doing is meaningful, and I'm seeing a shift in a lot of organisations where the strategy area is becoming less cumbersome, it's less about the decks that your Board might want to see, and more focused on helping employees understand how their work connects to the organisation’s purpose - who they’re doing it for, what impact they’re having in the world. For many people, what they really connect to is working for an organisation that’s doing more than just turning a profit.

Interestingly, the purpose for some people isn't always connected to the purpose of the organisation. Some people work in order to get money to contribute meaningfully outside of work. We see this with athletes and those with personal ventures, being well supported by their employer to pursue their passions alongside work. It's understanding purpose and connection at a holistic level.

Expectations are changing and people are thinking differently about work. Some might not want to work full-time for one organisation, instead working part-time and pursuing other interests. This can be challenging in large organisations with so many systems and processes. How organisations navigate this, to keep people connected and feeling valued, whilst allowing them to also feel connected to something else, is going to be interesting. Some organisations are doing it well, but it's still relatively new.

It's almost a perfect storm right now for employers. Social connection has weakened and for some there’s a separation from the organisation. The decision to leave, to do something different, isn't as hard as it would be if they were in the office every day. This is exacerbated by the fact that we have a talent shortage, with fierce competition for talent. People have been able to choose to leave in a way they may not have been able to just two years ago, and the incentive to stay is so much more than pay - it comes back to the social connection.

If we can understand what energises people, what fills their bucket, and create an environment where they feel part of a tribe and safe to experiment and co-create, that’s where you’ll see people fly.

As organisations work through all of this, it’s important they realise we’re not returning to work as we knew it, we’re co-creating something new and exciting. What connects people is their ability to reframe this in their mind and the role organisations can play is helping people navigate this to truly shift to more future-focused ways of working.

 

Sheree is the Founder of People Factors Limited, which supports leaders and teams through a mix of coaching, development and facilitation. She started her career as a chartered accountant, working in NZ, Australia, USA and UK. Recognising the importance of people as a key business driver then led her to a career in global HR roles, before founding People Factors 14 years ago. Sheree has worked with leaders and teams from over 50 countries and gets a thrill from seeing people and teams unlock their potential. She is certified in Conversational Intelligence® (C-IQ) which is underpinned by the latest research in neuroscience. She is also a member of the invitation-only ACE Virtuoso community of coaches.