Episode 18: The Importance of Social Connection in a Time of Physical Distancing

Join Scott Spohn as he discusses how to create strategic and systemized approaches to social connection to help your organization emerge strong in the COVID-19 environment.

Transcript

Introduction

[00:00:09] JL: Welcome to today's edition of DHG’s GrowthCast. I'm your host, John Locke. At DHG, our strength lies in our technical knowledge, our industry intelligence, and our future focus. We understand business needs and are laser-focused on company goals. In this ever-changing world, DHG's GrowthCast provides insights and thought-provoking conversations on topics and trends that address growth opportunities and challenges in the current and future marketplace. Thanks for joining us as we discuss tomorrow's needs today.

[00:00:42] ANNOUNCER: The views and concepts expressed by today's panelists are their own and not those of Dixon Hughes Goodman LLP. Always consult the advice of your legal and financial professional before taking any action.

Interview

[0:00:58] JL: I'm really excited to introduce today's topic, the importance of social connection in a time of physical distancing. I’m joined today by Scott Spohn, the leader of DHG Advisories People and Change Practice. Scott is the architect of DHG's innovation, acceleration, experience, and a passionate advocate of the power of positive psychology in driving individual and organizational performance. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin in the Haslam School of Business at the University of Tennessee, Scott joins us today from his home in Metro Atlanta.

Scott, welcome to GrowthCast.

[0:01:31] SS: John, thanks so much for inviting me to join. It’s absolutely my pleasure.

[0:01:35] JL: Well, a few weeks ago, I remember you and I were chatting about the term social distancing but more specifically about our mutual distaste for that word.

[0:01:46] SS: It really is the wrong word. What we’re really essentially talking about is physical distancing. From a public health perspective, we all understand what this means. We need to maintain a healthy distance during the COVID-19 pandemic. But what's the impact of this distance on our emotional well-being?

The benefits of positive psychology, engagement, productivity, and optimism have all been well documented through the research thought leaders like Martin Seligman, Shawn Achor, Barbara Fredrickson. But what their research has demonstrated time and again is that the most significant predictor of individual happiness and organizational performance is social connection across people and teams, and that’s the social connection that is frankly really challenged by physical distancing.

[0:02:43] JL: This happiness is just not psychological.

[0:02:47] SS: John, you're exactly right that the happiness that flows from social connection is biological. When we make these social connections, our bodies actually release several stress-fighting chemicals that reduce anxiety and improve concentration and focus. These chemicals also enable us see adversity as a path to growth. When we do experience stress, we’re actually better prepared to bounce back from its short and long-term effects. This clearly couldn’t be more important than in the wake of COVID-19.

[0:03:22] JL: Boy, that is so true. I mean, we are in an unprecedented time now, and the way humans are reacting to this is really amazing. But we recover from shocks to culture and bad economic times before. I'm old enough to remember Black Monday, 9/11, and most recently the financial crisis of 2008, so we have hope, right?

[0:03:48] SS: No doubt. History is filled with examples of our culture overcoming far more challenging events. But this one, it’s a little different. It's a shift from those recent examples in that specifically how COVID-19 is transmitted and almost as importantly the fear of close interaction, especially in the near term that has emerged.

[0:04:14] JL: What are individuals and organizations, team leaders who are trying to manage through all this, what are they to do?

[0:04:21] SS: Well, that’s the great news. There really are things that you can focus on right now, and I’m going to focus on three things, so three tangible and impactful strategies that individuals and leaders can implement to maintain or even increase the social connection inside their organization. First is leaders and individuals can engage in what we call connection bursts. These are numerous brief connections with your teammates and colleagues, and they may incur in person or electronically. But regardless of vehicle, each will build energy and capacity within the group.

This is probably some bread and butter, the second is be there. When you engage in these connections or any other interaction, eliminate other distractions and be fully present. The combination of stress, activity volume, or in some instances lack of activity volume can really challenge our ability to focus on the social connections, really short-circuiting the benefit.

The third and final one, and this could be more important, give yourself some space. As you and your teammates progress to this period of uncertainty, avoid the urge to over schedule. Give everyone the time and space to connect. Research has shown the best leaders provide their teams with space and time to let these moments of social connection develop organically. If you implement these three tangible strategies in your daily routines, again, the research shows that the social connection within your network will really increase.

[0:06:08] JL: I love it and I love the simplicity of those three principles. What I’m thinking as I hear you talk, I am often going back to conversations I’ve had with leaders who almost with a badge of honor talk about their 9 to 10 back-to-back Zoom calls. It’s like – That's not really what we should be doing here. I mean, we need to create space or not over schedule, especially in this environment.

[0:06:36] SS: That is exactly right and just that idea, that principle of intentionally creating space. That phrase is really important for folks as they’re thinking about how to really survive and move forward in this time.

[0:06:53] JL: I love the term connection bursts too. That's just so visual to think about taking that time and just getting with somebody for a brief period of time. So connection burst being present with somebody, giving them our total selves for whatever time that we have and then creating some space for just some natural human authentic interaction. Those are three great ones. How did you choose these three?

[0:07:18] SS: Well, two reasons. One is they’re tied to real research. It’s not goofy stuff. It's things that are really tied to research that has shown to drive real impact. That’s number one. Then number two, you set it. They’re pretty simple but the thing to remember is while simple, it doesn't mean easy. So without real intentionality about building these things into your routines and having support across your network, these strategies might be easy to implement, but they might not be quite as easy to sustain.

[0:07:57] JL: They’re great short-term strategies but I have a little bit of concern about the long-term. Can you address that?

[0:08:03] SS: Yeah. It’s a great point, John. As we think the long-term, COVID-19 is a serious challenge to our environment and the economy. As we mentioned before, history has taught us that this too shall pass. Without passing the demands of business, personal commitments, and just that general noise of life, it will return. How do we rebuild and then some industries maintain that social connection? Why is this important? The reason why it's important because we know that connection is the foundation of individual and organizational advantages associated with happiness and optimism.

We would suggest two strategies, and I might even call them imperatives. The first, we need to systematize social connection. I know that sounds like a goofy consultant word but systemizing social connection. Leaders in the post-COVID-19 world won't be able to rely on traditional and social connection tactics like high-fives and happy hours and management by walking around. When we emerge from COVID-19, we’ll be a more virtual and dispersed workforce, but our need for social connection will have never been greater.

For that reason, leaders should really implement formalized programs designed to build social connection and, this is important, drive meaningful return on investment for the organization.

[0:09:34] JL: Let me ask you a question about that. What I'm hearing you say is that we need to build a structure around connection that was formally very easy and informal prior to this. Could you just give an example of a formalized program that someone might consider implementing post-COVID-19 stay-at-home?

[0:10:00] SS: Sure. The informal programs, whether it was, “Hey, this is just our routine or our connection points,” they relied on those happenstance or those serendipitous interactions. As you think about our post-COVID-29 world, how do you make sure those interactions occur in a more structured fashion or it over how I might say a more fluid fashion? In that sense, how do we build our routines? How do we build our meeting structures? How do we build our Zoom cadence? How do we build our client interactions to include elements that drive social connection?

Those elements may be, whether it has to do with gratitude, whether it has to do with empathy, whether it has to do with any different element of a program, that helps them get a bit deeper into what they’re interacting with folks around.

[0:11:07] JL: Great. The one strategy is systematize. What was the second you were thinking to with us?

[0:11:15] SS: The second one is as we move through this period of uncertainty from the past to what now we talk about as that new normal that we know really little about, people need something to hold onto. They need something to provide them some sort of stability through that transition. Life after COVID-19 will be different. The imperative for leaders in that environment will be to focus our teams on those positive objects that will support their transition to that next normal.

One of these transitional objects might be in a mission or another might be a program that you connect to. So we talked about those systemized programs. It might be a program you connect to or a rallying point or a value set or your direct leader, any these things. The nature of the object really truly isn't important, but it's ability to symbolize something that someone can hold onto that can provide emotional stability as someone moves from a past to a new beginning is really foundational.

These are clearly longer-term things, creating a systemized program really looking towards those transitional objects to help individuals move through a change or a significant event. So they’re clearly long-term, but we really strongly believe that you need to be setting the foundation and working on these things today as they’re becoming pretty mission-critical as we look into the future.

[0:12:51] JL: Very, very interesting. I think keeping people focused during this time on positive things and the way they can add value to a transition, all of that is so critical to keep people's eyes moving forward as opposed to focused on today and all the things maybe that they don't have or miss, right? We miss a lot of things.

[0:13:13] SS: Right, right.

[0:13:16] JL: Scott, you emphasized the return element of any program aimed at systematizing social connection beyond the obvious. Why is the emphasis here?

[0:13:25] SS: Well, that’s a great question. Well, organizations are going to emerge from COVID-19 drained on a number of levels, but one of those is likely going to be financial. Any program designed to build social connection that will leverage the power of positive psychology must contribute to those business drivers that have tangible economic impact. So engagement, retention, productivity, these are keys to organizations’ financial health as we move forward.

That is why we at DHG chose to add the Orange Frog Workshop to our portfolio of people and change offerings based on the researcher, Shawn Achor. The Orange Frog Workshop is an experiential learning exercise where participants learn the power of positive psychology in driving those tangible metrics. Building an organization that leverages the power of positivity and optimism and engagement, it really isn’t easy and, true, doesn't sound that way. But if done right and done with the right approach and the right level of engagement, it truly can have the meaningful economic impact that we believe really should be the foundation of any program designed to build social connection.

[0:14:45] JL: When you think about this in the form of metrics, I mean, we are a metric-driven society right now, and metrics are determining our future. But as we come out of COVID-19, boy, the metrics associated with operating our business are going to be even more critical. How is this going to impact engagement, retention, and the impact of productivity? I think you and I both agree to the fact that this could be a game changer if done well, right?

[0:15:16] SS: Completely agree and it's a true way to match really wise business investment with a really, really prudent investment in your people and something we’re just very excited about.

[0:15:30] JL: Well, Scott, this is a fascinating topic. I personally – We could talk about this for an hour or more. I just want to thank you so much for spending some time with us today and help us understand really the impact of this. Thanks for joining us.

[0:15:43] SS: John thanks a ton. It was great and I appreciate the time.

[0:15:46] JL: All right. I look forward to future opportunities .

End of Interview

[0:15:50] JL: You’ve been listening to DHG GrowthCast with Scott Spohn, leader of DHG’s Advisories People and Change Practice. We hope that you now have additional insights into how creating strategic and systemized approach to social connection. It can help your organization emerge strong from the current COVID-19 environment.

I'm your host, John Locke, and I look forward to reconnecting with you again soon on another episode of DHG GrowthCast.

[0:16:15] ANNOUNCER: Research reference within this podcast refers to the work of Shawn Achor and other prominent members of the research community. A list of those researchers can be found in the footnotes to Scott's article, Social Connection in a Time of Physical Distancing, located on dhg.com.

References

  1. 1. Baker, S. (April 8, 2009) Putting a price on social connections. BusinessWeek.
  2. Campion, M.A., Papper, E.M., & Medsker, G.J. (1996). Relations between work team characteristics and effectiveness: A replication and extension. Personnel Psychology, 49, 429-452.
  3. Diener, E., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2008). Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, at 66.
  4. Valliant, G. (July 16, 2009). Yes, I stand by my words, “Happiness equals love-full stop.” Positive Psychology News Daily.
  5. Baumeister, R.F., & Leary, M.R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.
  6. Heaphy, E. & Dutton, J.E. (2008). Positive social interactions and the human body at work: Linking organization and physiology. Academy of Management Review, 33, 137-162; Theorell, T., Orth-Gomer, K., & Eneroth, P. (1990). Slow reacting immunoglobin in relation to social support and changes in job strain: A preliminary note. Psychosomatic Medicine, 52, 511-516.
  7. Carlson, D.S., & Perrewe, P.L. (1999). The role of social support in the stressor-strain relationship: An examination of work-family conflict. Journal of Management 25, (4), 513-540.
  8. Achor, S. (2011). The Happiness Advantage. Random House, at 178.
  9. Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, at 2.
  10. Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, at 161.
  11. Cohen, D., & Prusak, L. (2002). In good company: how social capital makes organizations work. Boston: Harvard Business School.
  12. Achor, Shawn (2011). The Happiness Dividend. Harvard Business Review - Digital
About DHG's GrowthCast

At DHG, our strength lies in our technical knowledge, our industry intelligence and our future focus. We understand business needs and are laser focused on company goals. In this ever-changing world, DHG’s Growthcast, provides insights and thought -provoking conversations on topics and trends that address growth opportunities and challenges in the current and future marketplace. Join us in discussing tomorrow’s needs today.

Disclaimer: The views and concepts expressed by today’s guests are their own and not those of Dixon Hughes Goodman LLP. Always consult with your legal and financial professional before taking any action.

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