World Reimagined

Why Businesses Need New Networks to Recover Post-Pandemic

Videoconferencing
Credit: fizkes / stock.adobe.com

Even before Covid-19 left many isolated at home, millions of workers across the country were struggling with loneliness -- so much so that a former U.S. Surgeon General called for an end to the “loneliness epidemic.”

“At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making,” Vivek Murthy wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 2017. By 2019, 61% of Americans were feeling lonely.

Throughout the pandemic, feelings of social isolation have been exacerbated. As the Society for Human Resource Management reports, this can have a dramatic effect on how engaged people feel with their work. When engagement drops, so does productivity -- and costs such as absenteeism and turnover skyrocket.

Innovation plummets

That’s only the beginning. Because people are interacting less, networks inside companies are “shrinking,” Microsoft’s WorkLab found in a recent analysis. “Companies became more siloed than they were before the pandemic.”

With less collaboration, innovation drops off. Businesses are paying a price by missing out on innovations. “When you lose connections, you stop innovating,” Microsoft Senior Principal Researcher Nancy Baym said. “It’s harder for new ideas to get in and groupthink becomes a serious possibility.”

While many offices are reopening, the option of returning to an office at least some days won’t instantly solve this problem. Pre-pandemic times showed us that people can feel lonely and be siloed off from one another on site as well. Also, the disappearance of in-person interactions over the past year has made many people, as the New York Times puts it, “socially awkward.” So connecting with lots of people in person may feel like a struggle. In short, networks won’t magically reappear.

But this time serves as an opportunity for businesses to address the challenge by helping employees create new networks inside their companies. To be successful, these must be built on a foundation of meaningful one-on-one relationships. This can be achieved in person or remotely using video tools that people have become more comfortable with. It works across different locations and functions.

It means going beyond happy hours and Zoom chats, and being purposeful about connecting. This is where peer coaching comes in.

‘What is this magic?’

When people hear the term “coach,” they usually think of a scenario in which one person is an expert or teacher, and the other is the learner. But in peer coaching, two people come together to discuss challenges, offer feedback, share ideas, and help each other come up with their own solutions.

In my work with all sorts of organizations, I’ve found that a remarkable thing happens. When people come together one-on-one for a guided discussion (at Imperative, our platform provides a structure for these dialogues), people quickly let down their guards and connect on a deep level.

Take Hasbro for example, which recently began peer coaching. Explaining the company’s journey in a webinar, Melissa Henderson, vice president of Human Resources, said she hadn’t known what to expect, She was concerned that personnel might see it as “just another HR initiative.” But the day peer coaching started, “Within a couple hours of the first conversations, the emails started rolling in.” People were asking, “What is this magic?” “How did you know to pair me with this person?” “How did you know we would connect?”

The answer lies in algorithms. Peer coaches are not paired up based on demographic characteristics. Instead, technology suggests partners based on other factors, including a sense of purpose and what drives each individual in their lives and work.

Building empathy and inclusion

Because of this, peer coaching serves a very different role from employee resource groups for women, African-Americans, members of the LGBTQ community, etc. It brings people of all sorts of backgrounds together to get to know one another, building understanding. People quickly move past a superficial level, opening up their minds and speaking in more vulnerable, honest ways.

Through the process, they develop skills for empathetic listening, offering constructive feedback, and creative problem-solving -- the kinds of skills that businesses need most.

Over time, people switch to new peer coaching partners. So they get to know more and more people across the entire company, extending their networks. They don’t lose their connections to their previous peer coaches. After five conversations, 97% of participants report that they expect to stay connected.

They also take concrete actions. Before the end of each session (one hour, usually every other week), each participant decides on a step they will take to advance their work or career. And because they know their peer will hold them accountable, people pull through on those steps more than 80% of the time. Ninety-six percent of participants say peer coaching is “helpful,” “very helpful,” or even delivered “a breakthrough.”

Research shows that the more people network internally at a company, the more likely they are to stay. They need help in getting the process started and organized. As businesses look to create a new normal, be sure to keep this need front and center. The stronger the bonds between people, the stronger the organization.

Aaron Hurst is CEO and co-founder of Imperative and author of The Purpose Economy.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.