What Is Employee Connection? A 4-Step Guide for HR Leaders

Sam Cook


What Is Employee Connection? A 4-Step Guide for HR Leaders
. Do you know how many of your team members have made connections today? This year? If not, that might be a troubling sign.

Employee connection is one of the most important engagement needs right now. Remote and hybrid work is at historic highs that aren’t likely to drop much further in the foreseeable future. And among the many things, employees say they need right now, a lack of workplace connections is now considered at crisis levels. Simply bringing everyone back to the office isn’t going to help. Workers want connection but also the freedom to work from home. That means HR teams need to get creative about how they support employee connection, which starts with understanding what that even means.

Before you proceed, we recommend you check out our Mentoring Masterminds video, “Lonely No More: How to Use Mentoring to Increase Employee Connection.’ It’s an excellent and thorough supplement to what you’re going to read below.

Employee Connection, Defined

There’s a “simple” definition of employee connection and a more complex definition of it. We’ll start with the simple one to get it out of the way.

The “simple” definition of employee connection

Employee connection is the concept that covers how employees create, engage, and sustain meaningful relationships with each other. For example, when new employee joins your company, they are often assigned an onboarding partner or buddy who helps them become acclimated to various aspects of the company and their role. This standard process is now requisite at most companies.

Having an onboarding buddy to connect with is so crucial that Dawn Klinghoffer, Candice Young, and Dave Haspas write in the Harvard Business Review that every new employee needs an onboarding buddy.

We’ve also written about workplace buddies, in case you need to get started creating a mentoring buddy system for your employees.

The “complex” definition of employee connection

As you might have already expected, employee connection goes far beyond just getting employees to meet and greet. The more complex definition of looks something like this:

Employee connection is the broad strategy organizations use to strategically place workers into impactful and meaningful relationships in a way that is visible, measurable, and sustainable long term. When done correctly, it can ultimately help organizations achieve business-critical objectives aligned with a wide number of goals, including employee retention, productivity, internal movements (such as promotions), DEI, revenue, and much more.

Phew. A lot is riding on effective employee connections because that’s just the nature of the beast, so to speak. To step oh-so-lightly onto the third rail that is corporate personhood, one could even say that because companies operate as a single entity, employee connection is the most important thread that allows them to operate effectively.

Think of it like this: When employees are well-connected to each other, the organization runs smoothly. When employees feel disconnected, the organization runs poorly. It comes to whether people feel as if they are part of the company and its community (strongly connected) or feel marginalized and left out (weakly connected).

How to Build Employee Connections in the Workplace

That brings us to the action part of this post. Now that you know what employee connection means from a simple and complex standpoint, we’ll dive into how to make it work at your organization. We’ll primarily be working from the complex understanding from this point forward.

Like most things in human resources, building effective employee connections is a matter of process. In some ways, you’ll need to start at the end and work your way backward, but not completely.

Step 1: Identify business needs that can be addressed by increasing employee connection

First, let’s examine why your organization needs to think more deeply about employee connections. There are probably a million different potential issues you could address. Not everything is an emergency. If you’re thinking about employee connection right now, it’s probably because something triggered it. That “something” (or multiple somethings) is what you want to align your strategy to have a measurable KPI.

Are any of the following true for you?

Group of employees in an office doing a team high huddle with hands together in physical employee connection.
  • Increasing levels of disengagement
  • A drop in employee productivity
  • More employees working from home
  • Employees working remotely but not interacting while physically present
  • High turnover rates
  • Exit surveys that show employees feel disconnected
  • Growing skills gaps in your organization

This list isn’t exhaustive, but hopefully, you can see some alignments here or can think of some other areas at your organization where limited workplace connections could be causing problems. A lack of employee connection can be a root cause of many issues. Your first step is to identify what issues your company is currently experiencing and whether poor engagement and community is the primary issue at hand.

Step 2: Research how connections are happening at your company to identify gaps and areas for improvement

Connections are happening are your organization right now. However, those connections might not be visible to you. In most cases, there’s one of three things happening at your company:

  • Employee connections are happening organically, but they’re not visible (and they don’t always have to be).
  • Employee connections are happening inorganically through existing programs and engagement strategies, but these existing connections are not bearing fruit or showing positive results.
  • Employee connections are happening inorganically, and they’re working well and proving effective.

In most organizations, all three of these are happening to some degree.

Organic connections that are already working well

Those organic connections are just a fact of human nature. Some people will connect with others because a strong need to connect, grow and learn through inclusive communities is built into our DNA. You don’t really need to know every single way people are connecting or know of every single connection people are making.

However, there’s a chance that some organic connections are turning into larger communities at work. These communities could be highly effective but untracked. If you want to mimic the success of these groups, you need to uncover their existence and then learn how they’re formed, how they meet, and what makes them so successful. And it would be best if you did it in a way that won’t be intrusive and disruptive to those existing groups.

We recommend sending out surveys to learn about what type of groups are meeting and then try to schedule 1:1 learning sessions with leaders of those groups to understand them better. Make sure you’re doing this in a way that is not threatening and not invasive. Sometimes, people form communities at work because they need that safe space without being monitored by their organization. Don’t impede on that, especially if it’s bearing positive results.

If you approach these groups, make sure you do so with the emphasis that you’re only trying to understand what they’re doing well that you might be able to replicate across the organization for others who don’t have a community or are struggling to make connections with their colleagues and peers.

Inorganic workplace connections that are failing

Failed programs are the bane of any HR leader. But there they are, staring you in the face with their poor results. Programs fail for many different reasons, and we don’t need to iterate them all here to put salt in your wounds. However, it’s important to take stock of these and understand a few points about them:

  1. What HR-lead employee connection programs currently exist that aren’t working?
  2. How do you know they aren’t working (e.g., what data supports the “failing” thesis)
  3. How long have they been failing to work well?
  4. How much did they cost (e.g., what’s the ROI, even if it’s negative?)
  5. Who were the key stakeholders?
  6. How were these programs executed and run?
Two women celebrating employee connection with a high five and smiles.

Ask even more questions than that. New HR leaders often find this an important early task once they join a company or get promoted to a new position. The older the company, the more existing and failing employee engagement programs are hanging by a thread.

Taking the time to understand what these programs are, who they targeted, and the metrics behind their failure can be very instructive. It can help you understand what programs are worth saving with some adjustments and which ones need to be abandoned soon to avoid unnecessary waste or resources.

Inorganic engagement programs that are working

It’s always great when HR-led employee engagement programs are working as intended. Or even better than intended. As you examine the employee connection landscape at your company, be sure you account for the programs that bear fruit, even if they’re small. Every successful program that involves connecting and growing employees is one you want to understand better, especially if it can be expanded to include more employees or improved to boost its already-positive results.

Step 3: Create a plan for programs you will launch or expand

Once you understand what employee connection does and doesn’t look like at your organization, start creating your strategy around two areas:

  1. The programs you plan to launch to fill gaps in connection and engagement
  2. The existing programs you plan to expand

Assuming you have existing programs that are working, there’s a good chance there will be some cross-over between your #1 and #2. That’s perfectly fine. The goal is not to re-create existing programs that effectively build employee connections if you don’t have to. If you can expand on those, great. If you need to build something new, that’s great too!

Your plan should include the following, at a minimum:

  • The types of programs you’re going to launch or expand
  • The business objectives that are aligned with these programs
  • The target population that will benefit
  • How you plan to market these programs
  • A standardized definition of “success” for these programs at different intervals
  • A standardized method for measuring success

Here’s a scenario that shows what this looks like in practice:

You’ve done the groundwork and discovered that your new hire quit rates have been up 30% since the pandemic started. Your company blamed remote work and decided to bring everyone back to the office. Unfortunately, that didn’t work; 6 months in, quit rates have remained high (and even rose slightly).

You’ve found that while your company has an onboarding program, new hires have struggled to integrate appropriately. They feel the company’s existing employees are a bit cliquish, so they leave within a year for a more welcoming environment. Upon further inspection, you found that your new hire onboarding program has no mentoring component. As soon as the two-week onboarding period ends, new hires have no dedicated team member to support them.

Further complicating things is that workforce reductions mean everyone feels under pressure due to extra workloads. Because no employee connection programs exist that support new hires, your tenured team members are treating those new team members as “out of sight, out of mind.” It’s leading to a sustained high level of turnover.

To fix the problem, you’re launching an onboarding mentoring program extending beyond the official onboarding period. New hires are paired with an onboarding buddy they stay with and meet with throughout the year. This gives them a regular cadence for connection outside of their onboarding period and helps them better navigate the many unknowns that are common during that first year.

This idea also works when you go to expand existing programs. If a program is already working well, consider how you’ll grow it to include more participants.

Step 4: Make sure everything is measurable (and that you actually take time to measure)

This last point is perhaps the most important one. You’re shooting in the dark if you aren’t measuring your programs. We’ve already beaten you over the head with this one multiple times, though, so we won’t dig much further into this topic except to add a few closing remarks to it.

If you aren’t using software, you probably aren’t properly measuring results

We’ll add a caveat here: if your organization is small, you might be able to get away without using additional software to record, track, and measure program success. Maybe. But we’re talking super small, say, under 20 employees. The larger your company grows, the more important it becomes that you’re not trying to organize and measure success manually on spreadsheets. It just becomes untenable.

And for employee connection and engagement programs, the large number of inputs will make this challenging, at best, and impossible in most cases. Matching participants alone for mentoring programs can’t be done well or without bias, unless you’re using mentoring software that automates enrollment, provides best-fit matches, offers HRIS integration, collects feedback data, and provides ROI dashboards.

When you have the right tools, creating programs that work is easy, and proving success is even easier.

Measuring results needs to happen regularly

Most warning lights on cars are triggered before something becomes critical. That way, you have time to fix the problem. Unfortunately, employee connection programs don’t have warning lights. Instead, they rely on you to check the program’s health regularly to ensure it’s working.

That assumes you’re checking regularly, of course, and that the way you’re checking is effective. Make sure you implement best-practice methods for collecting information about program health. If you see signs of trouble, fix those problems early.

Both qualitative and quantitative data measurements are needed for programs that involve a distinct human element.

Employee connection is a human endeavor, so the qualitative layer needs to be a primary feature of your data gathering. But qualitative data won’t tell you whether the program is worth the expense to the company. Align and measure the quantitative success as it relates to things like retention, revenue goals, project completion rates, participation metrics, and other areas.

Hopefully, you’re now ready to take on the challenge of boosting employee connection at your organization. It’s a big task, but it’s much easier when your strategy involves mentoring programs. Book a demo today to learn how mentoring makes employee connections easy, even for heavily distributed and remote teams.

Sam Cook

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