Employers ‘should help staff forge work friendships’

Tackling loneliness can be key to improving retention, workplace behaviour expert tells Glassdoor Recruit UK Conference

Businesses should stop investing in expensive engagement initiatives and instead take a greater interest in helping employees forge meaningful personal relationships at work, a leading organisational behaviour expert told the Glassdoor Recruit UK Conference.

Monica Parker (pictured above), founder of Hatch Analytics and a sought-after expert on workplace culture, said community was arguably the most important of what she defined as four pillars of workplace engagement, since loneliness was so devastatingly detrimental to both physical and mental health – the equivalent, studies suggest, of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Her own research found that 88 per cent of employees saw strong personal relationships at work as the primary contributor to their engagement, which meant helping forge connections between individuals could make them more productive and less likely to leave.

“It also means that if you’re haemorrhaging people, it’s not just about the sheer numbers,” she told delegates at the London conference. “The person you’re letting go is someone else’s best work friend.”

The way to address the issue, said Parker, was not to force friendships but to create a ‘tribal’ sense of community within the business that compelled people to share an identity with their colleagues. 

Parker also outlined a number of other areas where employers could focus their engagement efforts, including the notion of control: people who are time-poor but feel they have autonomy over how they spend their days at work are happier by default even if nothing about their workload has changed, she explained.

Cause, meanwhile, means identifying intrinsic motivators. “Try to tap into what drives people, which is unlikely to be a paycheck,” advised Parker. “Don’t make assumptions about what someone’s cause is – ask them.” A key driver for an individual might be a personal interest, she said, but it still might be possible to bring an element of this into the workplace.

Finally, curiosity was “one of the most powerful elements” in predicting an engaged employee, and there are sound neuroscientific reasons behind this. “You definitely want to hire for curiosity,” said Parker. “When people are curious, it triggers dopamine. And when they get to the answer, that feeling gets embedded in their long-term memory. People who are curious learn faster.”

Elsewhere at the conference, Sarah-Jane Walker, global HR director of customer experience at Barclays, explained how allowing people to work ‘dynamically’ by flexing their hours and working from home when appropriate had been revolutionary for the bank.

Surveys suggested employees who worked in this agile way were significantly more engaged: 79 per cent of them felt a strong sense of belonging and 87 per cent would recommend Barclays as a good place to work. It had also had an impact on the attraction strategy, she added.

Barclays had also worked to increase its internal mobility, with a new careers platform leading to 40 per cent of vacancies being filled from within the business. The HR team ran extensive internal marketing campaigns, but Walker said the most important factor in increasing mobility had been removing the requirement to tell your manager if you applied for an internal role: “We didn’t want people to feel nervous or stifled about it. It was a reaction to a lot of feedback we had from our teams.”