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The science of social connection

Kristin Leimgruber, Ph.D., joins us to kick off the season. Kristi is a behavioral researcher at BetterUp, the virtual coaching and mentorship platform whose science-based approach helps people thrive in the workplace. She and host Ryan Anderson link the rise in workplace burnout with the decline of our sense of social connection at work—an unintended consequence of remote work. It’s an important and timely conversation—and ultimately, an optimistic one, as Kristi and Ryan explore strategies for identifying burnout and strengthening social connections across organizations.

Visit linkedin.com/pulse/designing-better-tomorrow-millerknoll/ for more content geared to help organizations thrive in the future of work.


Speaker 1 (00:06):
This is Looking Forward, conversations about the future of work. Brought to you by MillerKnoll.

Speaker 2 (00:18):
Hey listeners. Today we talk with Dr. Kristi Leimgruber from an organization called BetterUp. Kristi is a really bright research psychologist with a PhD from Yale, and through her work at BetterUp has access to a huge database of information about how employees are doing about their struggles, and successes, and the challenges they’re facing now. I think you’ll find her insights about the wellbeing of employees, and the need to balance remote and in person approaches to community building are more important now than ever. Enjoy this talk with Dr. Kristi Leimgruber. Hey Kristi, welcome to the podcast. Can you tell us a little bit about BetterUp and what you do there?

Kristi Leimgruber (00:56):
Absolutely. And thanks for having me. So just a little bit about BetterUp, for people who might not be familiar, or who may have maybe heard the name and may not be exactly sure what exactly we do. So BetterUp is the inventor of Virtual Professional Coaching. And we’re the global leader and one-on-one, and group coaching, and counseling, and mentorship. And what we really care about, at our core, is human transformation. So really helping people be the best version of themselves, both personally and professionally. Of course, as you can imagine, that means something different for everyone.

Kristi Leimgruber (01:31):
So our platform provides members with over 3,000 coaches that they could sort of choose from to work on anything from resilience, or self-compassion, to strategic planning or presentation skills. One thing that I think drew me to BetterUp and I think really elevates BetterUp to the next level is the degree to which we really lean on and include and produce science. I’m one of over 40 science PhDs throughout the company and counting. I’m sure there’s probably more by the time this is out. And this sort of speaks to the dedication to science, but it also means that everything we do is really guided by behavioral science, and that’s kind of where I come in.
Kristi Leimgruber (02:17):
So what my team does, the research and insights team, what we do is we get to kind of look through this massive database of all of our members, and also do our own research to really dig into questions about human thriving in the workplace, and not just in terms of individual growth, so what helps people grow, but also trends over time. We can really dig into mechanisms that might be driving positive or negative things. And ultimately, and most importantly, we can kind of make really science based recommendations for ways that people and companies can make lives better. So it’s a really, really fun job, playing around and date all day.

Speaker 2 (03:00):
Well, and what a time in our history, both in terms of the world and the world of work specifically, to be involved in these sort of activities. I can only imagine what the last couple years has done in terms of the need for better coaching or the need to shift to very specific topics or areas of need.

Kristi Leimgruber (03:18):
Yeah, absolutely. And that is one thing that is really interesting to look at. You can even see again, in our data the kinds of things people are looking at, the things that people want to work on in coaching have changed over time and within populations. So we see, for example, women are more interested in working on career strategy now than they were before, and time management, with as more women disproportionately are kind of working from home than men. We see kind of the trends and the things that they’re interested in working on are different. And we’ve seen this really beautiful uptick in everyone wanting to work on personal wellbeing, more than professional wellbeing, which I think is telling in a lot of different ways.

Speaker 2 (04:02):
Well, we’ve been involved in a variety of research activities that have honed in on, in particular, the challenges of caregivers, whether it’s caring for young kids, caring for parents or whatever. I could only imagine the need to balance work and life, and do so successfully is more of a challenge now than ever for many.

Kristi Leimgruber (04:19):
Yeah, absolutely. And that is one thing that we’ve really been kind of zooming in on recently, especially, and trying to figure out where the pain points are and hopefully make some recommendations for how we can help working parents. Because I think even though kids are back in school now, that doesn’t sort of reset the clock in terms of the things that the sacrifices that working parents have had to make professionally and personally to keep everything afloat, myself included. I think we could all kind of relate to that. It’s been an interesting period of time for sure.

Speaker 2 (04:53):
It has. Well, part of what’s made it so interesting is just the fact that so many people are spending most of their work days working remotely. And I know that for all the benefits of remote work or in particular of hybrid working where part of our time might be spent working outside of offices. BetterUp’s identified some concerns over decreasing social connections among remote workers. Can you tell us a little more about what you’ve learned?

Kristi Leimgruber (05:19):
Yeah, absolutely. Just to sort of jump off of what you said there is this sort of interesting balance between the decreasing social connection that I’ll talk about in a second. And also, we have, again, seen a ton of benefits for remote working and hybrid working for people. So there’s a bit of attention there, but hopefully it could be addressed because I think now is the time to kind of fix stuff. It’s a unique opportunity. But as you mentioned, I think, over time, we’ve seen a decrease in social connection and feelings of belonging and connection to the workplace and to coworkers since even before the pandemic.

Kristi Leimgruber (05:59):
But it’s continued to nose dive. And I think interestingly, even now that people are going back into offices and things are kind of “getting back to normal,” those ships haven’t righted themselves. So things are still kind of going down. So we’re seeing, so for example, half of people in a recent survey felt significantly less connected to their company and their coworkers than they did before the pandemic. And that’s everyone, that’s not just remote workers. And so I think it’s hitting everyone hard, but remote workers are most certainly the hardest hit.

Kristi Leimgruber (06:34):
Some recent research that we’ve done has shown that not only do they have fewer connections, so on average, they have fewer friendships with people in work, but the ones that they do have are weaker. So on average, about 26% less high quality than in person employees. And another thing that’s pretty interesting is that we see that even when they kind of put the same amount of time and effort into making connections, the payoff isn’t the same. So even though they’re trying just as hard to make those social connections in the workplace, the results are not as successful. So it results in fewer connections and weaker connections, than if you were to sort of sit across the table and have a cup of coffee with someone. And so sort of just structurally it’s just, the differences are kind of tangible in this way that is really disproportionately affecting remote workers.

Speaker 2 (07:29):
There’s so many things you just said that I would love to unpack further.

Kristi Leimgruber (07:33):

Speaker 2 (07:33):
Let’s just start for a second with this desire to be connected to a company because we’re strong advocates at MillerKnoll, for having a healthy balance between being able to have more autonomy, more flexibility in your life. But sometimes we forget that people do in fact, want a connection with their employer. Tell us a little bit more about that. What have you learned? Or what do you know about that desire? And what might cause someone to feel connected or not?

Kristi Leimgruber (08:01):
Yeah, absolutely. I know, I think that I was a bit surprised by that the cynic in me. As much as I love working at BetterUp, I was sort of surprised by the degree to which people really did want to be connected to their employers and they sort of also expect their employers to set those standards. Right? And I think that’s an important point in that, what we see is from an organizational standpoint, and especially when it comes to managers, organizations, and managers that really encourage and support social connection have much happier employees and have people who are performing better, have much higher wellbeing, are more likely to stay in their jobs.

Kristi Leimgruber (08:46):
All of these things, there’s these really, really striking kind of ripple effects that come from just being in a place that really encourages social connection. And I think people want that. And especially in a remote situation, it can be a bit awkward, right? You don’t have the happenstance kind of interactions, and small talk, and things like that you have when you’re passing someone in the hall every day. And so you really have to be intentional about making friends and chatting with people and in doing these things. And if you don’t have kind of a culture or a structure that’s kind of encouraging that or supporting that, then I think those things are one of the first to go in terms of connections in the workplace.

Speaker 2 (09:28):
Yeah. Yeah. Every once in a while, it feels like I stumble into what feels like a heavy debate on remote using technology or being co-located in the office. The answer’s always been, “Yes, and,” for us. But I find your information about people putting in effort, but maybe not feeling like they’re getting as quality of relationships. It sounds like primarily through digital means, to be really interesting and probably helps us highlight some of the value of co-location. Sometimes I’ll hear people say, “Well, you can’t collaborate without being together physically.” That doesn’t feel right. But this sounds more around like the health of our relationships and the strength of our communities. It reminds me a little bit of just how challenging it might be to have a long distance romantic relationship. There’s just a benefit isn’t there of sometimes being physically present with one another?

Kristi Leimgruber (10:16):
Yeah, absolutely. And I think there are little things there that are both quantifiable and completely impossible to quantify like social cues and these kinds of… I used to work with someone who had the most ridiculous sneeze and every time he sneezed, we’d all kind of stop and look at each other and chuckle. Those things add up and those are kind of intangible, but they’re not to be completely ignored because those are absent in remote working for the most part, or at least sort of the way that most of us do it.

Speaker 2 (10:48):
Well, hopefully there’s a good balance in there somewhere of being able to have people really feel like they’ve got more flexibility, but still have quality relationships. The topic of wellbeing I think is so critical. And I think there’s been a heightened awareness that throughout the pandemic, there were a variety of wellbeing challenges, both physical, but also mental, emotional, and beyond, that became very pronounced. But if you had to kind of zoom out and give a little gut check on the state of employee wellbeing these days, what are you seeing?

Kristi Leimgruber (11:21):
People are burnt out. I think is sort of the one sentence summary. And you think we’re all tired. I think myself included. I think people are just really have gone through, we’ve all gone through as a culture, this really big thing. And now we’re kind of expected to carry on like nothing happened. I think mid pandemic, it seemed like there were some really promising improvements in terms of talking about mental health and providing mental health resources to employees that have seen most recently that some companies are kind of taking those back now that the pandemic is over and everything’s fine again, which is a very big mistake.

Kristi Leimgruber (11:59):
I think people are really still struggling. And that’s one of the things that really jumps out in our data still, is that people are not only overwhelmed and burnt out, but they don’t feel like they are in a place or in a workplace that’s supportive of them actually taking the time that they need. And so we did a recent study looking exactly at this. And we found that on average, the average American worker takes one to two days off a month to address some element of mental health. Or they feel as if they should have. So some people power through, but they acknowledge that if they had the ability to that they would.

Kristi Leimgruber (12:43):
And this is hitting working parents and younger people harder than others. But this is something that is really pervasive and is not going away. And I think one thing that we found that was really striking was that even when people do, and I think it’s very telling, take time off for mental health reasons, they more often than not make up an excuse for why that is not why they took off. So they’ll make up some random excuse about their car needing to go to the shop or something like that. So not only are we not taking that time, but when we do, we’re sort of hiding it. We don’t want people to know that we’re having a hard time, even though it’s pretty clear that most people are.

Speaker 2 (13:25):
It sounds like there’s either a real or perceived thought that the employer wouldn’t benefit from the employee taking a little bit of time. I don’t know if your data indicates whether that’s legit or not. I suppose it’s a danger, isn’t it? That employers might fall into the trap that they would only view this as beneficial to the employee, but not beneficial to the organization to allow them some time to decompress.

Kristi Leimgruber (13:50):
Absolutely. Yep. That’s exactly right. And that’s what we’ve seen. And several of the kind of surveys that we’ve done, is that when we do have instances where employers are upfront about the need to value these things that people do take advantage and they are doing better. It works, but there is this fear that somehow admitting that you need to take that time is going to be perceived as a lack of commitment, or weakness, or something like that. So even in companies where benefits are provided, where people have mental health days, the amount of time people take them is a fraction of what they have presented to them. And it’s because most people don’t necessarily feel as if they have that kind of model from their organization, that it is okay to do that.

Speaker 2 (14:45):
We should definitely be talking in terms of sustainable productivity, shouldn’t we? Because getting burned out and not being of any use to yourself or the organization is the worst possible outcome.

Speaker 2 (14:57):
Hey friends, we’ll get back to our episode in just a moment. But first I want to take this opportunity to let you know that Looking Forward is part of SURROUND, a podcast network curated by Sandow Design Group. SURROUND brings together some of the best architecture and design driven audio content available. So if you like what you hear from us, visit Surroundpodcasts.com, and check out some of the other great shows on the network.

Speaker 2 (15:22):
So Kristi, for an enlightened manager who might be interested and concerned about the burnout for their team members, what are the signs? What might they look for in terms of an employee that might be struggling?

Kristi Leimgruber (15:34):
Absolutely. That’s a great question. I think first and foremost managers just checking in with their people is the first step always. We know from our data that people who have managers that actually check in on them and that they feel comfortable, disclosing honest feedback to, are much less likely to become burnt out, and much more likely to really thrive in the workplace. So something as little as just sort of checking in is invaluable. And then I think, more broadly part of the issue with burnout is that employees are burnt out because they’re scared to admit that they are taking on too much. So it’s kind of a catch 22 and that it’s really tricky to spot.

Kristi Leimgruber (16:30):
So, one thing that coaching is actually really good for is being that sort of impartial third party that people can speak to and actually work with to navigate their workspaces in a way that’s healthier for them, without having to speak directly to their manager or anyone that they feel might have some sort of hold over their career in general. And then I think more broadly, just again, coming back to social connection and sort of the kinds of communities that we build within our workplaces, it’s really important to make spaces where we’re not sort of dealing with burnout as it arises, but we’re sort of creating spaces where burnout is less likely to occur.

Kristi Leimgruber (17:25):
And so, one of the things we’ve seen with regards to social connection is these really strong ties between how connected you are at work with others, and how supported you feel and in your experience of burnout. So people we see with low social connection are 70% more likely to get burnt out than people who are higher in social connection. They’re twice as likely to be depressed, and anxious, and lonely. And so having these social connections and people to rely on interpersonally, but also possibly professionally, to give you a hand when you need it, has sort of these real, tangible benefits for wellbeing and productivity.

Speaker 2 (18:15):
You know what you’re reminding me of is years ago, when we talked about remote working, it felt like those of us that were advocates for some amount of remote work had to fight a stereotype that remote workers were eating bon-bons on their couch all day long. And often we would cite that actually the bigger risk is overworking and burnout. Now the climate feels so much different. I think employees are concerned about giving up their autonomy, so they might be very hesitant to talk about some of the effects of burnout from not having those social connections through being with one another, that I think we have to find that balance in there don’t we? Because what I’m hearing you say is that burnout leads to lower productivity or people leaving the organization altogether, then it’s got to be an imperative for any organization to address now and in the coming years.

Kristi Leimgruber (19:08):
Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. And I think the more we kind of dig into this broad concept of social connection, the more you can kind of see it has these like tentacles that reach into every corner of work life. We’ve looked at looking at turnover, for example, the fewer connections you have to people in your workplace, the easier it is for you to leave. The higher, the sort of turnover rates. And if you’re feeling burnt out and you don’t have a lot of people, then what’s keeping you at your job? And so at the root of a lot of that kind of struggles that we’re seeing in remote workers, especially are these issues with connection, they just don’t feel connected to the people they work with or their organization more broadly. And as a result, they don’t feel as motivated and they don’t feel as motivated to stay.

Speaker 2 (20:14):
Yeah. What you’re saying makes sense, because if you feel like leaving, isn’t giving up a lot of relationships and you know that you’re going to have at least a three to six month ramp up in a new job, that provides immediate relief from whatever burnout you might be facing in your current one. So it’s pretty important that organizations face this unless they want to consider losing their employees.

Speaker 2 (20:33):
I know there’s a lot of different ways of building those social connections because our company spends a lot of time researching our various environments, physical environments. We know that a variety of places, offices, but also flexible spaces, co-working spaces, coffee shops, event spaces. There’s a lot of different physical environments to help create social connection. But I also believe there’s organizations that can figure this out virtually. What kind of help might somebody who’s not physically co-located near anyone, what kind of help might they get in terms of building social connections, if they can’t spend time physically with one another?

Kristi Leimgruber (21:11):
Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s the million dollar question. And that’s what a lot of us are trying to figure out. I think the fact that we’re even talking about that question, says that we’ve come a long way. I think in the absence of these kinds of co-working spaces, or even the ability to be a hybrid, we see a lot of benefits to hybrid work actually. Sometimes even more than in person. It’s sort of a nice balance between getting to go see people and then getting to retreat back and eat your bon-bons and still get your work done, that’s sort of my preferred work model. Which I think in the absence, if that’s not an option, we see these really striking kind of just the little things really seem to matter.

Kristi Leimgruber (21:59):
So managers checking in. Having one-on-ones where you speak with your manager, not just about tasks and specific kind of checklist items, but just checking in and saying, “How are you doing?” There’s great value to small talk, taking the first five minutes of a meeting, just to sort of see how everyone’s doing. We see even these really kind of negligible in theory, happenstance interactions that you have with your coworkers, really go a long way in making people feel more connected. And things like ERGs and sort of more structural opportunities to interact with your coworkers, even if it is remotely, but in a way that’s not directly tied to a work product are really, really beneficial.

Speaker 2 (22:48):
ERGs meeting employee resource groups.

Kristi Leimgruber (22:50):

Speaker 2 (22:50):
Well, the other thing that you’re making me think about is just how much of a toll are heavy meeting cultures might be playing. If someone’s spending six or seven hours of their day, just in structured meetings, whether it’s remotely or in person, that may simply crowd out any time for socialization.

Kristi Leimgruber (23:10):
Absolutely. And we do have some data on that and you’re exactly right. The issue with social connection is not a lack of interaction. We see, depending on the industry, up to a 50% increase in meeting time than people had prior to when they were fully in person. So it’s not that we’re not staring at each other all day. It’s sort of this lack of meaningful interaction. And I think you hit it right on the head is that by the time we’re done with all of these meetings, we’re exhausted. And the last thing I want to do is have another Zoom meeting where we’re staring at people.

Kristi Leimgruber (23:48):
I think making the most of the time you have in meetings and really balancing, really focusing on the quality of the interaction rather than kind of just having everybody in these meetings all day long is crucial. So you do make the most of that time that you have, and really asking, could this be an email? Does this need to be a meeting? Having walking meetings with people. I think even that kind of shared connection can really have a positive impact. So even if you are just talking about work the whole time, but you know the person that you’re talking to is also on a nice walk with their dog, that makes a difference. So just sort of being more thoughtful in the structure of things I think is really important and not just sort of shifting the traditional workday into a virtual space.

Speaker 2 (24:36):
I think you’ve highlighted a really impactful insight there, in that we don’t lack a degree of interaction. We lack quality social interactions. And that we need to think about whether it’s virtual or physical creating spaces just for meetings, but not for these higher quality touchpoint, would be a real miss as we think about the future of work.

Kristi Leimgruber (25:00):
Absolutely. Yeah. I could just say from my team, my content team at BetterUp, we have a monthly standing lunch meeting, where it’s totally optional, but once a month on a Thursday, there’s an hour on everyone’s calendars where we can just show up and actually just eat lunch. Talk about whatever random TV show we’re watching or something like that. And I think that goes a long way. I think things like that are just as important a lot of times than these meetings where people log in and don’t say a thing the whole time.

Speaker 2 (25:33):
Well, let me ask you this. In closing, if you had a friend who was creating a business or an organization, and you had the chance to talk with this friend about what it looks like to create a really healthy, thriving culture for the future of work, what kind of practical tips would you give someone?

Kristi Leimgruber (25:51):
Oh, I love that. I mean, I think a couple of things. The first is something that I’ve relied on a lot and I’ve been reminded of a lot at BetterUp, which I greatly appreciate, is keeping in mind that you hired the people that you hired for a reason, because of who they are and the work that they do, and reminding them of the same. And in that, sort of trusting them to take charge of what work looks like for them, and what makes them the most productive. So offering them that flexibility. Saying, I trust that you’re the person that I hired, that’s going to do this amazing work. And if that means working from home, that’s great. If you need an office, we’ll figure it out. And sort of giving people that degree of autonomy over what works best for them, rather than trying to guess what they want, or just sort of telling them what they can have. I think is incredibly empowering.

Kristi Leimgruber (26:50):
And also sort of goes a long way in terms of just setting that dynamic, where the workplaces, where it’s a dialogue, where people can speak up if they need help with something, if they’re struggling, or if they see something that might maybe could work better. And so really just building a foundation of kind of trust and responsibility between both leadership and employees, I think is crucial to moving forward in this sort of, kind of uncertain future in terms of the workplace. I think in a more concrete suggestion, that’s like super lofty, but I think, more concretely just treating employees like adults. I think a lot of times, just checking in and having these conversations about kind of a dynamic work situation is really important.

Speaker 2 (27:45):
Well, the timeliness of this insight couldn’t be better, because I sense, many organizations are wrestling with a degree of control, wanting to be prescriptive about where and when people get their work done, but your advice to treat them like adults and to empower them, and remember you hired them for a reason, and then check in to make sure that they are doing well and they can be sustainably productive, makes a ton of sense to me.

Speaker 2 (28:09):
I want to thank you for sharing your insights with me and with all of our listeners. It’s been an absolute pleasure spending some time with you today.

Kristi Leimgruber (28:16):
Oh absolutely. This has been great.


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Ryan Anderson

Ryan Anderson is one of the contract furniture industry’s leading voices exploring how changes in technology, design, and management practices are reshaping work.

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