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June 18, 2021

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Maintaining social connections in private, professional lives affects our longevity

Editor’s Note:

In the following interview, business author Michael Lee Stallard discusses how to maintain connections in our private and professional lives — and why the pandemic could improve our working relationships enormously in the long term. The interview is conducted by Michael Wiederstein, an Executive Editor at getAbstract.

Q: Mike, what prompted you to write a second, updated edition of “Connection Culture”?

A: There have been breakthroughs in research in the last five years that underscore the importance of connection and the perils of disconnection in our personal lives, work lives and society. I want people to be equipped with knowledge that bolsters the case for connection, especially if they are trying to affect a positive culture shift in their group.

Q: Can you give an example?

A: Take the issue of loneliness: Declining social connection in the United States grabbed attention worldwide in 2017 when Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, presented data from two research studies that found that individuals with stronger social connections were associated with a 50 percent reduced risk of early death, whereas individuals who were lonely or socially isolated — that is, not around people — were associated with a risk of premature death equal to or greater than the risk of premature death from widely known risk factors including obesity and smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day. Put simply, your level of social connection affects your longevity, and lacking sufficient connection is a risk factor to take seriously. She declared that the United States and several nations around the world are facing an epidemic of loneliness. Cigna released study results in early 2020 showing that three in five American adults self-report as lonely, aligning with Dr. Holt-Lunstad’s assertion that loneliness is a pervasive issue.

Q: Are there three very specific new take-aways that can be used in our so-called new normality?

A: As for take-aways, the first is the need to develop a “connection mind-set.” By that, I mean understand and embrace that human connection is a superpower that is essential for individuals and organizations to thrive for a sustained period of time and disconnection is a super-stressor that sabotages health and performance. Second, recognize that there are three types of relational cultures — cultures of control, cultures of indifference and cultures of connection — and you want to live and work in cultures of connection so that you will thrive and your group will achieve sustainable success. Third, understand that cultures of connection are created when leaders communicate an inspiring vision, value people and give them a voice, i.e., vision + value + voice = connection. It’s remarkable how often this combination of vision, value and voice exists in groups that achieve sustainable success. That said, it’s rare.

Q: What exactly did you have to revise to make it more relevant in a “remote culture” where digital connection is rapidly enhanced, but physical connection is diminished?

A: The principles and framework around connection culture apply whether colleagues are working remotely or in the same location. We were in the later editing stages of the second edition when the COVID-19 pandemic spread worldwide and organizations had to quickly pivot to allow for remote work. Given that shift, we returned to the manuscript and made sure that we considered the impact of remote work throughout the book. It is especially prominent in the practical, implementation chapters and in sections on the evolving workplace.

Fortunately, we’ve learned much from our own experiences with remote work, as our team has been spread out geographically and mostly working from our homes or on the road for many years. This edition of “Connection Culture” was written to be relevant during the pandemic and also post-pandemic, when we believe there will be a greater percentage of work done remotely than was being done pre-pandemic.

Q: So, how can I, as a “newbie” remote worker, make sure that I do not lose my connections?

A: In “Connection Culture“ I write about the late John Cacioppo’s framework on connectedness: intimate connectedness with a soulmate; relational connectedness with family and friends; and collective connectedness with intermediate associations — groups we are not related to by blood such as organizations, community groups, religious groups, sports groups, etc. I think this is a helpful framework to have in mind to answer your question. Now, to protect intimate connections, it’s important to take time off from work and disconnect with technology.

When your home is also your workplace, it’s easy to keep dipping back into work. I admit the pull to be on my smartphone looking at articles or checking emails is strong and it takes willpower to put it aside. I think we all know that connection is more than simply being in the same room with the other person. You need to be present mentally and emotionally too.

Q: Any advice on how to protect relational connections?

A: To protect relational connections, be intentional about scheduling time in your calendar with people. For years, I have reserved three hours every Saturday morning to be with a group of my male friends, talking and supporting one another through life’s ups and downs. I also schedule regular telephone and video calls with family and friends. To protect collective connections, focus your involvement with just a few organizations so you don’t get stretched too thin.

Q: Has there been any significant change in your advice on establishing a connection culture in organizations?

A: The “Connection Culture” Model hasn’t changed. However, with remote work on the rise, implementation has changed. Public health measures needed to reduce the transmission of the virus have meant we can’t connect with others in some of the ways we were used to and that has raised an awareness of our inherent need for connection.

It’s not realistic to expect that those who are moving to do most of their work remotely will, going forward, be able to meet their need for connection through work. That means they will need to be intentional about developing and strengthening local connections with family, friends and community, something people who are accustomed to working remotely know. During the pandemic, local connections will need to be almost exclusively with people in their bubble of safety or through virtual means. When the pandemic ends, I believe we will still have a greater overall percentage of remote work versus pre-pandemic levels which means that local connections outside of work will become even more important than they were pre-pandemic.

Michael Lee Stallard is a keynote speaker, trainer, executive coach and consultant on building connections at work. He’s the author of “Connection Culture,” one of the most cited abstracts of the year in getAbstract’s library.


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