Improve Employee Relations to Fight Today's 'Loneliness Epidemic'

Socializing at work is good for you

Wellness, company culture, work/life balance

Loneliness is a major U.S. health problem, according to former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, he argues that loneliness is incredibly common among U.S. adults and adolescents, and discusses how it can worsen other health issues. Another major problem? It can lead to severe burnout at work.

Other research supports this: Gallup found that employees with a "best friend" at work are seven times more engaged, produce higher quality work, and connect more effectively with customers.

While you can't snap your fingers and instantly improve employee relations, you may have more influence than you think. Here are five ways to build stronger relationships and make work a better place for everyone:

1. Build Socialization into Your Office Setup

Your office layout and design can help encourage casual meetings and chitchat. Clusters of furniture, such as chairs in small groupings, can facilitate communication. Small nooks with two chairs provide space for private conversations. Invest in comfortable lunch areas or lounges that encourage your coworkers to eat with each other, rather than at their desks.

Many companies are also using mobile workstations — including easy-to-move desks — to make it easier for colleagues to organically collaborate, which promotes relationship-building. To set one up yourself, ask your furniture supplier for suggestions.

2. Create Time for Socialization

As the resident event-planner, you can create opportunities to help colleagues socialize. Consider hosting weekly or monthly catered lunches or happy hours. Make it fun by choosing a theme, such as favorite seasonal dishes or different types of cuisine from around the world.

Instead of planning the typical holiday or summer outing, look into experiences that will encourage interaction and conversation. For example, you might go to a local tourist destination or try active adventures, art classes, and seminars in leadership and personal development.

3. Focus on New Hires

New hires can have a tough time integrating into the business. Put in extra effort toward being welcoming during orientation or onboarding. Make it a tradition to host a welcome lunch or reception for new staff. In the weeks and months after their start date, set up a series of "getting to know you" meetings with individuals from around the company to encourage them to make connections with co-workers.

You might also assign newcomers a mentor who can answer questions and be a sounding board during the first few months. Having an officially designated person to talk with can create a much stronger connection and help the new hire feel at home.

4. Begin Staff Meetings with Conversation-Starters

Consider kicking off meetings with a quick conversation-starter that helps employees get to know each other better. For example, Murthy in the Harvard Business Review described an exercise called "Inside Scoop," in which team members each shared something about themselves through pictures for five minutes during weekly staff meetings.

Invite people to share personal insights, such as their favorite vacation destination, hobby or volunteer interest. Create a practice where each week a different person shares pictures of a recent adventure they've had or project they're working on.

5. Create a Culture of Relationships Through Giving Back

Encourage volunteering programs around issues that interest your coworkers, such as environmental sustainability or cultural enrichment for kids. Directing people toward an activity that touches upon a shared interest can instantly spur more interaction.

Look into a handful of local nonprofits and ask about their volunteering opportunities so you can come up with a variety of options. Many workplaces give employees one day off per year to do a volunteer event, so ask about whether you can institute that perk in your company or department. Getting a volunteering tradition going can help bond coworkers together — and it does some good for your community, too.

Fostering strong employee relations can benefit the company and make work a much more pleasant place to be. Look around your workplace and think about what changes you might be able to instigate.