Connected Yet Disconnected Society
by Ben Towers

s a 23-year-old entrepreneur, I’ve grown up with tech as a solution. Given that I’m only a couple of days older than Google, it might surprise you that what I’m about to suggest is not tech-related. Instead, it goes back to our core, real-life human connection.

I’m sure we’ve all felt technology has helped us communicate with relatives who live far away or make new friendships with people from different time zones. However, while technology connects us to those geographically distant, it often disconnects us from those close to us.

The pandemic has been one of the most relevant examples of how technology has enabled us to connect with loved ones, find other single people just around the corner who are up for dating, and even order food to be delivered to our doors in minutes. But that’s just the tip of the connection iceberg.

The World Health Organization recently reported that our social connection to others is a principal indicator and amplifier of mental health challenges. (If you want to learn more, check out two fantastic books that tackle this topic, both written by friends of mine: “Lost Connections” by Johann Hari and “Lonely Planet” by Noreena Hertz.) What does this mean in the long term?

The Changing Workforce
Now that companies are starting to embrace hybrid working as the new norm, I’ve been thinking about how this will affect our wellbeing and how we can address the psychosocial needs of society.

Hybrid working massively reduces employees’ social connection. Traditionally, companies would invest thousands of dollars per employee each year on catering, quirky office spaces, and team activities with the hope that this would keep people connected.

The year 2021 was branded “the Great Resignation” because of the large number of people who left their job—tens of millions in the United States alone. McKinsey carried out extensive research and found that 51 percent of individuals interviewed listed a lack of belonging as a cause for leaving.

On the one hand, employers and employees want hybrid working. My team is a hybrid with three fully remote employees. We enjoy the flexibility of working from home and popping into the office at our discretion. A massive focus with our workforce is on having regular touch points and events dedicated to community building.

On the other hand, there’s an increasingly disconnected workforce with unmet psychosocial needs. Regular team calls don’t address the deeper problem. As companies look forward and create sustainable methods for hybrid working, employee connection is vital to improving retention and wellbeing.

Refocusing on Connection
What’s the solution? It’s about going back to basics, to the core that humanity has lived off for thousands of years: physical community. Moments of laughter and connection with others fueling emotion and relationships.

I’ve worked in companies of varying sizes and stages. I had my own marketing agency from the age of 11 to the age of 18, advised the United Kingdom and the royal family, and was the communication director at GSK. The idea of physical community and how it translates into the workplace has always been at the forefront.

Two years ago I co-founded Tahora. Our mission is simple: to connect the disconnected workforce and encourage belonging at work. The Tahora platform allows employees to enter their location, interests, and goals to find others with shared values who work at the same company. We help ignite a positive culture and encourage people to form meaningful connections with their co-workers. Tahora is the cultural hub for leading enterprises like Google, Natwest Bank, and the RSPCA.

We’ve learned a lot about connection throughout the past few years. Here are some of my insights.

1. A genuine connection requires a spark and something in common.
Many companies have attempted to encourage “random connections” between employees to spark conversations and grow a sense of belonging. In my experience, this is an ineffective solution, as it fails to address the more profound challenge. I’ve seen some wonderful long-term friendships spark over the shared love of particular sports teams, animals, and even wine tasting! When a friend has put you in touch with someone they think you’ll get along with, they base it on their knowledge about who you are, what you love, and how you socialize. To make this work, I encourage you to look at launching more employee communities. Build interest-based communities that connect people and, no matter which department they’re in, provide a space for meeting others who share the same passion.

2. Employees are motivated to connect with those near them.
In 2022, I’m hybrid working and spending more time at home than at the office. I need connections in my local area. In our research and experience, the best relationships are with colleagues living in the same town. This understanding has led to organizing groups of employees to go to coffee shops and work together for the day to get that “office-social” feel. The most effective way to do this is to use an employee connection tool like Tahora, but you can also launch location-led channels on MS Teams or Slack for employees to join if they want to connect with those around them.

3. The best connections happen away from work platforms.
Merging employee connections and existing work platforms feels like a solid idea, as it alleviates the need for another comms channel. But we’ve found that the companies that master employee community often separate them. They realize that an employee can speak to someone in a professional setting during the day and then socially connect on common ground by night. If I joined a social community around an activity I care about, like table tennis, I would want to chat about it on my own time. Having it on a work comms platform can create work-life balance challenges. Employees would have to open a tool they associate with work to socially connect, blurring those lines too much. Some smaller organizations use tools like WhatsApp for this, but this often poses security and management challenges for a large company. I suggest turning to other solutions.

4. Start-ups are typically better at employee belonging than enterprises.
Having both run start-ups and worked at a multi-national corporation, I can easily recognize the difference in culture. Start-ups heavily focus on uniting people around events and activities such as office socials and competitions. Everyone aligns on the same mission—things such as employee equity help keep a clear focus for everyone, too. However, as you scale, this becomes harder to do with the number of people you have at the company. Generally, larger companies hire based on purpose and alignment with company values, which does help. But the lack of in-person activities and moments leads to a very disconnected environment. There is a lot to be learned from start-ups, and by enterprises that are looking to create a start-up like culture.

5. Making belonging a priority requires constant top-down championing.
This one seems simple, but it’s not. It’s hard for employees to feel like they can connect with their co-workers if their leaders don’t encourage it. If it’s not encouraged, it can feel like being at school trying to use your phone in a classroom without your teacher seeing it! Top-down championing means getting involved at a grassroots level. Attend socials and meet-ups and make it clear that your company is a giant community that everyone belongs to. Lead by example and encourage your team to get to know each other on a more personal level.

Ben Towers Headshot
Ben Towers, age 23, has been an entrepreneur since he was 11 years old, when he started his first business, Towers Design. By 18 he was named “the smartest teenager on the planet.” He has worked with government entities within the United Kingdom as well as the royal family on their entrepreneurship programs. Prior to starting Tahora, Towers was the communications director at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).