I was running an Inclusive Management session yesterday and, during the break, the participants started talking to each other. Yes...actually talking to each other, rather than looking at their phones!
It was a lovely sight to behold - first, because it rarely happens these days, and secondly, because of the connections that were forged in those few minutes. Colleagues who have worked in the same office for years chatted with colleagues who have never met before. They talked about work and they also talked about stuff outside work. You know, the usual chit chat (except that it isn't so "usual" these days in those moments of down-time). I had asked them at the beginning of the session to introduce themselves and say something about themselves outside work - so they talked about their children, partners, pets, football teams, hobbies, DIY projects, holidays...the stuff that's important to them. Possibly this is what prompted the discussion during the break.
We learned that one participant had moved to London from Bangalore 18 months ago and was a qualified yoga teacher. His colleagues expressed surprise - they had worked with him all this time and had no idea! And then they eagerly set about trying to persuade him to start yoga classes in the office.
On another table, a guy who 'ashamedly' confessed to being an avid supporter of West Ham United met another avid supporter, the woman sitting next to him. It turned out they had season tickets in the same stand.
These kinds of connections are so important, in fact, vital. Connection is intrinsic to being a human being and something we all have a deep need for. Research has shown that co-worker relationships are one of the key drivers of a positive employee experience, which results in better work performance, discretionary effort and retention. Yet, while technology has brought many benefits, including the ability to work flexibly, numerous studies have shown that it has led us to feel more disconnected than ever before.
So how can organisations get over this hurdle and foster human connection and better co-worker relationships?
One answer is to force those connections, to make them happen. If two colleagues who would not normally talk to each other are forced to sit next to each other at a team event, or work together on a project, they will usually find they have more in common than they thought. This will help to break down the barriers and differences that we perceive there to be between ourselves and others.
Also important is creating a culture in which people feel they can bring their whole selves to work. If we feel comfortable sharing with our colleagues who we are and what's important to us, without fear of being judged, we are more likely to feel a sense of belonging and, in turn, be more inclusive in our day-to-day behaviour.
So in National Inclusion Week, I encourage you to go and talk to someone at work who you wouldn't normally say hello to, or you see as being very different from you. You may find you have more in common than you thought. After all, we're all in this together!