Culture   //   October 18, 2022

The Great Disconnection: People no longer recognize their workplace

Modern workplaces have an employee-disconnection problem. And it’s costing businesses a fortune.

Two-thirds of 2,000 white-collar workers in the U.K. feel disengaged from their workplace, while 53% of 3,000 U.S. workers polled in the same survey, recently published by recruitment firm Robert Walters, said they also feel disengaged. The firm calculated that the cost of that workplace disengagement to the U.K.’s already shaky economy will be £340 billion ($386 billion) this year alone.

It’s a strong indicator that despite having moved past the worst peaks of the coronavirus pandemic, and the long period of enforced remote working that followed, the shift to more flexible-working policies hasn’t solved the issue either. At least, not yet. A Pew Research March 2020 report revealed that 56% of remote workers who communicated with coworkers through telephone, email or video conferencing, said they felt less connected to their colleagues than before Covid-19. And the cost of this “loneliness” that U.S. workers felt at the time, had direct correlations to high staff turnover, which cost organizations up to $406 billion a year, according to a separate report published in March 2020 by insurance firm Cigna.

More than two years later, it seems that the employee-disconnection can is still being kicked down the road.

That’s not for lack of trying. Employers everywhere have brought in new working measures at every turn – whether it’s hybrid models, work-from-anywhere policies, flexible hours, four-day weeks, or even full five-day returns to the office. You name it, it’s being tested. But could it be that there has been so much change that that in itself is adding to the confusion and disconnection? Tellingly, 48% of U.K. workers and 45% of U.S. employees said they found it hard to recognize their post-pandemic workplace, the Robert Walters data showed. Not surprising perhaps, given only 6% of U.S. workers worked remotely before the pandemic struck, according to Chris Hickey, CEO of the U.K. and North America at Robert Walters.

“Due to individuals having to acclimatize to such change, the return to office after two years can be assumed to have catalyzed new experiences of disconnection and the inability to recognize and relate to the ‘new but same’ office environment,” said Hickey. Even the return to the office, isn’t the same. There are fewer colleagues in the office at the same time in most cases, plus the mass quitting that occurred over the last few years will have had knock-on effects to traditional in-office culture. “There will be considerably fewer opportunities for after-work drinks or activities, limiting chances at redeveloping a sense of employee camaraderie,” added Hickey.

Lack of aligning values

There are other potential contributors for this mass feeling of disengagement. For instance, 58% of U.S. employees said they felt it was important for a company’s social values to align with their own, according to the Robert Walters research. If it doesn’t, that could lead to feelings of disconnection, stressed Hickey.

How does this employee disconnection manifest itself? Unmotivated staff members will be less willing to deliver their best, most creative work, suggested Hickey. Other trends have been born from this feeling of disconnection – like “quiet quitting,” the term coined for when an employee decides to fulfil their minimum job requirements rather than seeking to over-perform. In turn, productivity can be affected.

“Disconnection breeds disloyalty, which in turn places a strain on employee retention,” said Hickey. However, from a business leader’s perspective, arguably more worrying is that it will cause healthy company culture to fracture and crumble. “This [disconnection], in turn, limits the spirit of entrepreneurialism as employees are less inclined to take their initiative to innovate and seek out new interesting ways of doing things within their working day,” he added.

Les Brookes, CEO of business transformation consultancy Oliver Wight EAME, is concerned that disconnection at work could lead to more damaging societal woes: that in the short and long term, the well-being of employees is not being considered enough. “I worry we are heading for a great depression if left unchecked,” he said.

Brookes added that not enough organizations are reaching out to their staff to understand how they are coping with working from home or away from the office. “As companies race ahead to crystallize new work policies, the divide between employer and employee is widening,” he added.

Shift in workplace attitudes and behavior

London-based Sarah Austin, founder of the Lloyds Bank British Business Excellence Awards, challenged the idea that the root cause of worker disengagement is the change in working policies. “Dropping the blame solely on the doorstep of ‘hybridization’ is both over-simplified and a little transparent,” she said.

"Disconnection breeds disloyalty, which in turn places a strain on employee retention… in turn [it] limits the spirit of entrepreneurialism as employees are less inclined to take their initiative to innovate and seek out new interesting ways of doing things within their working day.”
Chris Hickey, CEO of the U.K. and North America at Robert Walters.

Instead, Austin argued that the current financial climate—with many organizations unwilling or unable to increase pay packets — had only upped the level of disgruntlement and, therefore, disconnection between employee and employer. “The knock-on effect of the cost-of-living crisis has been a cavalcade of pay-rise requests by concerned workers, with [U.K. HR media publisher] People Management finding that 64% of U.K. businesses have seen a noticeable increase in these requests,” she said.

As lots of organizations were not in a position to provide “widespread, recession-busting salary increases en masse,” Austin believed that financial problems are deepening this Great Disconnection. Moreover, we are striding into a new age of “the job hopper.” She referenced a recent survey of 1,500 U.K. employees carried out by payroll provider ADP for jobs site Totaljobs, which revealed that 47% are planning to change jobs in the next three years. “Clearly, there has been a cultural shift in workplace attitudes and behavior,” she added.

What workers really want

Employee disengagement has been bubbling under the surface for years in the U.K., according to a Gallup State of the Workforce 2022 report. And currently, only 9% of the U.K. workforce claims they’re engaged, while 89% of the global workforce are also disengaged, the same report said. Dominic Ashley-Timms, CEO of global management performance consultancy Notion, stressed that the turmoil of the last nearly-three years has accelerated trends and driven a lot of people to reassess their lives, and potentially become more disengaged with their jobs. “Because of the circumstances — pandemic, war, financial crises — how short our lives are has been brought into stark relief,” said Ashley-Timms. As a result, he continued, many people have questioned their work and how they were spending their time.

The issue hasn’t fallen on deaf ears. Organizations are taking steps to fix this so-called “great disconnection.” A total 92% of employers across industries plan to improve employee experience within the next three years, compared to just 52% before March 2020, according to insurance firm WTW’s global 2021 Employee Experience survey. And technology will play a big part in rectifying it.

“By developing communities that span work, physical location, and identity, we can help employees foster more meaningful connections to each other, to the culture, and to the company.”
Angela McKenna, EVP head of employee success EMEA Salesforce.

Aside from technology solutions and employee-experience platforms, Joanna Swash, the group CEO of Moneypenny, a company based in the U.K. and U.S. that offers call answering and live chat services, said employers could reconnect with employees by being more, well, human. “Get to know them as individuals, build a positive relationship and learn what makes them tick,” she said. “Remember, it’s the little things that show you care, like remembering key dates or the name of their pet hamster.”

Swash advocated the idea of creating a “culture of celebrity.” She explained: “Your people, your VIPs, deserve the red-carpet treatment.” Being an authentic leader is essential. “In walking your own walk and talking your own talk, trust is built. And that trust nurtures a culture where employees are motivated, engaged, empowered, and safe,” she added.

Trust issues

It’s not just employees that feel disconnected, but managers. And the end result is that managers aren’t confident their teams are being productive in hybrid-working environments – what’s been coined “productivity paranoia.” This issue was flagged in a Microsoft report, published in September, which revealed that although 87% of employees said they are productive at work, 85% of the business leaders polled said they’re not confident that’s the case.

“This productivity paranoia can drastically undermine trust, lead to increased stress and ‘productivity theatre’ where employees aim to prove they’re working harder,” said Nick Hedderman, senior director of Microsoft U.K.’s modern work business group. But it has the opposite effect and is damaging for employees especially. “All of this combined risks making hybrid work unsustainable — unless a suitable solution is found,” he added.

Laura Ryan, international human resources director of Dropbox, admitted she had a vital role to play in fixing the disconnection. “For me, as an HR leader, it’s important to take the time to engage fully and actively listen to my employees when taking part in live meetings,” she said. She added that achieving full engagement meant switching off “the distracting technology we’ve been trying to implement” and focusing on authentic, human connection “in real-time.”

And Angela McKenna, EVP head of employee success EMEA Salesforce, echoed this sentiment. “We believe in-person connection is critical to building relationships,” she said. “To drive meaningful connection, we must also rethink how we experience our teams.” As such, Salesforce encourages its employees to find three types of cohorts within the organization: their immediate work team, a community of colleagues that live in the same geographical area, and an “affinity group” of people that share interests. “By developing communities that span work, physical location, and identity, we can help employees foster more meaningful connections to each other, to the culture, and to the company,” added McKenna.

For Hedderman, there is a neat formula which, if adopted, can go a long way in re-engaging workers: “Ultimately, what employees seek in a workplace in 2022 is somewhere that embodies flexibility, a culture of trust and which they know measures outcomes, not hours worked,” he said.