'To return to business as usual would be a loss': How companies can keep workers connected post-pandemic

d3sign | Moment | Getty Images

After a year of living through a pandemic that's upended how we interact with the world around us, it's safe to say that many of our personal and professional relationships have changed.

In the absence of being able to see coworkers in person, let alone just about anyone outside your household, workforce connection consultant Lakshmi Rengarajan predicted we'd pick up a newfound appreciation of our office mates.

"For a long time, we've probably taken for granted the ability to see our coworkers every day and maybe didn't realize how valuable that was," Rengarajan told CNBC Make It in April 2020. "I think teams will be a lot closer when they're able to move back into the workplace."

But after a year of endless Zoom happy hours, not to mention a heightened sense of stress in our personal lives on top of working through a global pandemic, Rengarajan thinks our relationships with ourselves, our coworkers and our employers have permanently shifted — for the better.

How companies still fail to keep employees feeling connected at work

When she thinks back to April of 2020, Rengarajan says she was already concerned about screen fatigue, "that the Zoom happy hour was a copy and paste of what we were doing in the office and putting it in a virtual setting, and that was not going to work. But I think people to had to experience that for it to become clear."

She fielded calls from clients who said they were having problems feeling engaged with others, but also that they didn't have any solutions other than scheduling more one-on-one meetings, virtual happy hours or team-building events like group cooking classes.

Connection is something everyone experiences differently. Connection is being seen, heard, appreciated and acknowledged.
Lakshmi Rengarajan
Workforce connection consultant

Rengarajan spent the better part of the year helping organizations understand that they had one major flaw in trying to help employees feel engaged at work: They were confusing connection with socializing and human interaction.

"We think of connection through a personal interaction," Rengarajan explains. "But connection is something everyone experiences differently. Connection is being seen, heard, appreciated and acknowledged."

Connecting through appreciation or recognition may look less like happy hours and more like working on a project with another team member and having your work properly attributed. You could feel connected with your work after being recognized for a job well done. For others, connection may come from posting a message in Slack and getting a lot of interactions from it.

People's preferences for feeling connected varies widely, but companies have often assumed physical proximity is key, Rengarajan says. Of course, individuals have long desired connection beyond sharing space and time, but the limitations imposed by the pandemic have put these concerns into sharp focus.

Here's why you should stop trying to find your passion at work—and what to look for instead
Why you should stop trying to find your passion at work

Rengarajan is hopeful that as businesses physically reopen and embrace a hybrid model of working, they'll take these issues into consideration to strengthen company culture and connection in the months ahead. Leaders should understand what employees like about their pre-pandemic workplaces, what old processes are in need of change and what benefits of remote work they'd like to keep moving forward.

"To return to business as usual would be a loss," she says. "The formula of the happy hour plus Slack rooms plus expensive offsite retreats for leaders isn't going to cut it."

Many relationships are changing for the better

It's true that many people may feel more connected to their coworkers after going through the stress of the pandemic together. For some, the workplace may have provided a sense of stability and purpose during a tumultuous year.

And for others, still, working through a pandemic was a wakeup call to reevaluate their relationship to their employer.

"As much as people appreciate and miss their work colleagues, some are realizing the downside of having your workplace also be where all your friendships take place, and where you get validation, praise, belonging and purpose," Rengarajan says. "I think people are really rethinking, 'how much of my identity, both personally and professionally, have I given to a corporate entity?'"

People who've retreated from work have likely sought out connections beyond the office, like through old friend groups, neighbors, gyms, churches or other communities.

"People are starting to understand what makes them feel connected," Rengarajan says, and "are reconfiguring what I call their relationship and friendship constellation."

Check out:

13 ways the coronavirus pandemic could forever change the way we work

The pandemic has probably made you more vulnerable with coworkers—why that could be a good thing

1 in 4 workers is considering quitting their job after the pandemic—here's why

Don't miss: Meet the middle-aged millennial: Homeowner, debt-burdened and turning 40

How this family making $83,000 a year in Hawaii lives paycheck to paycheck
How this family making $83,000 a year in Hawaii lives paycheck to paycheck