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New Book Examines The Perils of the Disconnected Employee

GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: "The Perils of Work Disconnected from Coworkers" by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer co-authors of "The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work."

The line between professional “office” jobs and day-labor is blurring. A growing number of employed people work without regular coworkers or bosses, either by choice or necessity. Many have become contract workers, as they lost their jobs in recent years and ended up having to work on projects as independent contractors rather than employees of the firms giving them the work. Some are using new service businessesto do odd jobs for anyone interested – jobs ranging from software programming to language translation. Still others are actually employed full-time or part-time by companies, but work remotely from home or one of the many locations where they travel to serve clients.

The Progress Principle - by Teresa Amabile & Steven Kramer
The Progress Principle - by Teresa Amabile & Steven Kramer

For professionals in this position, there’s good news and bad news. The good news – aside from having a paying job – is that they often enjoy considerable autonomy and clearly specified goals for their projects. Our research shows that such factors can catalyze people’s ability to make progress on their projects, which boosts day-by-day happiness and engagement in work – what we call inner work life. In fact, according to the progress principle, of all the workday events that foster positive inner work life, the single most important is making progress on meaningful work. In turn, positive inner work life facilitates performance, both creativity and productivity.

The bad news for many contract workers, odd-jobbers, and those who work remotely, is that they lack the human connections that help maintain positive inner work life in the long run. When people work on a job for only short periods of time, work remotely, or have a distinctly different status from others working inside an organization, it can be difficult or impossible to connect with coworkers and managers – leading to negative consequences for them and the organizations using their services. Gallup researchers have discoveredthat having a best friend at work can turn a moderately engaged worker into a highly engaged one; increasingly, modern work makes such friendships unlikely. And employee engagement matters, because it contributes to both a company’s profitability and employees’ personal well-being. The best companiescreate virtuous cycles of high performance and high job satisfaction.

Our research, on 238 professionals in 26 project teams, discovered four key human connections that nourish inner work life. Each of these is less likely when people are separated in some way from others in their day-to-day work:

  1. Respect at work – respect that, beyond basic civility, often takes the form of recognition for valuable contributions.
  2. Encouragement, which comes from managers and coworkers showing enthusiasm for the work and confidence that even difficult problems can be solved.
  3. Emotional support, which comes from having one’s emotions validated in difficult times – like frustrations with technical problems in the work or losses in personal life.
  4. Affiliation and camaraderie – events that develop bonds of mutual trust, appreciation, and even affection with coworkers and managers.

Difficult though it may be, nourishing human connections is possible under the new work arrangements. One service-exchange business, Coffee and Power, has physical locations where people can meet and work with others on group projects. Savvy managers of remote workers find ways to use technology – and occasional face-to-face meetings – to provide recognition, emotional support, and opportunities for interpersonal bonding.

And, when groups within organizations include both contract workers and regular employees, managers can strive to treat all equally and model the interpersonal support that nurtures inner work life. We saw it happen in one team we studied, where the two team leaders consistently recognized the work of both regular and contract employees, facilitated camaraderie with moments of fun during the work day, and showed genuine interest in each team member’s personal struggles. The result was a high-performing team where every member felt valued by, and bonded to, both teammates and team leaders. This electronic journal entry, from one contract worker on the team, exemplifies what we saw throughout our study of the team:

Our teammate whose father is in the hospital returned for the day. It was good to see her, and it gave all of us the chance to fuss over her a little bit. We are such a good team!!

Teresa Amabile is a professor and director of research at Harvard Business School. She has published over 100 scholarly articles on motivation, creativity, and everyday work life. Steven Kramer is a developmental psychologist and independent researcher. Amabile and Kramer have written extensively for the Harvard Business Review. They are the co-authors of "The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work."For more information, visit www.progressprinciple.com.

Email me at bullishonbooks@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @BullishonBooks