Sharing a photo of your pet with coworkers isn’t entirely a waste of time; it can be a seed that blooms into increased employee engagement.
Imagine two employees who work at the same company and pass each other in the hall, but neither knows the other’s name. Let’s call them John and Susan. John shares a photo of his cat on a company-wide digital community. The next time Susan passes John in the hall, she might say, “Oh! You’re John, right? You posted that adorable cat photo a few days ago.” Suddenly, they are having a conversation they might not have had otherwise.
The value of a cat photo
Pet photos are a digital example of how we all look for points of commonality when meeting new people and building new relationships. Just think about the last time you spoke with someone you’d never met before—where are you from? What do you do? These questions are designed to spark conversation around points of shared experience, interests, etc.
This is supported by a wealth of research showing that, in the absence of personalized experience with someone, we default to common interests as the basis for trust. So how can this increase employee engagement? You can’t have an engaged workforce without trust, and commonality is where trust often begins.
In this way, digital communication offers a unique opportunity to build incremental units of trust across a very large number of people. Unlike a live conversation, digital communication increases the potential for employees to discover new commonality with one another (whether they already know each other or not).
I’m not saying John and Susan will instantly become best friends because of a single cat photo. However, they now have a point of commonality, a topic they can use to have personal connectivity and conversations beyond work.
Related: How Technology and Culture Impact the Employee Experience
An untapped market to increase employee engagement
In many large enterprise organizations, employees have a vast network of colleagues they never have interactions with. Rather than view this as a negative, consider it an untapped market for future workplace relationships. When you provide employee-led digital communities, you open up avenues for building workplace relationships that weren’t possible before.
For example, you may have employees that aren’t even in the same building or campus but may have to work together on projects. In today’s world, it’s increasingly possible for people to have digital relationships. Can a digital conversation be the seed that develops into a better working relationship built on commonality? Can a single post be fuel to help employees discover a new connection that becomes something more than just a cat photo? I believe it can.
Employee resource groups (ERGs) are a great example of how points of commonality can build relationships and increase engagement. The standard ERG organization construct is usually based on groups like gender, race, or ethnicity. Those are definitely powerful commonalities, but there are other layers that can be added. You can create more depth and build on that by allowing employees to group themselves around their defined points of commonality or interests.
Giving employees the ability to create their own groups also protects you from the double-edged sword of the traditional ERG structure. Organic communities built on common interests, whether it’s pets or hobbies, can help prevent silos and echo chambers within your organization by helping employees discover similarities with people they might not otherwise think to interact with. By establishing and supporting those organic groups, you can go even deeper, build more commonality, and build meaningful experience-based trust between employees.
The truth is, employees are already making connections with each other outside of your office, whether it’s by text or social media. However, by accepting and promoting employees’ natural desire for belonging as part of your company culture and providing a place for employees to find points of commonality, you can increase employee engagement.
The more people have in common with each other, the more they’re going to trust each other, the better their work will be, the more engaged they’re going to be at their job. However you can make that happen, in person or through digital tools, it’s a good thing and it’s going to pay dividends for your business.