Bringing People Back Together to Maintain Social Cohesion & Wellbeing

7 min read
19 April 2023

Finding Neuroscience while Retracing History

I was recently in Germany attending a Neuroscience Conference. As a lover of all types of learning, I was deeply inspired to visit Göttingen, the city of knowledge. Its University was founded in 1734, once the most visited in Europe, and has produced more than 40 Nobel Prize Laureates. This city is familiar with names such as Max Born, Werner Heisenberg, Klaus Hasselmann, Stefan Hell and Thomas Sudoff.

As I walked towards the Conference at Göttingen University, I could not help but think about all these powerful minds who once walked the same streets; among them was the German astronomer, physicist and mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855). He was considered one of the most influential mathematicians in history. 

His famous ‘Gaussian curve’, also called a probability bell curve, represents the averages of normal distribution. Gaussian distribution is a significant probability distribution in statistics because it fits many natural phenomena, such as height, test scores, IQ, etc.

Whenever I conduct a 360 assessment coaching session and discuss benchmarking results, I refer to the Gaussian curve, so he is always on my mind!

More than 1,000 neuroscientists attended the Conference, and the topics were varied and fascinating. One topic in particular that drew my attention discussed the advances in neuroscience regarding socio-emotional behaviour. 

The researchers[1] presented a series of experiments with mice. One of them showed on film how one of the mice (probably the more extroverted and social) interacted with a ‘test’ mouse who seemed excited about the idea of running around in circles together.

In another cage, there was a less social mouse (quite shy by the looks of it) who ignored the running around of the ‘test’ mouse and did not seem interested in becoming involved. It took a while for the ‘test’ mouse to realise that his running around was not working. With curiosity, he approached the mouse in the corner and touched his nose as if he was inviting him to get out of there to start following him in his endless rounds.

The Importance of Social Interactions cannot be Overstated

The same as mice, humans are inherently social. Social interactions are critical for us to survive. We are not special in this way; it is hard to think of any animal for whom the regulation of social behaviour is not important.[2]

Our interactions with others deeply influence us. Examples of social interactions are cooperation, conflict, coercion, submission and social exchanges.[3] As the researchers indicated during their presentation, any of these social interactions have an emotional impact and are key to our physiological and psychological wellbeing. 

Furthermore, negative social experiences can result in social avoidance. Given the importance of social interactions for humans, it is not surprising that most psychiatric disorders involve some disruption of normal social behaviour and that abnormal social functioning is one of the main symptoms of several disorders.

People have creative ideas about social experiences, and a walking room in Amsterdam (essentially a giant windmill) shows this creativity. Instead of a standing or walking desk for one person, the entire room can walk and work at the same time.[4] 

(Basically, it is not about having focused time by being alone at home or wellbeing benefits, but it is about maintaining a social connection with others).

While coaching a client, who is quite introverted and working remotely, we discussed how he felt about needing to be more approachable. I could not stop thinking about the little lab mouse in the corner of the cage being encouraged by the other mouse to join in. 

We talked about the comfort of working from home and the cons of creating social influence and a sense of belonging. Despite his work being in IT, he found that his current work arrangement of working remotely was convenient but very limited in its approach and useful only in extreme situations such as the pandemic.

Today, I find that many leaders struggle to bring people back into the office, particularly because their social interactions with their teams are only focused on getting the job done and achieving the outcomes. The habits developed due to the lockdowns have had an effect that needs to be reverted by understanding, above everything else, that humans are social beings who need to be inspired, listened to, acknowledged and celebrated. 

Humans are social beings, and we are happier, and better, when connected to others. 

Paul Bloom

What Kinds of Leaders Are Needed to Bring People Together?

Only those leaders who are caring, inspirational and willing to take time with people have a chance to create the new conditions required to build high-performing teams. Is flexibility necessary in these new conditions? Absolutely! 

Flexibility will be key to actually inspiring people to come together. Understanding that work activities include more than just work means that people can create teams with strong social bonds. 

Unwavering policies about what is and is not allowed as far as telecommuting or working from afar will likely only push talent in the other direction. Finding the balance between creating optimal social conditions while still meeting the needs of all the workers is critical. A neuroleader is uniquely positioned to find that balance while improving working conditions for everyone.

Why Should We Encourage a Return to the Office?

Returning to the office has a multitude of benefits from a neuroscience perspective, with the potential to positively impact employees’ mental, emotional, and social wellbeing. Oxytocin, also called the ‘love hormone’ or ‘trust hormone’, is a crucial neurochemical that comes into play when discussing the benefits of returning to the office. 

Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter produced in the hypothalamus and then released by the pituitary gland into the bloodstream. Unfortunately, there is no good synthetic alternative because the hormone cannot pass the blood-brain barrier, meaning it needs to originate in the brain to be most effective.

Oxytocin is associated with trust, social bonding and human connection. It is released in the brain in response to positive social interactions, such as physical touch, eye contact and social engagement. When people work in a physical office environment, they have more opportunities for face-to-face interactions with colleagues, which can trigger the release of oxytocin and foster positive social connections.[5]

In an office setting, employees can engage in informal conversations, share ideas and collaborate in person, leading to increased social bonding and trust amongst team members. These factors can contribute to a positive work culture and a sense of belonging, which in turn can boost employee morale, motivation and overall job satisfaction.

The release of oxytocin can also help reduce stress and anxiety, as it has been shown to have a calming effect on the brain and body, leading to improved emotional wellbeing. The physical presence of people in an office can also enhance nonverbal communication, such as facial expressions, gestures and body language, which are important for building rapport and understanding.

These nonverbal cues can be difficult to replicate in remote work environments, where communication is often mediated through technology, leading to potential misinterpretation and miscommunication. How often have you wished an email gave you a clue to how a person was feeling? While remote technology is impressive, we are losing the human touch.

The office environment itself can play a role in triggering the release of oxytocin. Well-designed office spaces that promote social interaction, such as common areas, break rooms and collaborative spaces, can create opportunities for employees to connect and engage with one another, leading to increased oxytocin levels and positive social bonding.

Studies have shown there are ways to boost oxytocin in group settings, including exercising together and singing or playing instruments together. Music and exercise, particularly in groups, led to an increase in oxytocin levels in saliva.[6]

I should note that even though remote work has become more prevalent due to COVID-19, remote work does not provide the same level of social connection and oxytocin release as in-person office interactions. Virtual interactions, although convenient, may lack the same level of emotional and social connection as face-to-face interactions, which can impact employees’ overall wellbeing and job satisfaction. 

How to Encourage People Back and Build Communities

As leaders seek to encourage people to return to the office after prolonged remote work, understanding the neuroscience of motivation and employing collaborative practices can be effective strategies. Here are five points to consider:

  1. Foster a Sense of Belonging: The human brain is wired for social connection and belonging. As a coach, I encourage leaders to create community and belonging in the office. How? Leaders can promote team-building activities, organise social events and encourage collaborative projects. These can activate the brain’s reward system, releasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with motivation and engagement.
  2. Provide a Safe and Healthy Workplace: The brain’s primary function is to protect the body, and safety is a fundamental need. Leaders can prioritise creating a safe and healthy workplace by implementing safety measures such as proper ventilation, sanitisation protocols and social distance guidelines during Covid or flu season. These measures can alleviate concerns about returning to the office and reduce stress and anxiety, allowing the brain to feel secure and conducive to productivity.
  3. Communicate the Benefits of In-Person Interaction: I understand that some leaders may face an uphill climb when trying to establish in-person working conditions, especially if everyone has become accustomed to working from home. But, human brains are wired for face-to-face interaction, and in-person communication has been shown to enhance collaboration, creativity and innovation.[7]

    Leaders can communicate the benefits of in-person interaction, such as the opportunity for spontaneous brainstorming, social bonding and nonverbal cues, which can foster trust and collaboration amongst team members. This can stimulate the brain’s social engagement system, promoting a desire to return to the office.
  4. Offer Flexibility and Autonomy: The brain craves autonomy and flexibility in decision-making. Leaders can offer flexible work arrangements, such as hybrid models, that give employees the best of both worlds. Flexibility can give employees control over their work environment and schedule, increasing their motivation to return to the office and contribute to a collaborative work culture. 
  5. Lead with Empathy and Compassion: The brain responds positively to empathetic and compassionate leadership. Leaders can demonstrate understanding and empathy towards employees’ concerns about returning to the office and provide support as needed. This can create a positive emotional connection and build trust, activating the brain’s reward system and fostering a sense of loyalty and commitment to the organisation. 

We will only bring people back into the office if we can prove the benefits. Once people realise the value of social interaction in the workplace, they will be more amenable to being in the office. I encourage each of you to remember the quiet little mouse in the corner. What talent is lost because we are not hearing their voices? 

It was an incredible experience to visit Göttingen and learn from the scientists there, both past and present. As we march along in the Imagination Age, we must be flexible, compassionate and knowledgeable about how the brain works, or we will be left behind. I hope we can find the balance needed to support social interaction while still being flexible and understanding.

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