Jann Freed
Jann Freed

We live and work at a time when we can be connected 24/7. It is common to hear people talk about how many “friends” they have on Facebook, how many followers they have on Twitter and how many connections they have on LinkedIn. Yet, we put up fences to maintain our privacy and to keep the neighbors out. We may not know our neighbors well enough to even borrow a cup of sugar.

The front porch is a powerful metaphor that reflects the loss of community and connectedness. Houses used to have front porches where people hung out and shared stories. Not only are front porches gone; it has become the norm for people to wear earphones in public. The message: “Don’t talk to me. I’m busy.”

Although we are connected, research has documented the social isolation in the U.S. A study showed that one-fourth of all Americans report that they have nobody to talk to about “important matters.”

Another fourth reported they are just one person away from nobody. But the most startling finding was that in only two decades, from 1985 to 2004, the number of people who have no one to talk to has doubled, and the average number of confidants has gone down from three to two. This finding is significant because the closer and stronger our tie with someone, the broader the scope of their support for us and the likelihood that they will provide major help in a crisis. It is easier to have extensive relationships at a distance, but harder to develop deep friendships in our backyard.

We live in a society that values individualism, but it can make us self-centered as we watch out for “number one.”

This attitude is reflected in the declining membership of social groups such as the Shriners, Elks and PTAs. Robert Putnam, author of “Bowling Alone,” stressed how important it is to feel connected and part of a community, and this is important to people of all ages. Research tells us that socially connected people live longer, respond better to stress, have more robust immune systems and do better at fighting a variety of specific illnesses.

These medical benefits derive directly from the social connection itself, not just from lifestyle improvement, such as better diet, more exercise and better medical care.

Current trends are detrimental to trying to build community. We come to workplaces that celebrate and encourage independence, and this makes building a sense of community difficult. We need each other to tackle the complexities and challenges of work in these uncertain times, but in the workplace, collegiality is rarely encouraged. It is not surprising that teamwork and collaboration are challenges when people don’t know each other.

And it is hard to trust people you don’t know. When we are aware of these patterns, we can focus on what people need. Our time is well spent if we get to know people, listen to what they have to say and become someone they can trust. The paradox of connection is that we need to disconnect to connect in order to build a sense of community.

Building community in the workplace may be the most important task for leaders in these times.

Jann Freed, Ph.D., is a leadership development and change management consultant at The Genysys Group.