Making friends in the digital age
Forging true social connections and building real community in the era of ubiquitous communication and social media.
Everything we do, everything we design, and everything we create feeds into a higher purpose: that people are our ultimate clients and our ultimate goal is to improve the human experience.
While we may be more ‘connected’ than ever in the digital and social media age, why does it often feel so difficult to keep our social bonds alive and well? Why do so many of us feel so lonely?
We were inspired on this topic by the book: Friendship in the Age of Loneliness, by Adam ‘Smiley’ Poswolsky. Poswolsky is a keynote speaker, workplace belonging expert, and bestselling author of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough (Penguin Random House) and The Breakthrough Speaker.
Poswolsky helps companies attract, retain, and empower the next generation, and he has inspired thousands of professionals to be more engaged at work, through speaking at companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, Genentech, Unilever, Salesforce, Verizon, and Deloitte. Poswolsky’s TEDx talk on “the quarter-life crisis” has been viewed over 2 million times, and he has done hundreds of speaking engagements, reaching over 50,000 people in 25 countries. Poswolsky has guest lectured at Stanford Graduate School of Business and UC Berkeley Haas School of Business. Poswolsky has advised heads of state and foreign leaders about millennials, multi-generational engagement, and fostering connection and belonging in the digital age.
We invited Adam to sit down with him for a conversation about his recent book and how these themes may apply to today’s work culture, particularly in the context the post-pandemic future of remote work, collaboration, mentorship, and relationship-building.
We encourage you to listen to the entire one-hour interview.
1. The data shows what many of us already suspect: Despite tons of technology and communication access, lots of people are lonely and are yearning for friendship.
Smiley: “As an elder millennial, I was going through this period of 2017 to 2020 of, ‘Oh, I have all of these friends on social media. I would consider myself a connected person, right?’ I’m not isolated alone in the basement playing video games for 20 hours a day, yet I feel quite lonely. And I think that there was something there because I started to talk to other people and they were feeling pretty similar things. And you dig into a little bit to the data and I realized ‘Hey, I’m not alone in this. A lot of people that are “extroverted” or have lots of social actions feel lonely.’
In fact, two-thirds of Americans prior to the pandemic — two-thirds — So, over 60 percent! Additionally, 70 percent of millennials and 80 percent of Gen Z reported feelings of loneliness. And loneliness is the subjective discrepancy between your actual level of connection and your desired level of connection. That’s what the science actually shows that loneliness is. It’s the gap. It’s that gap between here’s where things are and here’s my connection level. Here’s where I want them to be.”
- How are you feeling about the social connections in your life? Are you feeling fulfilled?
- Do you have meaningful connections and relationships outside of social media?
- Has the pandemic readjusted your social circles in ways that are better, or more difficult?
2. Shared rituals particularly those with some kind of a regular cadence are a significant way for friendship and bonding. For many of today’s working millennials, rituals can take on a new non-religious significance, and even be sacred or spiritual.
Smiley: “I think that there’s a spirituality to it. My friend Casper ter Kuile wrote this beautiful book, which I highly recommend everyone read called The Power of Ritual… he makes the point in this book that there is a sacredness to ritual. So many millennials are not affiliated with a major religion, or they don’t consider themselves very religious, right? Whether it comes to being Jewish or Christian, or Muslim, but they’re very spiritual. That kind of spirituality takes the form of a ritual, in the form of community.
It’s depth over breadth. I think rituals offer that depth. It’s not just the thing that you’re doing on Friday, it’s that the thing on Friday happens to be a powerful thing. Even if it’s only 30 minutes, you might go inward, you might reflect, you might cry or laugh or do something that really causes you to think, or create something in the world. I think everyone is really hungry for that right now.”
- Are there rituals or other significant events you currently practice within your community, or even within your family or group of friends?
- How might you introduce a new regular practice or ritual of connection into your daily life and with your team of colleagues?
- How can we incorporate ritual and meaning into our design process or the experiences we create for users?
3. The importance of gifting (without the expectation of reciprocation) in friendship.
Smiley: “I think that for me, that was probably one of the most transformational things to experience the first time I went to Burning Man. Just all these people giving something and not expecting something in return, right? It’s just like, ‘Do you want a bacon bloody Mary?’ Do you want truffle popcorn? And you’re like, “Oh my God, Yes! Here, let me give you this [in exchange]’ and they’re like ‘No, no, no.’
But that’s not how it works in the economy. The economy is like, ‘You want something from me, you pay me.’ That’s how it works. But if you get rid of that, your mind’s blown and you’re like, ‘Oh, why am I here? Who do I want to support? Who do I want to serve?’ What is it like to receive a gift, to receive something that they built, something they created, something they want to offer.
You’re like ‘Thank you!’ and you just get to be in the place of experiencing it without something transactional. It’s really, really powerful. That feels so good. It feels so good for the person [giving the gift] and it feels so good for the person getting the [gift]. It’s what I think makes us truly feel love and gratitude in this world.
Now, a gift doesn’t have to be the way we think of it as in Christmas, Hanukkah, like a wrapped present. It doesn’t have to be an artifact, doesn’t have to be something you bought on Amazon or Best Buy. It can just be like, ‘I made you this,’ or ‘I thought of you,’ something little or ‘This made me think of you’ or ‘I wanted to give you this,’ or ‘I know you love these sunglasses, I want you to have them.’
- What does the notion of ‘gifting’ mean in a work culture or collaboration context? Can we support our team members without the expectation of getting something reciprocal?
- What’s an example of a workplace “gift”? Can it be something to recognize achievement or contribution?
- Should gifting be thought of as a design principle in the same way as a principle like empathy?
4. The importance of having at least a few healthy friendships at work and how that significantly impacts workplace happiness and engagement.
Smiley: “I think it was much easier for people to maintain relationships with their coworkers who had already been working together for a year, two years, five years in person. Then they suddenly go remote, they’re on Zoom all the time, but they know each other. They’ve met each other’s families or partners. Completely different than all of these people that have started new jobs and never met a single one of their coworkers in real life. Can you imagine for young people graduating from college, they’re 22, 23 or people just out of grad school, or people starting their first, second job. They start in a big company and they’re just sitting at their parent’s house, they’re sitting in their little apartment. They’ve never met one of their coworkers, their boss, their supervisors, someone on their team ever in real life. They’re still working 40, 50 hours a week. That’s ridiculous. That’s not human. That doesn’t make any sense. I worry about that. So you have to be able to reconcile both of those things. People want remote hybrid work, and we have to design for the human connection.”
The proximity bias stuff shows that a lot of people that are working remotely get overlooked for promotions, specifically women. Because like they’re not top of mind or the person’s not seeing them on a regular basis and they’re seeing the people that happen to be in the office every day. That’s a big problem and a huge design constraint when it comes to hybrid work. It’s like, ‘Oh, it’s optional if you come in.’ Well, is it? It’s optional, but then the only people getting promoted and getting raises are people that are best friends with the CEO or happen to be sitting in the room all the time.
So, that’s not fair. These are major conversations that need to happen. I don’t think we know the answers to everything yet. I think the verdict is still out. We’re entering this new normal and people assume that we have it all figured out. And frankly, we don’t. So, I really think that the lesson is to have a growth mindset about this stuff and to really be like ‘We’re figuring out what’s going to work for us.’
Additionally, lonely employees have almost 50% lower productivity, double the missed days at work because there’s more stress, higher risk of turnover, lower quality of work. Lonely employees cost the economy $406 billion a year. So, just in terms of all of those costs from turnover, from being sick, from poor health outcomes.
On the flip side of that, social employees do experience higher levels of belonging. The sense that you can be yourself at work, that you feel part of something bigger than yourself. There’s an increase in job performance, 50 percent lower job turnover risk, reduction in sick days, more promotions, and more raises which results in a huge level of savings for companies. There should just be a human case for this. People want to be around other people, but it’s actually a huge business case as well, which is why I think it’s really important for teams to invest in it.”
- How has working at a distance impacted your engagement with your co-workers?
- What are some healthy ways to maintain workplace social connections during remote working?
- Can you or your team be doing more to foster healthy social bonds with colleagues without expecting people to be ‘best friends’?
Sometimes it’s good to take a step back to get the broader perspective. We spend a lot of our time immersed in design and development, but we need to remind ourselves why we’re here: not only to do good work, but to grow as people. They say ‘No man (or woman) is an island,’ and no creator is either. We need to invest the time and energy in building better bonds with our friends and colleagues in order to feel fulfilled in our personal and professional lives. We need to use digital tools and social media more thoughtfully and deliberately.