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How the best leaders help companies build deeper connection in a work-from-home world

April 2, 2021, 4:30 PM UTC
Commentary-moral leadership connected colleagues
“The business of business is no longer just business,” write the authors. “The business of business is now community.”
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As Aristotle posited thousands of years ago, we are social animals by nature. And yet, while it is our human instinct to come together socially, and especially so in times of crisis, one year into the COVID-19 global pandemic we find ourselves physically apart, even socially distant, and only virtually connected. Nonetheless, our world continues to be reshaped and marches inexorably and increasingly faster toward interdependence. The pandemic accelerated and amplified our state of interdependence, with local problems quickly metastasizing into global ones, and the decisions and actions of so few rippling outwards to so many. From every far corner of the world people proclaimed that “we’re in this together”—and unlike any other time in history, we saw the meaning and power of truly being in this together. Now, more than ever, we rise and fall as one.

At the center of our work at The HOW Institute for Society is a long-standing commitment to studying, researching, and measuring the state and nature of human connection. Long before COVID-19 emerged, people experienced loneliness in spite of being more technologically connected than ever before. We struggled to feel meaningfully connected despite our constant connectivity because we cannot feel connected without being truly connected by sharing deep human values, truths, and realities and by being part of a common and worthy human endeavor. 

While technology accelerates exponentially and linearly, there is no Moore’s Law for human progress. It’s hard, it’s messy, and it’s curvilinear—we tend to go up and down. The pandemic further laid bare our existing challenges and fractures with acerbic clarity. With 88% of U.S. organizations requiring or encouraging employees to transition to remote work, we sought to use the transparency of this unique moment to better understand what lies at the core of human connection and the kind of leadership that shapes it. The findings of our Human Connection in the Virtual Workplace report underscore the urgent imperative for moral leadership. 

While many factors influence human connection, leadership is disproportionately consequential in shaping communities, institutions, and society. We had an instinctive sense that given our physical distance from one another owing to the pandemic, it was imperative that leaders work harder—and differently—to create a sense of connection and community. 

We found human connection was strained for all employees but particularly for women and younger workers—those historically in positions of less power. In fact, 30% of U.S. workers felt less deeply and meaningfully connected to their organizations, and 44% felt less connected to coworkers since the start of the pandemic. Yet the findings also show workers felt more connected when their supervisors exhibited and embodied behaviors and attributes associated with moral leadership. In fact, the gender and age disparities dramatically decrease, and in some cases disappear completely, with moral leadership. When reporting to moral leaders, 60% of workers felt more meaningfully connected to their organization, 80% more connected to coworkers, and 90% more connected to their leader. 

What moral leadership looks like

Moral leadership is more than singular actions: It is a series of choices, values, and behaviors that one must repeatedly choose to pursue. Moral leaders—those who are authentically open and embrace the fact that everything is personal—have had the most impact on employees. They have given employees the freedom to be human—recognizing the tensions among responsibilities that have been pulled taut by the pandemic and trusting employees to steward their time appropriately, showing that they celebrate our human needs to be both breadwinners and caregivers to our families and loved ones. They have worked harder and differently to connect with others deeply and elevate them—checking in more frequently, sharing feelings and personal updates to ensure employees feel seen, heard, and included. They have used technology in intentional ways that are informed by our human nature—to connect not only our minds, but our hearts. These leaders earned trust in this time of crisis by telling the truth no matter how bright or dark, and also seeking the truth in others. Moral leaders gave us hope—by inspiring collaboration, common purpose, and future possibilities.

As Viktor Frankl notably espoused, humankind’s primary intrinsic motivation is the search for meaning. The leaders we will remember from this liminal moment are those who wrestled with deep existential questions and sought—with humility—to help us find meaning. 

We will remember those who agonized publicly over the painful tradeoff of saving lives versus livelihoods. Those who used this moment to pivot and move in the new directions we’ll need in a post-pandemic world, where people’s expectations will have fundamentally changed. Those who did not see their employees simply as human resources, talent, and thus as means to corporate ends, but saw them in their full humanity—as individuals with unique hopes, dreams, and worries. Those who closed stores and restaurants before it was mandated, proving through their actions that they prioritize people over profits. Those who were able to articulate the meaning in the struggle of weathering this crisis together—not just as members of a common organization but as fellow human beings. Those who were proactive in putting their own corporate relief funds in place, prioritizing it over stock buybacks. Those who paused to reflect on the inequalities and injustices, both historic and modern day, that were laid bare by the pandemic and trusted their organizations with the hard truth of exactly how far they are from the equality we seek—and who didn’t shirk this truth, but committed to listening, learning, and changing as individuals and organizations. Those who acknowledged that they scaled supply chains optimized for speed, efficiency, and just in time delivery and vowed to rebuild them rooted in resiliency and integrity. This moment galvanized some leaders and caused others to crumble.

With businesses rethinking the need for physical office space and more employees remaining remote in 2021, fostering meaningful connections that fuel today’s more human-centered economy will be an imperative for leaders around the globe not just in today’s continued crisis, but in all of the years to follow. The business of business is no longer just business. The business of business is now community. This means that we’re competing on hearts. We’re competing on the nature and depth of our relationships. We’re competing on the deep values that create human glue, the deepest moral truths, aspirations, hopes, and dreams. We must now build value from shared values. Organizational and leadership strategies that fail to center forging deep, enduring connections—and building community within and around our companies and ecosystems—will fail.

The pandemic gave us an opportunity to pause and reflect on where we are, reconnect to our values, rethink our assumptions, and reimagine a better path forward. We witnessed businesses pivot overnight from selling to saving lives. The ethos, values, and instincts that animated us to save, can now anchor our pivot toward serving. Through moral leadership we will deepen connections, build sustainable communities, and foster meaning. The path forward must be forged anew. It is our hope that leaders at all levels and in all spheres of society will join us on this journey and help illuminate that path.

Dov Seidman is the founder and executive chairman of The HOW Institute for Society and the founder and chairman of LRNAngela Ahrendts is a board member of The HOW Institute for Society, chair of the board for Save the Children International, and the former senior vice president of Apple Retail.