Can you be too well connected?
Ethan Burris, Dawn Klinghoffer, Elizabeth McCune, Tannaz Sattari Tabrizi
Some people are better networkers than others. Most of us can identify the people in our department who seem to know more people, know more about people, and know information sooner than their colleagues. But for the first time, my fellow researchers and I were able to quantify connectedness at work and more accurately identify its benefits—and pitfalls.
We were able to do this thanks to a new form of measurement. Historically, social scientists seeking to measure connectedness at work would simply ask employees about how many people they knew and interacted with. That is, an overly long survey listing all employees in an organization would be sent for each individual to record who they were friends with, who they went to for career advice, or who they needed to interact with just to get work done. Convincing employees to fill out the survey, let alone filling out many to track the changes in networks, was a daunting task and resulted in selection bias.
A novel and more scientific approach is to analyze data that are already out there. Every time an employee takes a meeting with someone else and every time an employee emails another, information about collaboration is created. Capturing the digital exhaust of the corporate email and calendaring system can shed light on those who are the most connected. In recent research conducted with members from the Human Resource Business Insights team and the Workplace Analytics team at Microsoft, we examined these collaboration patterns to see how they influenced the employee experience. We consider highly connected employees to be those who send out a large number of emails to and have frequent meetings with others in the organization (i.e., those in the top 20 percent for outgoing emails and meetings) and compare their behavior to those who send out fewer emails and have fewer meetings (i.e., those in the bottom 20 percent for outgoing emails and meetings).
Who are the highly connected people at work?
Let’s take one business unit within Microsoft as an example. Our research found that employees in this business unit attend an average of 9 meetings per week and send out an average of 109 emails per week. Employees in the top 20 percent of email senders however, have no less than 173 outgoing emails per week, whereas those in the bottom 20 percent of email senders have less than 33 outgoing emails per week. Similarly, employees in the top 20 percent of meeting attendees have no less than 14 meetings per week, and those in the bottom 20 percent have less than 4 meetings per week.
Having established a baseline, we were then able to examine who are more or less connected. Not surprisingly, employees who are higher in the organizational hierarchy and who hold leadership positions are significantly more connected with others in the organization compared to employees who are individual contributors deeper in the organization. For example, our research found that employees higher in the hierarchy had an average of 13 meetings per week, whereas less-senior employees averaged 7 meetings. Employees in higher ranked positions also had more than twice the number of outgoing emails relative to less-senior employees (190 for more senior vs. 78 for less senior). Similarly, people in managerial roles (irrespective of hierarchical level) had about twice the number of meetings as individual contributors (16 vs. 8) and close to 3 times the number of outgoing emails than individual contributors (239 vs. 89).
Connectedness carries many benefits. Regardless of managerial status and rank, employees who were more well connected in our study were generally more engaged (they are more excited to come to work to do their job). For instance, employees who fell in the top 20 percent of most-frequent email senders were 6 percent more engaged than those who fell in the bottom 20 percent.
The status of being highly connected also affects how people behave. It makes sense that those who are more in the know also have more things to say. We found that highly connected employees were more likely to speak up regarding various issues about their work, such as the tasks that need to get done, their group climate, and diversity/inclusion. For example, 72 percent of highly connected employees indicated that they would speak up about coordinating their work with others compared to only 55 percent of lower connected employees.
But we were also surprised to find several downsides of being well connected. Well-connected employees are less likely to engage in actions that would upset their hard-earned relationships. We found that highly connected employees were less likely to speak up about highly sensitive and personal matters such as their own career development and work-life balance. Furthermore, they were 16 percent less likely to be satisfied with their work-life balance and 20 percent less likely to think that their workload allowed them to achieve an acceptable work-life balance. Excessive emails and meetings likely take away time from doing individual tasks and in turn add to one’s workload and hours spent at work. Longer work hours mean less time spent on personal and family matters, resulting in an imbalance of one’s work and nonwork life.
The best of both worlds
Being highly connected in an organization comes with clear benefits. Highly connected employees, however, can struggle with work-life balance and may be less likely to speak up about this and other potentially sensitive and personal issues. One tangible action that companies can do is to take ownership over initiating conversations about work-life balance and other issues that are important to employees but often get missed, like career development. Microsoft’s Connect process gets at both of these. Connects are conversations employees have with their managers at least twice a year that have a section dedicated to career development where you can focus on the skills you want to develop to help you learn and grow. In addition, there is a section to discuss key deliverables for the next few months, which can highlight to managers that employees have too much on their plate.
Further, organizations can proactively offer programs to spur more work-life balance, such as reminders in email systems alerting employees of the impact that they can have by responding to emails after work hours. Sometimes all it takes is a little nudge and reminder to change your behaviors, and the impact can have long lasting effects. By giving employees and managers tools to mitigate the downsides of being highly connected, organizations can help the highly connected employees keep their engagement high and their voices heard.
“Can You Be Too Well Connected?” originally appeared on HBR and is reprinted here with permission.