The Stunningly Positive Impact of Asking Your Coworkers: “How Are You?”

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A simple morale boost.

The business case for investing in employee satisfaction and inclusion is clear: When employees feel like they belong at work, they’re happier, more productive, and more engaged—which means they do better work and drive higher returns for their employers. Plus, working with a ton of grumps is a drag.

So, how do you make your employees happy? Conventional wisdom advocates for accolades (think “employee of the month” awards), financial benefits (promotions, bonuses), face time with senior leadership, and employee networking groups.

Beneficial as these measures are, a new study conducted by the consulting firm EY (formerly Ernst & Young) suggests the key to employee satisfaction and belonging is far simpler, and less expensive. EY surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than 1,000 employed Americans, seeking to understand how they define belonging, what makes them feel included or excluded at work, and the emotional impact of inclusion and exclusion in the workplace.

Above any other measure, nearly 40 percent of American workers surveyed said they feel the greatest sense of belonging and happiness at work when colleagues simply check in with them, asking how they are doing both personally and professionally. This finding fits in nicely with a 2017 workplace survey from the American Psychological Association, which found that employees who felt supported by their managers were more than twice as likely to be satisfied with their jobs.

Surface-level as such check-ins may seem, taking the time to ask your teammates how they’re feeling, what they’re struggling with, or how their life is going outside of work goes a long way: The study found that more than a third of the survey respondents feel the greatest sense of belonging at work, as compared to other social environments, especially when their colleagues are invested in their personal and professional wellbeing.

In contrast, more than 40 percent of survey respondents said that when they’re socially excluded at work—when their teammates don’t seem to be interested in their wellbeing in and beyond the office—they feel physically and emotionally isolated, ignored, stressed, and sad. This effect was particularly profound among female respondents, 61 percent of whom said they believe exclusion is a form of bullying at work (53 percent of male respondents said they don’t believe workplace social exclusion is bullying).

Of course, not all employees are keen on sharing personal information at work. While millennials tend to buy into the idea of “bringing their whole self to work,” not all of them do. Meanwhile, many in older generations view such vulnerability as unnecessary and unprofessional.

But if this EY study teaches us anything, it’s that regardless of age, gender, or demographic, the vast majority of us enjoy feeling like our co-workers care about us.

Checking in with a co-worker needn’t be overly personal. Simple questions like “how’s life” are all it takes to open the door, enabling whoever you’re checking in with to respond as honestly or in as much detail as they’d like. It’s an easy practice to incorporate into your workday—and the apparent return is well worth the effort.