The Power of Human Connection, with Di Gates

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Di Gates is all about connecting better with humans, and the Sphere Network is all about connecting humans with ideas and initiatives that are making a real difference.

Di’s latest project, the Human Connection Story, has been designed from the outset to be highly collaborative, which is just the type of project Sphere members love. It’s an action-research project that explores human connectivity in the world of work and how this has changed in the last few years.

We invited Di to run a lunchtime session that was very well attended by a wide range of people who were either working in the HR field, or just curious about what Human Connectivity is and what it all means.

Di’s started her session by explaining her reasons for embarking on her ambitious research project:

  • Di likes people, and spending time with people – getting people together to work collaboratively and effectively can help teams punch above their weight. Teams that operate well together can outperform more skilled teams – for example in sports teams who are less fit than their competitors, or teams of young graduates pitching against larger marketing agencies.
  • Di is a bit fearful of technology – Technology is being used by many organisations to drive speed and profit by digitising as many human connections as possible. Human connection is being replaced by digital connectivity. Face-to-face banking morphed into telephone banking and now online banking is creating problems for large swathes of society.
  • Di is seeing disconnection happening INSIDE organisations – Colleagues and teams are now becoming disconnected. If you can’t connect internally, you can’t expect to connect externally with customers and other stakeholders.

How has this problem evolved?

In 2020, people were focussed on staying alive, paying bills and keeping operating, in both a personal and business context, so only basic needs were being met by technology to help us communicate and access basic documents.

By 2021, we started seeing isolation from remote working having an impact on physical and mental health, and people started to disconnect. A high level of productivity was masking an exhausted population and an exhausted workforce.

In 2022, we are starting to see the impact on different groups within society and organisations – resulting in the trends of ‘The Great Resignation’ and ‘Quiet Quitting’.

Developing the Connection Story

Di’s goal is to understand the real challenges behind the trends and statistics and to co-create useful solutions, based on her founding belief that human connection is key to creating happy, high-performing teams.

Di is using the ‘Double Diamond’ innovation process throughout the project – starting with the discover and define phases and then moving onto the develop and deliver phases.

Pulling together a framework

The framework Di is adopting throughout the project was developed from studies carried out in the ‘discover’ phase spanning sports models, including management and performance management, commercial models, community models and ‘happiness models’.

These studies identified eight key dimensions that optimise human connectivity:

1. Flexibility – Can people choose the time and place they work?

2. Value – Do people feel valued and rewarded?

3. Joy – Do people find joy in their work?

4. Place and space – Does the physical place people work help them do great work?

5. Trust – Do people feel safe and able to take risks?

6. Dependability – Do team members all deliver on time and to the right standard?

7. Communication – How well does the team communicate with themselves and with the wider organisation/community?

8. Clarity – Does everyone in the team have clear, shared goals?

The results of candid conversations

Di conducted many conversations with a wide range of people, including HR leaders, people leaders and CEOs and, no matter the sector, a number of themes became clear:

  • Diminishing returns – ‘Gimmicks’ that once worked, don’t work any more to keep people engaged and connected.
  • The importance of structure – What kind of structure needs to be implemented in terms of where people work?
  • Mandate v persuade – How can you persuade people back into the office rather than mandating it? How do you improve the experience at work?
  • Management ‘comfort zones’ – Some middle-managers wanted to be back in their comfort zone, where they could see what people are doing, whereas employees wanted empowerment through increased flexibility and trust.
  • Different personalities – Some people are people-persons who like conversation and ‘noise’, others like to work in more solitary environment.
  • Attrition and increased salary demands – Many of these demands have been off the cuff and unexpected.
  • Switch from tactics to strategy – Initially there was long-term view so tactical changes were acceptable but now we are in the ‘new normal’ we need a clear business case and strategy for embedding flexibility or changing business culture.
  • Test and learn is new to HR people – HR staff like people and procedures, they don’t necessarily have the experience or skill sets for running innovation projects.
  • Survey overload – So many employee surveys have been carried out, but no-one seems very clear what to do next with all the data they have collected from their staff.
  • Hybrid or flexible? – Many of the conversations were about hybrid working but now there is a shift to fair, flexible working that allows everyone in the team an element of flexibility. Do physical workplaces need to be redesigned and do current employment contracts cover new ways of working adequately?

Di has formed an informal network of people who cover all aspects of the Human Connectivity Story. They have created a survey based on the eight points of the framework and they are encouraging

organisations to use to test the current status of human connectivity within their teams. If you’d like to find out more about this, and maybe use it within your teams, please feel free to contact Di.

There were a good many discussion points and questions that came out of Di’s session:

  • Could Human Connectivity become a KPI that is monitored as part of business performance?
  • Does flexible working mean the same anymore? It’s not just flexible hours people want, it’s flexibility about where they work, and why they have to work there – and where people are able to do their best work.
  • If employers have downsized their offices will they have the space if people want to have the option to come back to the office?
  • Has the balance of power now shifted to employees given the level of staff attrition?

This is a fascinating subject that we will certainly be returning to in future Sphere sessions. We’d love your feedback on this, and any comments or ideas you might have.

If you would like to find out more about Di’s research, you can contact Di through LinkedIn (