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Fostering High-Quality Connections on Campus

By far one of the biggest impacts from COVID-19 has been on our connections with others.  Many of us are missing or have missed our face to face interactions with our colleagues, with students, and with others whom we come across on campus.  While we previously may have taken these incidental connections for granted, the last few months have certainly shown us how important these are for our mental wellbeing, mood, motivation, energy and ultimately both our individual and team work.  
Regardless if we’re returning to campus - either fulltime or part-time – or continuing to work or study from home we can all benefit from intentionally fostering high-quality connections.  
If we’re returning to campus, either as a disability practitioner, administrative support officer, manager, teaching staff or student we’ll need to make some adjustments back into routines, campus environments and day-to-day interactions.  Each of us may experience varying degrees of anxiety and trepidation about settling back on campus and re-establishing working relationships and could benefit from empathy and support from others.  And if we’re continuing to work or study at home finding ways to connect well with others can be essential to help manage feelings of isolation or loneliness.  
Our connections with each other are more important than ever right now.  

Why do connections matter?

  • We are wired to connect.  Humans are social species and that’s why we can crave connection with others.  When we connect well with others – where we feel seen, we feel valued, and have others we can rely on - we’re happier, healthier, and better at our jobs.   
  • Research on educational technologies and social media in higher education shows how human connections and meaningful interactions are an essential part of the learning process, especially online.
  • Having a sense of connection and belonging with others is one of basic psychological needs.  It is also one of the three requirements for Ryan and Deci’s self-determination theory.  Supportive interactions and relationships are essential for our motivation, personal growth, and wellbeing. 
  • Connections and meaningful interactions are an essential part of the learning process. This means even in online courses it’s important for students to feel connected with teaching staff and/or other students in ways that are more than recorded videos and emails.
  • Micro-moments of positive connections with others each day has been found to improve our mental and physical health.  This works even when a moment of positive emotions – such as kindness, interest, laughter and joy – is shared with a stranger. 
  • Quality connections can also help break down feelings of loneliness. Loneliness happens when we don’t have our social needs met. It’s a subjective experience so we can be physically isolated from others and not feel lonely at all, or conversely be in the midst of a busy campus environment and feel very lonely.  While it’s normal that many of us may feel lonely from time to time, persistant loneliness can have the same detrimental effects on our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.  We can also have more trouble sleeping, feel less energetic, and find it harder to think through things clearly and solve problems.  And unfortunately we’re more likely to become defensive or awkward in social situations which exasperates our feelings of disconnect from others.  However, even a single encounter with another person where we feel seen, feel known, and experience mutual regard can help buffer us or reduce the impact from loneliness.
  • High-quality connections   happen when interactions are characterized by mutual respect, interest, understanding, and care.  They leave us feeling upbeat and energised.  We can think of them just like vitamins for our psychological and emotional health. They help build up our resilience,  resourcefulness, optimism, openness to new ideas, feelings of competence and hope.  High quality connections on campus can help build the social fabric within and between our teams, and therefore leads to better collaboration with others.  And with our students can foster a greater sense of belonging and better learning outcomes. 

What can we do to connect well with others? 

Following are a few ideas you may want to play with to strengthen your day-to-day connections on campus with others.  

  • Make connections a by-product – rather than the focus of activities.  The Centre for Social Impact has found that connections can happen when there is space and time to build trust through problem-solving activities, pairing up experienced people with those keen to learn, and providing ‘bumping spaces’ where our workspace allows us to bump into one another prompting chat and laughter. 
  • Butterfly Effect - Every decision we make and everything we do no matter how small has a profound effect on the world around us. Even small and seemingly insignificant changes at the start of a process can produce significantly different results.
  • Mix it up – we all need different types of time together.  It might be in large groups, working in pairs, regular or just occasional interactions. Even ‘together alone’ experiences, where staff and/or students are completing their own tasks alongside of others, can be valuable social connections.  Also, try to make it fun, as our ‘feel good’ brain chemicals that are released by doing things such as laughing, music, playing games or sports can make connections much easier and more effective.   
  • Create micro-moments of connection – with others.  Despite being small and seemingly inconsequential they can be powerful!  Take a moment to genuinely greet people as you go about your day – to the person who serves you coffee, people who work in the same building as you, or the student in the waiting room. A simple “hello” can change the course of yours and someone else’s day, and perhaps create a high-quality connection in the future. Ask how your colleagues and students are doing, and really listen to their responses. 
  • Pay it forward - consider what you might like from others to help you feel more connected, and then offer this to someone else —a student, team member, or other colleagues.  Perhaps inquiring about their weekend or interests, a check-in phone call, or a coffee catch up. 
  • Give your full attention – when you’re interacting with others.  If you’re with them in person make sure you turn away from your computer and face them directly. Put your phone on silent and if possible totally out of view, as even the presence of a phone can disrupt people's sense of being connected.   If you’re engaging with someone virtually minimise or close all other applications. Others can sense it when you become distracted even when you’re not with them face to face. 
  • Be intentional with your questions – as the seed for a high-quality connection often begins with a question. However not all questions are equal – they can either open up or close down a connection.  Questions most likely to foster high-quality connections are ones that: convey genuine interest in the other person; evoke positive emotions such as gratitude, joy, calm or curiosity; provide help or assistance, and look for common ground.   
  • Be RUOK? Confident – chances are there is always someone who you connect with on campus that is struggling right now.  R U OK? have developed four easy conversation steps – Ask, Listen, Encourage Action and Check In - to help you feel more confident to show support and compassion to those you may feel worried about. 
  • Use supportive communication – and active listening. Engage with others respectfully, and with compassion and empathy. Sometimes we can find it easier to be more compassionate with some students or colleagues than others.  Compassion at work involves practising the default assumption that people who are suffering are good, capable and worthy of compassion.  It means being curious rather than judgemental.  And acknowledge that difficulties and struggle is not a sign that people are breaking but rather that they are human.  Rather than feel helpless in the wake of what’s happening for our students and colleagues ‘Hey, Teachers: It’s Time to Put On Our Compassion Hats.’
  • Set rules of engagement – regardless if your team meetings are virtual or face-to-face you can be just interacting and not connecting well.  Consider how you structure your meetings to ensure that people will show up psychologically as well as physically.  For example, having some rules of engagement about technology in meetings, making time for everyone to have their say, and sharing good news or gratitude at the start of meetings.  Check out the Atlassian Team Playbook for a hands-on activity designed to establish Rules of Engagement or for other evidence-based ways to strengthen connections in teams.
  • Staying grateful - expressing gratitude and appreciation for others can supercharge your connections.  Take the time to thank people for showing up, for the conversation, for what you learned, for the help you valued, for the smiles you shared.  Make sure that you follow through on any promises you’ve made so that people know how much you value them.
  • Share your experiences – and expertise with others when requested or can add value to what others are doing.  For example, spend a few extra minutes to check-in that a student understands their assessment tasks, support a less experienced colleague with a task you’re both working on, or offer to mentor someone.

What can you do improve the quality of your connections with colleagues and students?

Case Study – Josh’s story 

Despite our best intentions it’s normal that we don’t always put in the care and attention that our connections need.  While this was compounded by the added complexities of rapidly moving to online work, teaching and study, it’s also a time to remember that our interactions can make a real difference to others.

For example, in March 2020 when the COVID-19 profoundly impacted so many aspects of our lives, Josh was in his final semester of his undergraduate degree in Architecture. His normal course delivery by necessity involved strong elements of hands-on learning. When his university campus went into lockdown and course delivery shifted to remote online learning Josh also lost his part-time job. He was forced to move home, four hours away from campus to enable him to survive financially.

Josh experienced considerable stress as a result of the transformation in course delivery and the situation.   He felt overwhelmed, frustrated and socially isolated as he tried to adapt to the ‘new normal’.

Josh also found it hard to connect with some of his teaching staff in this new virtual university world.  In particular, one lecturer used very formal language and emphasised lots the need to stick to rules and schedule.  It didn’t seem empathetic for what students were going through, nor was it encouraging.   Unfortunately, any contact with this lecturer left Josh feeling like he didn’t matter, and that he had no hope of completing the course work.   And therefore, wondering why he should even bother trying to pass this unit.

In comparison one of Josh’s other lecturers seemed to go out of their way to support and encourage him.  The lecturer would phone him about the course, and the conversation would include a check-in about how he was doing, and some simple – but effective – suggestions to support his wellbeing. For example, Josh is a huge AFL Essendon football fan and at the time no AFL games were being played. The lecturer suggested Josh find a recording of Essendon’s premiership win in the year 2000 to watch.   Watching this football game really lifted Josh’s spirits and improved his motivation to complete his course work.

This second example of a high-quality connection between Josh and his lecturer shows how a few extra minutes taken to show care and understanding helped Josh feel much more optimistic and hopeful about his studies.