Led by Associate Professor Adam Karg, this research program is focused on the development and maintenance of social connection in face-to-face and online interactions as well as ways to improve positive social connections and address social isolation in a range of research contexts. 

A wide range of academics and research groups at Swinburne are focused on multi-disciplinary techniques to consider social connection, with specific focus on the science of connection, programs and measurement, and the antecedents and outcomes of social connection, isolation, loneliness and social integration. These groups include the Centre for Social Impact, the Social Data Analytics (SoDA) Lab, Social Health and Wellbeing (SHAW) Laboratory, Sport Innovation Research Group and the Social Network Research Lab

Current projects and partnerships

Allianz Australia contacted Swinburne and Australian Red Cross in May 2020 because we are working on practical, evidence-based methods to help people to connect with each other. Allianz were interested in opportunities to tap into existing research to ‘boost’ social connection thinking and activities within its flexible working policy and in light of staff working from home during COVID-19.

Following some initial discussions, Allianz teamed up with the Social Innovation Research Institute and Decade of Action’s, Ebony Gaylor (formerly Head of Community Mobilisation at Australian Red Cross), to lean into the research about social connection.

The aim was to use evidence about social connection to codesign - with Allianz staff and leaders - to generate knowledge and tools relevant to their culture and existing policies that would support employees to maintain and enhance their connectedness with each other and with the company, especially during COVID.

Being connected has the important outcomes of generating feelings of belonging, giving ready access to other people for help, knowledge and support and brings physiological and psychological benefits, including from release of ‘happiness hormones’ such as serotonin and dopamine.

Regarding work and workplaces, there is considerable evidence that social connection is a significant factor contributing to employee wellbeing and is associated with higher productivity, creativity and job satisfaction, and with lower absenteeism and staff turnover.

Social connection is a vital but overlooked issue in and for the workplace.

What did we do?
  • Scoped relevant evidence and theory about social connection and work/workplaces.
  • Presented materials to a group of Allianz leaders, plus key innovation and human resources leaders.
  • Generated discussion about what Allianz staff had done to stay connected during COVID working at home.
  • Used this material to codesign a pack for Allianz training and as an ongoing knowledge resource.
     
What interesting things did we find?

Allianz leaders we spoke with were concerned about social connection. This was partly due to heightened discussion of social isolation in the media during COVID-19, but leaders had thought about the significance of social connection even before the pandemic.

One leader, who generally worked remotely, discussed how she would really boost social interaction on the occasions when she was at one or more workplaces – using all opportunities for incidental meeting, striking up new conversations with people in the lift.

During the pandemic, people leaders had heightened awareness of supporting staff to keep connected and were on a constant level of alert to be doing enough and to have strategies that fit with different team members and their circumstances.

Leaders were interested in social connection because they were aware of its relevance to ongoing wellbeing of staff and productivity. However, more strongly – there was a discussion that while attending to social connection had previously been something that ‘just happened’ relatively passively, during COVID it became an aspect of work that had to be actively built into leadership.

People leaders had to actively find time during their workdays and weeks to attend to team members as individuals and the team as a whole, identifying the right set of activities to keep people connected. Considerable innovation took place as managers and their teams tried out ideas and initiatives for keeping connected.

During a facilitated session, Allianz staff were able to link back the initiatives they created to principles about social connection from evidence and theory, such as:

  • including everyone to make them feel they belong and build their identity as an important part of the team
  • reinforcing work identity by meeting in small, larger and individual regular meetings with teams and individuals
  • doing small acts of kindness such as support over the phone or offering help
  • having chat and banter as well as ‘serious work talk’ because informal banter is significant to building team identity, connection and belonging.

Feedback from facilitated sessions involved a knowledge pack and tools for social connection.

What key issues emerged?

Some key issues emerged from discussions that link social connection into other ongoing issues for remote and flexible working.

1. Remote working throws out ‘normal’ routines at work and there was a need to:

a) establish what is acceptable within the team (how much flex? Can I take time out for a walk during the day? Do I need to be always available? Can I have times of solitude and concentration?)

b) structure days, weeks and months so that people felt in control of their work/leisure, could signal their availability/ unavailability to colleagues and build in for different types of social connection.

2. Building in and allowing time for banter and social chat into start and end of work meetings or having casual team socials is important for keeping up connection beyond work issues only.

3. There was benefit from thinking about the different ‘kinds’ of work time that need to be built in, including social time, solitude time, phone time, online time and so on. Building in days and times that were online-meeting-free was important to wellbeing. That is, it is important to have both concentrating/work/solitude time; and connection time. These distinctions can make social connection time even more significant and useful.

4. When staff could meet up, really using this time effectively to socially interact is significant (along the lines of recent research on ‘bursty communication').

5. It is difficult to build in for connecting in new people and for incidental meeting, though not impossible and different managers had built in initiatives such as mentoring for new people and organising cross-team socials.

6. Leaders needed to build in a discourse that social connection is important, valued and valuable and part of work. It is not a frivolity or indulgence. Indeed, it is a new capability required of leaders to understand how to keep their team connected, and to implement appropriate measures.

7. Leaders and team members need to build in for social connection, making it a part of the schedule rather than the more random events it was in the past.

Conclusions and what happens next?

There have been lots of anecdotal pieces about connection/disconnection and isolation during the pandemic, but they tend to be speculative or ad hoc and do not compare ‘single case observations’ with the evidence base.

There is considerable, though dispersed, knowledge that can inform about how to harness social connection to boost corporate productivity. But we have not found any evidence internationally where corporations purposefully harness social connection theory and evidence to enhance worker wellbeing, while supporting productivity.

Consequently, Allianz is to be commended on their innovative initiative to unite evidence with staff experiences to design an approach to social connection at work that fits with their culture, existing policy and ways of working.

While a new pack of materials has been produced for Allianz, its impact remains unevaluated so we cannot, at this time, state what impact – if any – it made, and if it meets needs or changes behaviour and thinking.

Social connection is a vital but overlooked issue in and for the workplace. As with much that seems innately human, it is taken for granted during ‘normal’ times, but comes sharply to the fore during crises that isolate team members from each other.

There is some strong theory and evidence that can help work teams to be more socially connected and a larger, robust version of the work that we undertook with Allianz would be valuable to codesign, implement and test the power of social connection on worker wellbeing, identity and productivity.

More information

Note: A full report of this project will be published pending approval and final release.

Aims and background

This is an introduction and preliminary summary of a project underway for four Melbourne councils. The project explores ‘Community Social Connection Infrastructure’ across four metropolitan Local Government Areas (LGAs). It audits and maps place-based social connection assets and experiences using a typology developed from multiple projects about social connection funded by Australian Red Cross. The project will make recommendations regarding investments in Community Infrastructure of Social Connection in the four participating LGAs in the included council regions.

Specific objectives
  • Test a place-based approach aiming to progress work towards reducing social isolation and loneliness and promoting social connection.
  • Leverage a typology of places and spaces to provide investigation of the current pro-connection places and spaces (assets) in the region as well as ‘hotspots’ for connection.
  • Provide empirical evidence of community experiences within the pro-social connection places and spaces.
  • Provide a foundation for understanding the breadth and role of places and spaces in the community.
  • Deliver recommendations for future social connection promoting initiatives.
     
Research activities
  • review of literature and practice with regards to community connectedness initiatives
  • further develop and populate a typology for categorising pro-connection places and spaces across four LGAs
  • mapping social indicator data and places and spaces to understand the alignment of places and spaces with population characteristics
  • focus groups with managers and facilitators of places and spaces to understand perceptions of user experience of places and spaces, and their views about opportunities to enhance current infrastructure. 
Social connection goes beyond simple one-to-one contacts, but rather involves being satisfied with ‘circles of connection’.
Social connection

Social connection is about communal interactions between people. The work of Robin Dunbar shows that social connection goes beyond simple one-to-one contacts, but rather involves being satisfied with ‘circles of connection’ involving issues of number, quality and ‘intensity’ of relations. Dunbar depicts connection as represented in the circles of our social networks, from our smaller most intimate circle of close connections to our wider network of known acquaintances.

We focus on social connection in our work because it is a strengths-based concept. We use this as a counterpoint to the frequent discussion of loneliness and social isolation which are deficit concepts. We believe communities and people need to see a positive way forward and actions that can be taken to improve social connection.

The scope of the project is determined by:

  • ‘pro-social connection’ community infrastructure typology
  • physical, hybrid and digital spaces
  • that the project takes part in four Local Government Areas.

By considering pro-connection places, spaces and experiences and their role in the development of a community social connection infrastructure, our project provides an opportunity to combine current knowledge on social connection with empirical data including social indicator data, mapping of physical and digital spaces and insights from key stakeholders.

Social infrastructure and a place-based approach to social connection

Social infrastructure emerges as an important component of connection and wellbeing outcomes. Defined as infrastructure that meet social service needs across the lifespan, they are “essential services that create the material and cultural living conditions for an area”.

Social infrastructure is  “anywhere that brings people together” and includes:

  • health, education, childcare, employment and training facilities
  • community support agencies
  • sport and recreation amenities
  • parks and playgrounds, community development services
  • appropriately-designed housing
  • legal and public safety emergency services
  • public and community transport
  • arts and cultural institutions
  • centres for specific groups like older people or young people.

A place-based approach is defined as “a collaborative, long-term approach to build thriving communities delivered in a defined geographic location. This approach is ideally characterised by partnering and shared design, shared stewardship, and shared accountability for outcomes and impacts”. We define ‘place’ as “spaces which people have made meaningful“.

Research has highlighted links between the physical environment and social relations which gives the potential for policy action. The Legatum report on wellbeing and policy references an “environment where there are easy opportunities for social interaction that allow the ability for people to choose when, who and where to meet”.

Types of spaces: Physical | Hybrid | Digital

We conducted a scoping literature review on spaces and places of social connection that identified types of pro-connection places including; physical places such as third places, incidental ‘bumping places’, ephemeral places and community groups.

Types of spaces and places for social connection in the literature

1. Third places: Places that are not home or work that allow us to be social, e.g. cafes or libraries 

  • Description: Third places are where people can meet up informally or locations used as meeting places in addition to their primary role e.g. community gardens, parks, beaches or public places such as libraries, churches and commercial spaces such as cafes, book stores and cinemas.
  • Evidence of social connection: “Public, informal gathering places away from home (the first place) and work (the second place) that have facilitated social attachments through spontaneous opportunities for conversation and the sharing of problems as well as elations”.

2. Bumping places: Places that offer the possibility for incidental interactions  

  • Description: Infrastructure designed for people to bump into each other, e.g. sheltered spaces or barbecues in parks, playgrounds, outdoor gyms.
  • Evidence of social connection: Locations “designed for people to meet e.g. streets, squares, parks, play areas, village halls, community centres”.

3. Community groups: Community groups create places to connect around activities with like-minded people, or people that can support, teach or mentor us

  • Description: Groups found to encourage social connection included: sporting groups, community choirs, education programs, intergenerational art programs and programs to support at risk groups
  • Evidence of social connection: Research found that a sense of working together towards a common goal helped to overcome perceived class or racial boundaries.

4. Online and hybrid spaces: Online spaces or spaces that are both physical and online allow for new, alternative or additional ways to connect.  

  • Description: Online platforms, such as social media, websites and blogs that allow users to chat or post content. Hybrid spaces connect the online and the offline. 
  • Evidence of social connection: ‘Hyperlocal’ social media such as Neighbourly, Nextdoor or local Facebook Groups and Good Karma Networks have been found to help generate local social capital and provide information.

In addition to these – in our contemporary environment, we recognise there are hybrid or online as digital spaces which – to date – have been less systematically explored as spaces for local social connection.

Best practice around activating social connection suggests it is beneficial if there is a purpose for people to interact other than a specific focus on forming connections. As such, social connection might be regarded as a by-product of pro- connection places and spaces especially if combined with pro social connection activities.

Framework of practice for social connection

A summary of evidence on promoting social connnection suggests key principles for ensuring a community has the infrastructure for optimising the activation of social connection. Building on this, the following factors are key to having a pro-social connection community:

1. Focus on critical components including: spaces, places, activities and community connector type people and organisations, all of which are required for optimising opportunities for social connection.
2. Develop a foundation of safe, accessible places and spaces that provide a mix and choice for people to engage with or use.
3. Ensure the presence of ‘incidental’ or ‘bumping’ spaces that encourage meeting new people.
4. Facilitate activities that include problem-solving, negotiating and working on purposeful tasks that give best chances for people to meet, build relations and trust.
5. Identify opportunities to build (new) collective social identities; a shared identity of living in the same place is a great place to start to build a shared identity.
6. Understand the outcome of social connection is best nurtured as a by product of other purposeful activities.

A framework of practice for community social connection

Based on the literature, we constructed an analytical framework intended to give a structure for auditing and planning for social connection in communities, focusing on foundations of safety, choice and access, places and spaces, activities and people as connectors. This framework was tested in the project with four councils.
 

Figure: A Framework of Practice for Community Social Connection 
What we did: Outline of the project methodology

Full details of the project methodolody will be provided in a final report.

Stage 1: Typology of Social Connection Infrastructure

We applied a typology drawing on findings of existing collaborative work and literature by the Social Innovation Research Institute and the Australian Red Cross. We also used material from VicHealth and existing categorisations of social infrastructure in literature. We identified four base categories of operational physical places and spaces that encourage social connection in the context of Australian LGAs. These were identified as the following:

  • assets, infrastructure and natural spaces 
  • community organisations and groups 
  • public leisure, sport, recreation and physical activity 
  • arts and events.
     

These categories helped us to identify places and spaces in each of the four LGAs that could promote social connection. Following consultation with the project working group, we identified sources of social data that would inform an audit and mapping exercise. Data to populate the typology of physical places and spaces was then sourced using the following:

  • publicly available data
  • desk research undertaken by the research group
  • data provided by each local council.
     
Stage 2: Identifying online places and spaces

In a second step, searches for online places and spaces were used to uncover the location of informal connection or incidental sites within the community. By informal we refer to places and spaces where people meet or interact which are outside of known physical infrastructures sites.

Incidental sites are physical sites that may have an identified primary purpose other than promoting social connection. For this reason, our search included connection spaces outside council and community organisation infrastructure.

Overall inputs into the typology generated over 2800 assets (physical and digital places and spaces) across 32 sub-groups. These were then classified into discrete and non-discrete groups for further analysis.
In the final report, we provide a categorisation of the places and spaces, analysis and maps of the distribution of pro connection spaces and places across the LGAs. We also identify the different forms of physical places and functions of multiple online places identified.

Stage 3: Social data mapping

To better interpret the mapping of places and spaces, we used Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping to develop an understanding of where high volumes of potentially ‘at risk’ (i.e. of social isolation) individuals may reside within and across the LGAs.

We used ABS census data retrieved from each LGA to generate mapping inputs and variables. We applied the data at the SA1 level across the LGA. Maps were generated to provide a visual assessment identifying where high volumes of individuals were located within each LGA, with identification of the higher social isolation risk groups. Visualisations and maps were generated.

Stage 4: Places and spaces asset mapping

As the second GIS stage, we mapped all identified places and spaces for pro social connection assets that were identified by applying the typology for each of the LGAs. Mapping was undertaken based on addresses and text-based location information, and these data points were mapped to provide a visual representation of assets for each LGA. Mapping focussed on: 

  • identifying the location of identified places and spaces in each LGA
  • identifying the ‘hotspots’ for pro-social connection within each LGA
  • identifying where specific forms of places were aligned with higher areas of risk or need (relative to social data mapping).
     

Outcomes in the final report provide analysis across multiple maps for each of the LGAs and descriptive analysis.

Stage 5: User experiences - focus groups

As a final stage, focus groups were held with managers and facilitators of different types of spaces and places across the four LGAs. The aim was to enhance understanding of the role and function of places and spaces within the community. Groups were structured in six question areas:

  • background, places and community needs
  • creating connection
  • barriers and needs
  • online or digital spaces
  • COVID-19 impact and recovery
  • amplifying impact and connection.
     

Respondents were inclusive of all LGAs. Thematic coding and analysis was undertaken on the data, and themes and narratives will be provided in the final report to support results and recommendations.

More information

Explore our other research programs

Contact the Social Innovation Research Institute

If your organisation would like to collaborate with us to solve a complex problem, or you simply want to contact our team, get in touch by calling +61 3 9214 8180 or emailing sii@swinburne.edu.au.

Contact us