The Third Need: Social Connection and the New Normal

Multidisciplinary researcher Laurence Heijbroek shares his [UK-based] perspective on shaping the “new normal”, the drawbacks of digitalisation, and building social resilience for the future.

Multidisciplinary researcher Laurence Heijbroek shares his [UK-based] perspective on shaping the “new normal”, the drawbacks of digitalisation, and building social resilience for the future.

Some sights live long in the memory.  I don’t think I will ever forget watching the news report on the start of lockdown in Wuhan.  The featured videos of neighbours singing and shouting in solidarity stopped me in my tracks, as I saw in its simplest form, amidst fear of the unknown and the unseen, the basic human need for connection.

This illustration reminded me of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  In this five-tier human motivational theory, needs lower down the hierarchy must be satisfied before those higher up can be attended to.  After physiological needs (food, water, warmth, rest) and safety needs (security, property, employment), love and belonging (friendship, family, sense of connection) rank next.  This explains the behaviour of calling out to others, seen not only in Wuhan, but across the world.  This third need must be satisfied before we can attend to our need for esteem (respect, self-esteem, strength, freedom) and finally self-actualisation (desire to become the most one can be).  

For me, this is hugely significant.  After our collective experience of social separation during lockdown, this human yearning for community must become a crucial consideration when we develop the ideas and initiatives that constitute the “new normal”.  It is a reminder that actions taken now must consider both the short-term requirement for pandemic safety and long-term need to foster community.

Since the language around this #WeEmerge conversation invites us to state what “emerging stronger” entails, for me, it means using this window of opportunity to construct a more cohesive society in which long-term resilience is built through the development of social trust and strong connections.  A society that can put differences aside and unite individuals, communities, and businesses to head into the oncoming challenges of the future together.

But to consider how we emerge, we must first recall how we entered.

How we entered

After a period working in communications for The DO School back in 2014, I have since worked at think tank More in Common researching polarisation and social division.  This experience helped me to understand that we entered this crisis with deep societal fractures and, oftentimes, an unsatisfied third need for community and connection.

Polarisation had been gathering strength across the West around issues relating to national identity, culture, and inclusion, contributing to increased difference between people.  We entered with societies increasingly spatially and socially segregated along dividing lines of age, income, or ethnicity.  

As we entered, people in the UK were less likely to know their neighbours than in previous generations.  Another national study (2016) found that over nine million people across all age groups, equivalent to the population of London, were either “always” or “often” lonely.  Social ties had frayed.  

How we reacted

community support group advertisement in my local area.

This unique moment witnessed a similar response across a whole variety of national and local settings:  an outpouring of community spirit.

A community support group advertisement in my local area.In my local area, community support groups sprang into action, sewing groups rose to meet the local demand for PPE, and weekly semi-ceremonial clapping for key workers united neighbours in gratitude.  

These moments reflected the positive side effects of our lockdown reaction:  looking outwards, reassessing common values, and supporting the most vulnerable in society.  This gave us a glimpse of the kind of society we can be when we pull together in the same direction united behind a common goal.  

How we adapted

Competing forces have been at play.  The relocalisation of community activism occurred simultaneously with the digitalisation of vast swathes of society.  

Doctor’s appointments, work meetings, and religious services were frequently attended from the comfort of our homes.  Zoom call services jumped thirty-fold in April alone.  Personally, this unique opportunity encouraged me to rekindle relationships with my international network.

We adapted out of necessity and shifted more of our lives into digital spheres.  In doing so, the number of ways in which we used private space radically changed.  

How we emerge

As we seek to emerge intentionally, we must recognise that as we entered, reacted, and adapted, we unintentionally drifted onto a new path.  The challenge now, as I see it, is to steer the forces at play and shape a kind of positive change that reconciles desires to address the needs that we brought with us as we entered this crisis and the collective aspirations we have for the future.  To this end, the following steps might offer a starting point. 

Step 1 – Recognise the drawbacks of digitalisation 

Whilst some online activity will shift back offline once the lockdown has been fully lifted, the consequence of efficiency gains, newfound confidence in digital tools, and the normalisation of alternative practices will be the retention of preference for online over offline activity.  This will increase the amount of time we spend in private space, decreasing the level of social contact we have with others.

Online activity diminishes the quality of our social contact.  It enables us to connect with others and receive information more passively or anonymously.  It compartmentalises connection as we must decide exactly whom we wish to communicate with, at the exclusion of others.  This selective process best serves those with a strong offline network and community to belong to.  

As we embrace digital innovation, it is vital that we recognise the associated cost, that is, sacrificing connection potential and our availability for encounters with others.  

Step 2 – Embed social connection into policy and planning

One way to counteract this trend might be to embed social connection into policy and planning to manufacture new ways of bringing people together and foster understanding across lines of difference.  This might mean selecting social connection as the yardstick, or additional criterium, against which policies and plans are assessed. 

For businesses and organisations, this could entail conducting honest assessments of the value of human connection in operating models.  And, as Victoria Soelle’s put it in her blog post, it could mean identifying ways to grow closer to customers.  We should not pass up on opportunities for digital innovation, but rather find ways to protect human connection both independent from and inherent within the practices we adopt through digitalisation.

If decentralised working becomes default, we might seek to routinely inhabit third spaces where we can physically work alongside others.  This act of increasing one’s availability is good for business and personal productivity, can encourage collaboration, and empower others to reach out to us and act upon their need for community and connection, even when we might already have it.  

Step 3 – Preserve pride in moments of sacrifice and community solidarity

We will no doubt be sharing stories about this crisis for years to come.  Stories spark connections and help us to understand our place in the world and the perspectives of others.  People engage with well-told stories that powerfully capture our imagination.  Just look at the reaction to centenarian Captain Tom Moore’s fundraising efforts.

As we emerge, it is vital that people aren’t left with a sense of unfairness or increased differential treatment.  This is a huge challenge, considering the unequal impact lockdown has had (and the imminent economic recession will have) on people’s lives.  It will require real attentiveness from us all to listen to different experiences, address concerns, and support those who might feel unfairly disadvantaged to prevent long-term stories of grievance from surfacing.  This will help us to pull forward with all parts of society together, leaving no-one behind. 

Banksy’s portrayal of “superhero” key workers.

Banksy’s portrayal of “superhero” key workers.It is also important that we find ways to tell inclusive stories and develop initiatives that preserve pride in moments of sacrifice and community solidarity and create a climate for connection.  Specifically, we must continue to identify, remember, and acknowledge the visible and invisible key workers without whom emerging would not be possible.  We must collectively shape a common narrative that remembers our ability to put divisions to one side, unite in times of challenge, and work collaboratively for the betterment of our shared future. 

Step 4 – Extend commitment to support the most vulnerable in society
Starting with lockdown in Wuhan, interventions to prevent the spread of Covid-19 have been consistently underpinned by the moral intention to protect the most vulnerable in society.

In the UK, the national response prioritised taking the homeless off the streets, protecting frontline workers, and supporting the sick and elderly.  Having become more conscious of the issue of social isolation, we must now endeavour to do more for the socially isolated and lonely.

Pledging continued support for the most vulnerable presents opportunities to engage with and grasp local issues, connect with others around a common goal, build local resilience, and balance increasing global connectivity with well-rooted local connectedness.  Perhaps, by creating a culture of commitment to pursuing purposeful change, we might witness the preservation of the outpouring of community spirit that has characterised the response to this crisis.

If – as we shape the “new normal” – we are to satisfy our third need, emerge from this crisis as a more cohesive, resilient, and connected society, and head into the challenges of the future together, I have no doubt The DO School and the DO Community will be at the heart of it.

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