Cracking the Code of Connection: Increasing Connection and Belonging at a Top Business School

Cracking the Code of Connection: Increasing Connection and Belonging at a Top Business School

We applied behavioral science to enhance connection and belong among students and faculty at a leading business school.

A Blueprint for Increasing Connection, From a Leader in Business Education

Making people feel connected is a universal challenge today, when we often talk online instead of face-to-face. This problem got bigger after the COVID-19 pandemic as businesses and academic institutions struggled to bring back a sense of community in a changed world.

A top business school, known for its strong community ethos, found itself at the forefront of this challenge. Their students reported feeling disconnected and isolated post-pandemic—despite having ample opportunities for virtual and in-person interactions within their community. Additionally, the changing student body, growing in its diversity of backgrounds, previous careers, cultures, and countries, made it hard for some students to feel like they belong. Faced with this situation, they asked us for help.

Our goal: increasing connection and belonging—while providing a blueprint for companies to build community in their own teams. We asked ourselves: How can we build real connections when everyone is busy and under pressure? How do we solve for this with diverse teams? We worked with the school to develop strategies that would work equally well in a company or classroom.

business school

Our Strategy: Behavioral Diagnosis

We began with a comprehensive behavioral diagnosis, examining data and program details and conducting over 45 interviews with students, faculty, and staff across all programs. Our team also experienced classes and social events firsthand.

We drew on these rich insights to develop over 30 practical, impactful recommendations for increasing connection. We created two detailed playbooks focusing on: 1) enhancing initial student interactions and 2) optimizing physical spaces for better connectivity. We wanted our recommendations to be practical and actionable, not just theoretical—to make a real difference.

Overcoming Behavioral Barriers to Connection

This article will walk through the biggest behavioral barriers to connection we identified and our recommendations for tackling them. We’ll also look at the implementation of our recommendations to illustrate and hopefully inspire you to consider how your own physical and structural context can affect how people connect.

⛔️ Barrier 1: Students Have Different Mental Models and Groups Form Early

Students arrive with varied expectations for connection, frequently resulting in groups formed on convenience and superficial traits, such as race, class, or background. This lack of structured guidance for deeper connections can leave some feeling inadequate. Pre-orientation programs, designed to acclimate diverse students, often unintentionally create homogeneous social circles based on perceived needs and shared experiences. This particularly affects international students, and students from non-business backgrounds.

💡 Recommendation: Connect across diverse groups well before they arrive on campus.

We recommended connecting students earlier (before pre-orientation) and building closeness before the first day by doing virtual meetings and connecting incrementally with groups specifically chosen to be representative of the diversity of the incoming class.

📊 Implementation & Outcomes

The pre-orientation team formed diverse groups of 10-12 students to meet virtually two or more times before arriving on campus. These groups chose from various activities and shared the results of their activities online, promoting accountability. On campus, they deepened relationships through face-to-face activities, easing their integration into the broader student body while maintaining the comfort of their initial small groups.

💡 Recommendation: Unify diverse programs in a single space.

We recommended giving all programs a shared voice and their own personalized physical space to enhance a sense of equality and belonging. The school combines a full-time residential program with executive and part-time MBAs for working professionals located over 100 miles away. Part-time students can feel sidelined by the lack of a dedicated space or shared priorities with the full-time group.

📊 Implementation & Outcomes

Orientation now kicks off with a big event that brings together students from all 3 programs—part-time, executive, and residential—to bridge gaps. And orientation week ends with a dedicated day for student leaders from each program to engage in professional development and collaborative decision-making on behalf of the whole community.

💡 Recommendation: Create shared identity.

We recommended encouraging a unified identity across various programs with distinct schedules and locations through common language, clothing, and rituals. 

We also recommended convening leaders from all program types to collaborate on decisions and show part–time students they are a priority by including them in more events. We also suggested standardizing certain rituals across all programs to foster a sense of unity and connection among students.

📊 Implementation & Outcomes

Part-time and professional programs began adopting rituals from residential students, enhancing the latter’s sense of belonging. By wearing swag on Sundays, these students strengthened their school identity and reinforced their shared belonging amidst their extracurricular roles (parent, professional). They also began personalizing their spaces with decorations and school signage, fostering school pride and a sense of community on campus.

⛔️ Barrier 2: Psychological and Logistical Frictions Get in the Way

Business school students face immense demands on their time, balancing academics, internships, personal life, and well-being. When overwhelmed, they prioritize immediate needs, often neglecting new relationships. Existing events intended to foster connections weren’t catering to everyone’s schedules and needs, and invitations to gatherings were often based on chance encounters to and from class, leaving out some community members. The ability to socialize outside of schoolwork was not a guarantee.

Students aren’t likely to socialize randomly amid full calendars—but they might go to established learning groups if this were made easier. Learning teams, essential for complex coursework preparation but also for social support amid stress, often begin effectively but struggle with time constraints and conflicts. Effective maintenance and conflict resolution within the group  demands discipline and external accountability, particularly during stressful periods. Our research revealed varied perceptions among students and faculty about the purpose, frequency, and management of these teams. This disparity in understanding contributed to their eventual breakdown.

💡 Recommendation: Leverage learning teams by setting clear expectations on how they work best.

We suggested setting clear expectations and providing support for learning teams, especially when they’re prone to struggle. Early in the school year, before things are too busy, focus on student self-governance and student-faculty relationships. Administrators and faculty should clearly outline what is a required expectation for learning teams early on. 

In addition, learning teams should practice class preparations in a no-pressure environment, guided by a coach to understand group dynamics and preemptively manage conflicts. The university should also provide support for important but not enforced activities, such as learning team meetings, to maintain ongoing participation and accountability.

📊 Implementation & Outcomes

The business school quickly invested in this area, hiring recent MBA graduates to consolidate institutional knowledge and set guidelines for classes and learning teams. They also introduced paid mentors to enhance learning team functionality and assigned a staff member to each team for increased accountability—a particularly impactful move given the students’ value on faculty perspectives and evaluations.

They also began using orientation programming to build relationships within learning teams. They shifted the suggested meeting time of LTs from the evening to the late afternoon so that students would stay on campus longer. Moreover, during orientation, these learning teams, who support each other academically throughout the year, used the lower pressure time before classes started and deliverables were due to engage in a group problem-solving activity that required identifying and leveraging each other’s strengths and skills. This allows students from a variety of backgrounds to showcase what they can offer to the group and build mutual respect before the pressure is on.

💡 Recommendation: Design for connecting moments.

Despite business schools offering various formal connection opportunities like clubs and events, real connections often occur in informal settings, such as between classes or at shared dining hall tables. Instead of adding events to the calendar, we focused on designing for propinquity, fostering serendipitous interactions by considering the university’s decision-making and physical architecture. Our aim was to encourage students to spend at least 30 minutes a day in shared spaces for socializing or studying. We proposed several methods to achieve this.

  • Food: It may sound simple, but the obvious answer here is basic incentives work: good food is an incentive to connect. We therefore recommended improving the food offered to students and creating variety. 
  • Shared spaces: Creating multifunctional common spaces for socializing and work collaboration is another strategy. Furnish these areas comfortably, including charging stations and resources that facilitate staying and working longer. Ensure these spaces are accessible at all hours for convenience between classes. Ideally, locate them in high-traffic areas near essential resources like mailrooms, but away from building entry/exits where people are less likely to linger.
  • Timing: Time events to disrupt usual routines. If students leave campus at 1 pm, schedule events at the social space for 1:15 pm. Dictate specific times for shared space usage. Ensure that learning teams meet immediately after classes to encourage in-person attendance, rather than expecting people to return to campus after already having left.

📊 Implementation & Outcomes

This significant structural change involved our partners revamping the cafe and coffee areas. They are also collaborating with food services to offer more meal options in class vicinity, reducing the need for students to leave the area where they take classes to eat.

The Road Ahead: Blazing a Trail for Connection

At a pivotal time, this top business school is leading the way for other organizations to leverage connection. By using behavioral science to disrupt old mental models and fostering connection, they are enhancing networks that will benefit students and faculty for years to come.

Want to learn more about this work, or to partner with us to enhance connection and belonging at your organization? Contact us at [email protected].

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