Opinion

Is your team feeling isolated or lonely while working at home? Guess what, they’re not alone.

As we progress through the recent pandemic, conversations seem to be gravitating from “working at home is going wonderfully,” to “it’s not as easy as we thought to sustain our company culture and performance remotely.” Many mention a growing sense that employees are distancing themselves from their company, while others say some of their best employees have become noticeably apathetic.

At the same time, it is not uncommon to hear individuals from all levels express that they experience loneliness and feelings of isolation while working at home. Is there a tie between working at home, employee engagement, and feelings of loneliness and isolation? In fact, should we be so bold as to ask whether long term sustainability of a work at home strategy is dependent on overcoming the challenges of loneliness and isolation?

Does long term sustainability of a work at home strategy depend on overcoming the challenges of loneliness and isolation?

We shouldn’t take this question lightly. We know that those who indicate they regularly feel lonely and/or isolated are twice as likely to call off due to illness, three times more likely to believe their work quality is lower than it should be, and twice as likely to exit their job (Cigna, 2020). Even before the response to the Coronavirus, scientific research was uncovering a growing national epidemic of loneliness. Among the many reports, one found that 22 percent of adults in the U.S. reported that they often or always feel lonely or socially isolated, which is “far more than the number of adult cigarette smokers and nearly double the number of people who have diabetes” (Murthy, 2020).

Our 5th Talent Work at Home Research Study (May 2020) echoes such findings with 17% reporting that they often experience feeling loneliness or a sense of isolation. Gen Z’ers (those born after 1996) were twice as likely to indicate that they feel this way. More surprising was that 3-out-of-4 who felt lonely also agreed it directly affects their happiness at work. The Pew Research Center found that while most Americans are at least somewhat happy with their lives, “some have grappled with issues like loneliness and isolation, work-life balance and finding meaning and purpose.” Further, “…[T]o describe in their own words what makes their lives feel meaningful, around a third of Americans (34%) mentioned their job or career. Those who did tended to be more satisfied with their lives than others, regardless of their education or income” (Van Kessel, 2020).

It appears that for many, work itself forms an important social foundation and a key source of relief from loneliness. It’s not surprising since less than a quarter of adults participate in social clubs, community groups, sports leagues, or any other local groups outside of work, suggesting that “a significant portion of the population…may be socially isolated/disconnected” (Holt-Lunstad, 2018). Further, 20% of Americans who say they don’t know any of their neighbors report feeling lonely or isolated all or most of the time which drops to 6% for those who know most or all of their neighbors. (Bialik, 2018). How many of us really know our neighbors, even after we shifted to working at home?

Our Work at Home study found that the top three reasons given for feeling lonely were, “I miss face-to-face contact with co-workers,” “I miss unplanned/informal interaction with others,” and finally, “I miss the emotional support of co-workers.”

Not being connected outside of work emphasizes the importance of connecting during work. Our Work at Home study found that the top three reasons given for feeling lonely were, “I miss face-to-face contact with co-workers,” “I miss unplanned/informal interaction with others,” and finally, “I miss the emotional support of co-workers.” Relationships with colleagues and others serve to connect people to circles outside their immediate family. These friendships serve to alleviate loneliness as witnessed by “…the joy of spending time together, the compassion evident in keeping up with personal ups and downs, and the exchange of ideas” (Gierveld, van Tilburg, Dykstra, 2017).

What can we do to help each other diminish feelings of loneliness and isolation? Engaging team members through social media helps, as do activities such as “virtual water coolers” and “virtual happy hours.” Yet, for many, this isn’t enough to sustain the need for a deeper sense of belonging. In our “Excelling at Home” workshop series, we introduce four concepts to guide leaders in building connectedness within their virtual employee teams. We offer them here for you to consider as you continue to develop your work at home strategy.

What can you do? Become more of a life coach. Foster belongingness. Encourage community involvement. Double down on meaningful work.

1. Become more of a life coach.

Many senior leaders stop at the thought of having to be more involved in employee well-being. Heck, we might have no choice. When we converse with people in their home environment, we are naturally taking a step into their lives we never conceived of before. Just consider your average conference call and the number of personal bits of information we gain from noises in the background, personal disclosures, and interruptions. In one video call with a supervisor we might find out more things than we ever wanted to know about their personal life, eating habits, and general health simply by peering at their surroundings in the background. As a leader you are responsible for helping others be competent, focused, and connected. This requires you to spend more time one-to-one with your team. When you do this well you become a sort of life coach. That in turn helps those you are coaching to become self-correcting and self-learning, which is crucial to long term sustainability as a virtual employee.

2. Foster belongingness.

As leaders, we should dig deep into our creative minds to find ways that help others feel part of the group. Examples include highly effective meetings where team members are tasked with facilitating portions of the agenda. Another idea a workshop participant came up with is having team members buddy up with others on the team on a scheduled basis to teach them a tip or technique that they are especially good at. Not only does this help share best practices, but it also provides the opportunity for people to connect. That is the key thing to keep in mind. As a leader, you should strive to create an environment AND provide opportunities for people to connect at a deeper level. Those who need it will take advantage of it.

3. Encourage community involvement.

Does your company encourage and provide time for employees to volunteer in their local community? A strong way to combat isolation is to devote your time to a charitable project. By inspiring volunteerism through your policies and practices you offer the chance for people to connect with others, build lasting friendships, and realize a sense of commitment and purpose. All of this adds up to less isolation and a lower sense of loneliness. Hey, they might even meet their neighbors.

4. Double down on meaningful work.

For those of us in a service-related industry, there is no greater opportunity to dispel loneliness and isolation than realizing meaningful moments with those who we serve. We need to encourage our team members to reflect on those personal, yet powerful moments that come from interacting with customers, patients, members, or anyone asking for their help. We should eliminate those things that interfere with their joy in helping others, and in doing so we open a world of opportunity for connectedness that potentially greets us every minute of our working hours.

Conclusion

We encourage you to take these basic concepts noted above and build from them to develop connectedness within your teams. It’s never too late to start creating an environment that decreases loneliness and isolation. Need we remind you that we spend 8 or more hours a day with our workmates and customers, which is more time than we spend with others outside of work. We have an obligation to recognize those around us looking for a little help.

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