Up until March 2020, most remote workers were remote by choice. It suited their lifestyle, their work and their personality. Within the current pandemic, most knowledge workers have become remote, whether it suits their work or not
At a time when emotional support and maintaining a sense of connection is a primary concern, managers and colleagues have gone out of their way to support each other.
But what happens when the current work set-ups settle down?
Dropping productivity, lack of focus and negativity can be signs that something is not right, and loneliness can be a causal factor.
Spotlighting loneliness in remote teams
Loneliness in remote teams was already a hot topic in 2019. Now, knowing that remote work will continue longer term in most workplaces in some shape or form (at least into the near future), it’s even more important to address this aspect of wellbeing in our workforce.
Over seven episodes of the ‘21st Century Work Life’ podcast, we have explored the topic of connection and disconnection in remote teams, with a range of guests including remote workers and managers, consultants and psychologists.
Looking back at the series, it strikes me that its structure provides a step-by-step approach for organisations to address the danger of loneliness in remote teams.
1. Understand what loneliness is, what is causing it and how it manifests itself in individuals
2. Unpick the effects it’s having on team members and their work
3. Design communication practices and encourage behaviours in management that nurture a sense of belonging in different ways
4. Recognise that it is part of an organisation’s duty of care to mitigate the risk of loneliness and address it as part of the overall wellbeing strategy
5. Equip individuals with the tools and skills to help them understand what makes them feel connected to others, and how to proactively find that connection
With that road map as a starting point, here are other factors that employees, managers and HR professionals should consider.
The causes of isolation
Feeling isolated (or disconnected) is not always triggered by physical isolation. Someone’s personal and physical context heavily influences the risk of loneliness – but beware of making assumptions.
For example, someone living in a busy city, with a family, can feel more isolated than someone living on their own in a rural community, with which they’re heavily involved and integrated.
Personality and the degree of need for human contact also play a part, as well as the role in the team or organisation. An individual’s role and the nature of the interdependent nature of their tasks can play a part in how connected they feel to those they work with. Sometimes more than one factor contributes to this connection.
Tim Burgess, Co-Founder of ShieldGeo has experienced this. In one of the podcast discussions he said: “The feeling (of loneliness) creeps up over time and soon, the things we were running away from in office life – interruptions, constant chatter, noise, office politics – give way to a feeling of detachment once the novelty wears off.”
Spotting the signs of isolation
Dropping productivity, lack of focus and negativity can be signs that something is not right, and loneliness can be a causal factor. Taking time to reflect on how we’re engaging with our work is the first step towards identifying whether we feel disconnected from others.
On top of this, we need to remember that different people require different levels of social interaction – the answer to preventing isolation might not be to step up the social chat, or frequency of communication. As Dr Julianne Hold-Lunstad explained in the podcast, “loneliness can be seen as the gap between the actual level of social interaction and connectedness, versus that which is desired or preferred.”
Pushing for too much social conversation could trigger a sense of disconnection in those who prefer to limit their social contact.
From a manager’s point of view, this diversity highlights the importance of getting to know team members personally, and watching out for changes in behaviour. It’s not always easy to raise the fact that you’re not okay. Furthermore, the type of support that individuals need once they have identified they feel lonely will also be diverse.
The most important thing to remember is that isolation will creep up on different people at different times, due to different reasons.
Mitigating the risks
Unfortunately, there is no one best practice that will help all workers feel connected, but there are some principles that can guide our leadership practice:
Encourage managers to become role models – they can be self-aware and open about their own challenges, and create the space for people to share those things they value most from those around them. This can help to create a culture of openness, where feelings of loneliness can be brought up
Establish practices online that help people connect to others in different ways – provide virtual coffees and Slack/MSTeams channels where people can talk about non-related stuff for those missing office banter, and systems of Visible Teamwork, where those seeking more of a work-related connection can engage.
Offer a diverse mix of social communication options – As social connection happens at different emotional levels, don’t assume that social chat always has to be ‘fun’. For example, the distributed company Buffer created two different Slack channels during the Covid-19 pandemic: one for people who wanted to discuss their concerns, and one for those wanting some light relief, sharing Gifs and lighter thoughts. Having different kinds of emotional connections in a company can help different people to feel connected.
Provide resources – let employees know about any resources they can access when they start recognising that disconnection is impacting their wellbeing, and equip managers to be ready to support their people in different ways.
Create pairing-up systems – like that used by Trello, where people can grow their social network within the organisation. Having strong networks to support us is one of the ways in which we can feel connected and also look for help outside our team.
Are you set up for connection?
The most important thing to remember is that isolation will creep up on different people at different times, due to different reasons. Focusing only on productivity when designing your communication systems can mean that you miss out on the effect that working apart from each other can have on people’s wellbeing.