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Workers Are Lonely: Here's What Leaders Can Do

August 08, 2022 Employee Experience
Virginia Backaitis
By Virginia Backaitis

Ask around and you’ll have no problem finding people who have sworn off going back to the office forever. They’ll tell you that not commuting is better for the environment. That they are more productive at home because they are not interrupted as often by co-workers. And that their ability to spend more time with their families and friends is invaluable.

While there’s little doubt that remote and hybrid work has its advantages, some deep-reaching and potentially costly downsides are now becoming evident. “The quality, frequency, and nature of interactions change when colleagues are physically remote and there is less dynamic, spontaneous communication,” wrote Caroline Knight, Doina Olaru, Julie Anne Lee and Sharon K. Parker in “The Loneliness of the Hybrid Worker” in the Summer 2022 issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review. 

They are not alone in their thinking. Jim Harter, chief scientist of workplace management and wellbeing at Gallup wrote that those who worked remotely 100% of the time reported higher percentages of "loneliness a lot of the day yesterday." That, Harter explained, can be a problem, citing Gallup research that found having friendships at work was a predictor of many important business outcomes, including customer service and profit.

While some might suggest that meaningful friendships with co-workers can be formed by spending more time one-on-one and face-to-face on videoconferencing services like Zoom, Teams or WebEx, according to research published by MIT, that’s unlikely. ”Neuroscience research has found that only in-person interactions  trigger the full suite of physiological responses and neural synchronization required for optimal human communication and trust-building.”

So do managers need to concern themselves with loneliness among workers, especially with those who never, or rarely come to the workplace? We asked four experts on the subject for their insights.

Are Remote Workers Lonely?

Experts pretty much agree that remote workers feel lonely and, though they all say it’s a problem, the move away from the workplace has made it significantly worse according to Kim Samuel, lecturer, founder of the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness and author of the forthcoming "On Belonging: Finding Connection in an Age of Isolation." In fact, she comes close to calling it a crisis.

“For untold millennia, people have worked together on an in-person, face-to-face basis. Now, in the blink of an eye, that’s changed. While remote work brings benefits — including added flexibility and the elimination of the time and stress of commuting — there are naturally unintended consequences to such a seismic shift in human relations. Intensive in-person connection is a key common element to the world’s Blue Zones — the regions where people have the longest lifespans, best health outcomes, and some of the highest self-reported rates of life satisfaction. Psychologists and neuroscientists show that we need in-person contact for connection in terms of non-verbal cues that are essential to trust-building and problem solving."

Brian Elliott and Karen Mangia were far less panicked by the arrival and impact of remote work aka work from home (WFH).

Elliott, executive leader of Future Forum and co-author of "How the Future Works," referenced Future Forum research which indicated that “teams are just as productive and creative (in some cases, more so) when employees have the flexibility to work from home," adding that, “Feelings of isolation or loneliness aren’t exclusive to flexible work. The problem is that after transitioning to remote work essentially overnight, many companies have since failed to meaningfully evolve their office-based work practices for a digital-first world (besides adding a Zoom happy hour or two) to the detriment of their employees’ well-being. It doesn’t have to be this way. Our research shows that with the right tools and processes, flexible work can actually deepen workers’ sense of belonging on their teams and increase the value they place in relationships with their colleagues, relative to those who work full-time from the office.”

Mangia pointed out that a fix is already on its way. “Employers now consider the effects of isolation and loneliness as metrics that matter, because they affect the bottom line. To live well is to work well, and that's why employers are investing record budgets in employee wellness and well-being programs. And then measuring engagement with those programs. Employers and employees, because of the pandemic, are now working together more closely to address isolation and loneliness in the workplace,” said the bestselling author of "Success From Anywhere" and "Working From Home" and vice president customer and market insights at Salesforce.

Related Article: Lack of Social Interaction Tops Remote Work Challenges

Is a Return to the Workplace the Answer?

“Full time? Absolutely not,” said Elliott. He called “mandating employees back into the office a blunt instrument that simply reduces productivity, increases stress and dramatically raises the odds that people will leave for more flexible organizations.” He offered the following statistic from Future Forum's Pulse Survey of over 10,000 employees: “Seventy percent of employees who don’t have the flexibility they want at work are open to seeking a new opportunity in the next year.”

Samuel noted that her team’s research is showing a backlash against remote work, but the motivator isn’t worker loneliness. “As of this summer, many employers are increasingly requiring their teams to return to the office. Yet, in most cases, the driving factor is not workers’ mental health, wellbeing, or experience of belonging. Rather, it’s leaders’ and managers’ concerns regarding accountability and productivity as well as broader considerations like filling office space and ensuring the economic vibrancy of central business districts …. While these moves to require employees to go back to the office may incidentally address issues of loneliness and isolation associated with remote work, the moves can also be detrimental if they’re implemented too quickly, without workers’ best interests in mind."

Steven Van Cohen argues the solution to worker loneliness isn’t coming together physically. Van Cohen is a leadership consultant, the founder of numerous companies including LessLonely.com and the co-author of "Connectable: How Leaders Can Move Teams from Isolated to All In."  

"Loneliness is not the absence of people; it is the absence of connection. You can be surrounded by people and still feel debilitatingly lonely. Being together in person can help, but it is not a solution in and of itself. We need more than the mere presence of others to feel connected. What matters most in lessening loneliness is intentionality. Are leaders prioritizing connective activities that allow team members to feel fully seen? Regardless of fully remote, hybrid or in-person, leaders must establish quality time together with team members. They must also narrow the focus on work activities that create connectiveness among a group,” he said.

Related Article: Build Connections to Drive Higher Hybrid Work Performance

What Can Leaders Do to Address the Loneliness Problem?

There are simple answers here. Take it from Samuel. “My answer can be summarized in a single word: Respect. The most effective antidote to loneliness and isolation is to make sure that people feel their views, values, and needs are being recognized and honored; that they feel they are being heard. It’s essential for leaders and managers to listen to what workers really need: whether it’s more accommodation in caring for children or an older relative, more attention to DEI considerations, or more opportunities for in-person team building through retreats or continuing education opportunities. There’s no one simple formula for balancing the needs for flexibility and connection. Leaders and managers need to recognize that employees are facing diverse challenges right now, and it’s important to pay careful attention to their needs rather than assuming anyone-size-fits-all solution."

Mangia said the answer lies in the middle:

“We all want to feel seen and heard. We all want to live lives of meaning and purpose. We all want to matter.  Engagement is the solution to good relationships between employers and employees. The most critical role in combatting isolation and loneliness and in sustaining well employees comes from the center. Not the top. Or the bottom. The center is what matters for the future of work.

Middle managers are the first line of defense to keep a pulse on how employees are really doing, how they're feeling, how they're adapting, what they're being able to successfully accomplish. The center is where your organization needs to focus, if you want to develop a sustainable culture of engagement, high performance and trust.” 

Van Cohen argues the solution needs to be personalized: “There is no cure-all for isolation and loneliness because each person experiences loneliness differently. Loneliness occurs when someone’s connection quota, whatever that quota may be, is not being met. For an introvert this quota could be very different than for an extrovert. These quotas also vary based on age, living arrangements, marital status, child status and other communal factors. As an example, 79% of Gen Zers (25-year-olds and younger) regularly feel lonely. Their connection quota will be higher than someone who has worked at the same company for a decade and possesses strong relationships at work already. Hybrid workplaces are helpful in fostering in-person touchpoints, which can help lessen loneliness, but they are not a universal suppressor for isolation and loneliness. Leaders who are committed to lessening loneliness among a team will need to become a 'looker' of sorts in order to identify who might need more connection.”

All of our experts agreed on one antidote to loneliness: belonging. Creating that sense of belonging — whether it be through community building as Mangia shared, via cultural change as Samuel advised, leveraging prosocial behaviors as Van Cohen advocates or by building trust and psychological safety as Elliott suggests — is an investment leaders can and should make in their organizations today. 

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