Remote work can become isolating. Remote work in a time of social distancing can become lonely.
If workers are distant from their co-workers at a time when they also are distant from friends, neighbors, and loved ones, loneliness can emerge which can affect their mental, emotional, and physical health, and also their productivity.
According to the Academy of Management Journal, loneliness directly hurts job performance. It can also spread to other co-workers. If one co-worker feels withdrawn and not communicative, that can impact others on the team. Ultimately, workers who collectively feel detached from one another will feel less committed to the organization as a whole.
Feeling lonely is preventable if the right measures are taken by both the worker and management. A recent study by Buffer found that 94 percent of remote workers around the world recommend remote careers, yet a fifth (20 percent) named loneliness as the biggest struggle of such an arrangement.
For management to recognize the signs that loneliness is negatively impacting their workforce, they must first understand how it is different than isolation.
Isolation is about the lack of access to materials, information, or people they need in order to achieve success at the organization. To be isolated can be addressed simply by technical efforts to keep the worker connected to the business – shared drives, frequent video calls, one-on-one check-ins, and more.
Loneliness is not solved by technology. Instead, being lonely is an emotional state that can exist anywhere. Loneliness doesn’t care if the person is isolated or surrounded by people. This is why we say we “feel lonely” — It is something that is not easily diagnosed or explained because a legion of factors can play into making someone feel so stark about themselves or their life.
So what can co-workers or managers do when they sense that someone on their team is suffering from loneliness? First, it takes knowing which signs to recognize there is a problem.
A lack of social skills. Workers who were once socially engaged with other team members now may seem more withdrawn, or unwilling to share personal information. They will remain silent, not respond to emails, and won’t volunteer.
Unwillingness to participate. Whereas in the past they might be in the center of group activities, lonely workers will be less inclined to participate in team-building exercises or brainstorming sessions.
A sudden drop in productivity. Missed deadlines, inadequate work, mistakes, and more: These are the signs that your worker is detaching themselves from their responsibilities. It’s important to note that this is not intentional. Rather, loneliness is fogging their lens, which makes it difficult to produce work of similar quality to what they produced before they were feeling this way.
Increased stress. Loneliness makes people ruminate more than they did in the past, according to past research and ruminating leads to increased stress. This will make itself present through confrontations over details that may seem petty or insignificant to others but the worker magnifies far more than is warranted.
Chronic self-deprecation. If the worker continually admonishes themselves, they are likely experiencing long-term loneliness. This is because loneliness produces negative feelings of self-worth, which makes the person feel that whatever they do is not good enough for the task.
They appear tired or sick. Lonely people have difficulty sleeping, according to researchers from the University of Chicago. Their normal sleep is interrupted, or they just have problems trying to get to sleep in the first place. Likewise, lonely people have weakened immune systems, which makes them more prone to cold viruses or even viral infections. In a normal workday, all of this manifests in slow responses or no responses at all, poor work, irritability, and more.
Managers and co-workers can make it a priority to make the worker they sense is suffering from loneliness feel more engaged with the team. They can start with an effort to prevent loneliness from emerging in the first place. Here are some steps.
Establish check-ins. These are one-on-one calls held routinely – every week, every two weeks, or every month – that is less about work but more about the emotional well-being of the employee. The manager can ask questions to gauge how the worker is doing, try to get their feedback on what’s working and what’s not, and let them know their contribution plays an important role in the organization’s success.
Express gratitude. You don’t need a meeting to do this. But getting to know employees beyond their work duties is critical. Let them know you appreciate their work, and be sensitive to things that might be important to them — special holidays and anniversaries, or duties they have due to their kids. Let them know you appreciate them working longer hours, on weekends, while sick, etc., which will go a long way to making them feel connected to the overall enterprise.
Bring people in. Once the pandemic subsides, it is important that workers have an opportunity to meet together for a scheduled day or week. During the pandemic can be a challenge, but it can be achieved through social distancing and masking — If your headquarters is in a warm climate, meetings can be held outdoors. This will break the isolation they may feel and also give them something to look forward to every quarter or month. Communication will also speed up and relationships will strengthen. For remote workers who live in different time zones across the U.S. or world, it might be helpful to conduct a remote happy hour where people can gather in an informal virtual environment to tell stories and generally get to know one another.
There is no shame in feeling lonely. In fact, chronic loneliness is a natural end product of lives that are becoming faster and more plugged-in. Workers who are expressing signs of loneliness aren’t intentionally trying to create a setback for the team. They are struggling. Keeping them engaged should be the priority of every manager.
After all, the workers are there because they want to be there; but in a remote world, sometimes they are looking at the world through a dark lens. It takes work colleagues to help clean their glasses so they can see again.