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Keeping unspoken feelings of loneliness from sabotaging remote work

Coronavirus quarantines have those living with family or friends reporting greater feelings of loneliness. But for the 35.7 million Americans living alone, those feelings can be extreme. Quarantine can mean working alone, eating alone, exercising alone—and risking social ostracization in trying to find human connection.

Even for those who were already telecommuting before the pandemic, this isn’t a normal WFH situation. You can’t pop down to the coffee shop with your laptop when you need a change of scenery or grab a co-working space when your kids have the day off. There’s no meeting a friend for an editing swap over a beer. Right now, working remotely means hours in front of a screen without physical interaction. Worse, it can include hours of literally sitting still during back-to-back video calls that don’t even allow for the freedom of walking around like phone calls do.

For me personally, the loneliness of working from home has manifested in less obvious ways too. I’ve inadvertently learned that my dog is a wonderful listener. I’ve discovered the joy that is Bron-Yr-Aur by Led Zeppelin as I crank through the top 500 albums of all time. I’ve reconsidered and decided yes, yoga pants are in fact pants. (And if it weren’t for the fact they can’t be put in the dryer, they’d actually be the perfect pants.) My make-up now lasts 95% longer, too.

At the same time, I can’t help but feel a little disconnected at times—by which I mean, more times than I care to admit. The little feeling of self-doubt creeps in, and I start to question... Am I taking this copy in the right direction? Is this hitting the right goal? Does my manager know I’m working on this? Was I clear enough...

And suddenly I feel just a little... alone.

Loneliness and remote work aren’t novel concepts. There’s an abundance of research on how to foster connection and belonging with remote workers and on how to build relationships in virtual environments.

But when human contact can be measured in masked trips to the supermarket, this research takes on new importance!

Create Meaning & Connectedness to Work

Does any of this really matter? In addition to this being the existential question that haunts our 3 am thoughts (or at least mine), it can also haunt our daily thoughts when working remotely. When you’re not chatting each other up over coffee or hashing out plans on the white board, it’s easy to lose sight of how your work fits into the larger picture. Leaders and managers need to go the extra mile to define and display how work is inter-connected. Show your team how they rely on each other and how the project and company is dependent on individual contributions. Team members want to know how their work is helping the company achieve their goals, and they’ll be more motivated when they can see and feel their impact.

Foster Opportunities for Contribution & Collaboration

One of the fastest ways to build a sense a belonging within an organization is to get individuals involved in something beyond their role. This might sound intimidating for leaders, but it doesn’t have to be. Start small by conducting a survey and giving your team a chance to use their voice or conduct a digital focus group around innovation in your industry. If you have more bandwidth, perhaps you create committees, clubs, or groups around ways to improve your employee experience, for example:

  • Company Wide Lunch-N-Learns — Share knowledge on any topic! From crafting the perfect presentation to home brewing, give your team the platform and opportunity to share their passions, work-related or not!

  • Coffee/beer buddies — Arrange a virtual coffee or beer meet up for new employees to meet more tenured employees that are outside of their daily interactions. This will help new employees get a better sense of the organization as a whole and help them meet new people

  • Company Intranets & Internal Blogs — Recruit “reporters” from each department or team to share team updates or highlight individuals who are doing awesome work.

Dedicate Virtual Space for Relationships

Another struggle with remote work is that your “bubble” shrinks considerably. Your daily interactions are often limited to the people with whom you need to interact. In a physical office, you might strike up a conversation over a Star Wars coffee mug or stop and ask a question about the cute pup on a screensaver. Gallup's research has repeatedly shown a "concrete link between having a best friend at work and the amount of effort employees expend in their job." Additionally, "women who strongly agree they have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged [63 percent] than women who say otherwise [29 percent]." While you can’t force friendships, (despite all of my efforts in elementary school... thanks, again, for the perm, Mom...) you can create space for non-work talk to flourish in digitally.

  • Create channels in Slack or Teams around hobbies or interests. Give you team members the reigns and let them start their own channels. I’ve seen everything from #cars to #crochet.

  • Host a digital Book/TV/movie club where everyone tackles the same content at talks!

  • Virtual trivia or Bingo is another great way to get to know your team and have some fun.

Create Service Opportunities

Acts of service are highly recommended for combatting loneliness, so bring this tactic to your team. Taking time to help others gives individuals a sense of great purpose and an instant emotional boost. Here are a few easy ways to encourage and facilitate giving back with your team.

  • Organize a card or letter writing campaign to a local nursing home, or maybe they want to use the time to reach out to a relative.

  • Do a neighborhood sweep. Send everyone on your team outside with their mask, a set of gloves and a trash bag. Pick up what you find and show Mother Earth some love!

  • Virtually organize a blood drive! (You will have to show up in person for this one. 😊) Find a local blood drive and have your organization pack their registrations for the day.

One thing I’m thankful for during this time is that I work for a company that combats these problems inside and out: not only do we practice what we preach in terms of engaging employees, but our product itself fosters connectedness and belonging within teams, by clearly defining task relationships and dependencies that show team members the immediate and downstream impacts of their individual work. In other words, by making their contributions count!

Learn more about how we manage work at Or, just reach out to say hi. Because I think my dog’s getting tired of listening to me go on about music and… you know. Yoga pants



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