Expand Work from Home Check-Ins to Awareness of Loneliness Signs

While employers everywhere are reading blogs on the best ways to transform their teams with the new virtual environment, many tips are being shared on how to keep folks connected via video platforms, chatrooms and the like. AOE has even written some of those blogs, offering tips on video meeting etiquette and staying connected with your team. While these tips are needed as so many of us have quickly shifted to a work from home environment, the suggestions usually address productivity, not true human connection. Interestingly enough, many of us are feeling more disconnected despite these tools. Also interesting is the fact that studies have shown a huge connection between loneliness in the American work environment and productivity.

This topic came to the forefront for me today when I listened to one of my favorite podcasts while walking my dogs. The podcast, Work Life by Adam Grant, has always resonated with me. His episode on “We don’t have to fight loneliness alone” couldn’t have come at a better time. I am vulnerable enough to admit that, despite all the video meetings and conference calls, I am lonely! And, I am not alone.

In a recent article in Forbes, Dr. Doug Nemecek, the chief medical officer for Behavioral Health at Cigna, stated that modern technology is helpful for workplace flexibility, but it may be contributing to loneliness. And, he continued, people who are lonely are less engaged and feel less productive at work. The ability to work from home, or from anywhere other than a collegial office, Nemecek added, can lead to isolation and then a feeling of loneliness.

In another Forbes article, it was noted that loneliness actually poses a greater threat to health than obesity, and its life-shortening effects are comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Furthermore, it is rampant in today’s workplace. The source of this information? Vivek H. Murthy, former Surgeon General of the United States. Due to the significant time we spend at work, he says, it is incumbent on business leaders to be proactive in tackling the problem of loneliness as it impairs performance, creativity and decision making.

The list of studies goes on and on, earning loneliness the label of a modern epidemic despite there being more ways than ever before to connect with friends, family and co-workers. Experts note that, though is seems counter-intuitive, those that feel lonely are less likely to reach out and build connections as they give into the feeling that they are alone. It becomes an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy. And this lack of connection didn’t just start with our current pandemic, rather, our society’s dependency on technology as well as folks working and even eating at their desk before scrambling out the door for family and other activities. There is simply less and less connection in the workforce.

So, how do we address this phenomenon? While our instinct may be more video chats and check-ins, many of these scenarios aren’t creating a real connection. What about the corporate happy hour? The mandatory fun activity? Researchers note mixed results with these activities as they typically result only in building relationships with your existing work team and fail to create deep connections with those outside your immediate circle. Experts suggest that what is needed is a return to basics, to include making time for small talk at the beginning of a call, asking personal questions about family and hobbies, and not being in the habit of simply planning, reporting and doing the business of your work. Make sure all interactions are authentic and transparent, and actually build time into your day for interaction. Stop by someone’s desk (or make up an excuse to call someone just to say hello in today’s virtual world), show up to the meeting early (even if virtual) so you are forced to make small talk, and go out of your way to get in front of those outside your typical work circle.

Case in point was a meeting I held yesterday for my direct reports. A long-time team member became a grandmother last week, so we held a virtual baby shower to celebrate. I was a bit worried about having an agenda since we were hosting the meeting using Skype, and I wasn’t sure how it would go with the nine of us looking at each other Brady Bunch style on the screen. But, there were no lulls in the conversation. The baby games I had as a back-up plan weren’t necessary as everyone was engaged and simply enjoyed talking to each other, connecting on everything besides work. And, that is a rule I set at onset – no talking about work on this one hour call. We gathered as co-workers, and friends. And, I too felt a little less lonely!

What ideas do you have for creating true connections with your team? How do you beat the lonely blues?