Let’s talk about loneliness, isolation and emotional exhaustion: So, the world has gone remote – and both employers and employees were supporting it long before the global COVID-19 pandemic forced it upon everyone, due to the costs, flexibility and productivity benefits it provides.
But despite the improved performance, productivity gains and cost savings associated with remote work, there remains one risk – the emotional health and wellbeing of remote workers — specifically the link between remote working and increased feelings of loneliness and isolation.
For the employer these can have a big impact on employee disengagement and lead to reduced productivity, and for the employee, these can be incredibly draining, leading to low mood, lack of motivation and poor mental health, if not managed effectively.
Related Article: Working from home: An introvert and extroverts guide
So how do ‘we’ tackle it, note I said ‘we’, because it is not just the responsibility of one party, employer or employee, it is the responsibility of both and the first step is to remove any confusions with regards to what loneliness and isolation is and how they develop.
- Loneliness and isolation are two different things, although they are closely connected and both can lead to the other.
- Loneliness is an emotional response to lack of connection and it is not just remote workers who can feel it. In the workplace, you can feel equally lonely being in a busy office if you do not feel connected.
- Isolation is related to access, or more specifically a lack of it. This could be a lack of access to materials, information, structure. It can lead to feelings linked to underachievement, demotivation, ignored, undervalued, invisible and cut off from the business. It’s a technical issue rather than an emotional issue, but it can lead to emotional issues such as low confidence, low self-esteem, rejection etc.
One of the biggest factors that can link to both isolation and loneliness is the concept of being out of sight, out of mind.
As employers and employees, we can easily forget to reach out to people, include people and give all people access, so here are some tips to fight off loneliness for yourself, your colleagues and your employees:
For Remote Workers
Get out of your home office
Whether it’s a different room, the garden or when COVID-19 comes to an end we are free to socialise again, move to a co-working space, a coffee shop, or a local library – because the first step to fighting feelings of isolation is getting yourself out of your everyday office and out in the world where people are.
You don’t have to be speaking to the other people, you just need to feel like you’re a part of a bigger community.
Socialise during the day
If you have flexibility, take advantage of it and build socialising into your day.
Meet a friend for lunch, grab a coffee with your neighbour, take the dog for a walk, make time to socialise during the working week in ways you wouldn’t be able to do if you worked in an office.
Socialise after work hours to combat loneliness
If you don’t get to spend much time working or socialising with your teammates as a remote worker, make plans with friends, family or colleagues during the week after work hours. This approach will make you feel like a part of a community and will help you with your work life balance and creating a work cut off – because it is harder to draw the line between work time and personal time when you work remotely.
Join or create groups within your organisation for regular social connection at work.
Whatever communication system you use or instant messaging, e.g. WhatsApp, Microsoft Teams, use that system to join or form groups where you can communicate socially with your team members, no matter where they’re located.
Make it fun, make it engaging, don’t make it all work orientated, build ways to connect socially on top of your existing communication systems to keep in touch with your teammates in a low-effort way when you’re feeling less connected.
Use video conferencing tools and phone calls to communicate with your team.
Video call when you need to brainstorm, discuss ideas, or present your point of view on a subject with one of your colleagues. It’s better than an email or any other form of plain text and It keeps the rapport between yourself and your colleagues alive.
If you’re already feeling lonely as a remote worker, feelings of isolation could increase if you’re running up against miscommunication and misunderstanding on a regular basis. So, get on the video tor telephone, use available technology to make you present even when you can’t actually be there.
Perks for remote workers
If the bulk of your corporate perks are only beneficial to in-office employees, you’ll need to rethink ways to help retain your best remote workers to make them feel included and a part of the community, and addressing loneliness is a great place to start.
The same way you offer perks like free coffee, catered meals, or fitness classes to help retain your on-site employees, set up perks that benefit your remote workers, too.
Consider offering remote a monthly budget to work out of a coffee shop, to proactively help team members prevent feeling lonely, or to buy work clothes so they feel dressed for work.
Others have purchased Taste Cards for their team enabling them to receive annual benefits such as 2-4-1 at restaurants.
Weekly or monthly virtual meetings that allow employees to connect.
It likely isn’t possible or convenient for remote employees to travel to spend time with their team on a weekly or monthly basis for in-person collaboration, but team leaders can use technology to build virtual hangouts so remote employees can feel more connected with their in-office teammates.
Whether that virtual socialising takes the form of a video meeting where everyone shares a coffee or adult beverage together or weekly lunch and learns, technology makes it easy to build time for relationship-building that all team members can benefit from.
Bi-annually retreats – Bring remote workers together in a common location.
If you’re a fully-remote company or remote employees are distributed around the world, you could consider organizing regular travel to bring remote employees located in the same country or continent together, too.
Scheduling a mini-retreat for remote employees to spend time together and share their productivity tips will help them build relationships with peers and feel more connected to a community when they’re at work.
Depending on how many remote employees work on each team or within the entire company, leaders should build in a budget to bring remote employees into the office on a semi-regular basis.
This is important for remote employees to build relationships and network, and it’s important to make sure teams are working together in sync on a day-to-day basis.
Annual conference events
Humans crave human connection, so if you have a significant number of remote employees, or if you’re a fully-remote company, you should be scheduling an all-company conference/retreat annually to help with collaboration, fun and socialising to help with developing stronger team environments, creating an engaging culture.
The budget for this is far less than the costs linked to constant employee turnover, absenteeism, presenteeism as well as low performance and therefore productivity.
Set up meetings to make remote workers feel included
Even when meetings are being held in an office, always have a conferencing link option for the remote workers to dial in, so they feel connected and in the loop of what is going on.
If the team needs to use their computers during the meeting, everyone attending should log into the video conference to prevent side conversations from happening in the physical meeting room.
The key to all of this is that it is not one person’s responsibility to reduce the impact that inefficient and disconnected remote working can have on a person’s mental health.
It is everyone’s, employers and employees are a team and so ensuring all the members feel equally involved in the team is the recipe for a happier and more productive workforce.
About the Author
Kim is a qualified coach, therapist and trainer, with a career spanning over a decade in corporate business at a senior level.
She set-up Dalton Wise Coaching and Therapy up in 2017, in response to her own journey and experiences with mental health which came to a head after a car crash in 2014. She suffered with stress, anxiety, burnout, depression and low-level agoraphobia. I sought help and after a 16 week wait, was provided with my initial 6 sessions of NHS counselling.
As a stubborn, proactive, problem solver by nature she decided to take her recovery into her own hands, and as a result, via a lot of research and additional training to secure professional knowledge, skills and qualifications, Dalton Wise and 8 Wise were developed.