Many employees have made a move to home working for the first time, against a backdrop of wider enforced social isolation due to coronavirus. How can managers help reduce potential isolation and loneliness in their teams?

Remote and home working have been a rising trend for organizations in recent years. However, for the first time, many are now adjusting to an enforced company-wide home working policy as part of a global campaign to combat the coronavirus outbreak.

This means employees are currently facing the potential of working from home for an extended period, with minimal previous experience or time to prepare for the change. As governments continue rolling out stronger measures to address the spread, this new way of working comes alongside broader isolation protocols preventing social contact with friends and extended family.

It’s a uniquely challenging set of circumstances and many of our traditional management strategies to combat remote worker loneliness – such as bringing staff into the office periodically, setting them up in a coworking space, or encouraging them to get out the house or engage in external social activities – are now redundant. This is new territory.

Concern around the potential impact is valid and needs taking seriously. We are social creatures by nature; removing those connections or social stimulation will have an effect not only on engagement and morale but on both mental and physical health.

As organizations and managers, how can we support and safeguard our employees – beyond the default ‘turn on the webcam’ mantra?

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Isolation and loneliness: they aren’t the same

Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, they aren’t the same thing. Gallup sets out the distinction:

“Loneliness is emotional. Isolation is structural.

“[…] Loneliness is an emotional response to lack of connection – and people can feel just as lonely in the office as outside of it.

“Isolation, on the other hand, is related to access – or lack of it. The isolated can’t get the materials or information they need; they think their achievements or development are ignored; they feel cut off from the business.” (Gallup)

Both are a high risk for employees during the current situation.

Up to 60% of people report feeling lonely regularly.

It’s also worth remembering that while each person has individual circumstances, these won’t dictate how they experience home working. Some may be working with dependents, spouses, or family members around, some alone: but being alone doesn’t automatically equal loneliness, or vice-versa.

Remote worker loneliness is a high risk during the coronavirus pandemic.

Supporting employees calls for a consideration of both loneliness and isolation. As managers, we also need to bring a high degree of understanding and flexibility, given the broader circumstances brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

Reducing isolation

As isolation is typically structural, it’s arguably easier – at least tactically – to address.

The shift to mass home working demands careful management of those areas of your organization relating to access: access to information, to people, and to the business as a whole.

If your staff are feeling cut off, silo-ed, unappreciated, or simply out the loop while working from home, the resulting sense of isolation can have a detrimental impact on productivity and overall well-being.

At a time when we most need our employees to come together and adapt to a truly unique set of circumstances, it’s vital to take those steps to reduce any risk factors for isolation upfront.

All senior leaders, managers, internal communicators, and HR professionals should consider:

  • Access to tools and information
  • Connection to the business
  • Visibility of different teams, departments, and projects
  • Recognition and appreciation
  • Task and project management
  • Identifying ‘out of sight’ individuals

#1. Ensure access to the necessary tools and information they need

One of the most common sources of frustration and resulting isolation for remote workers is a lack of access to the materials or platforms needed to perform their roles. This can result in staff feeling ‘unimportant’, or as though their needs aren’t valued.

Work with both employees and IT to ensure cloud-based storage solutions have all vital documentation, address accessibility or permission issues, and conduct a ‘needs audit’ for individual employees. Create a feedback loop to identify any gaps or issues.

We explore a full breakdown of the core tools and functionality your business needs in our blog, ‘Agile digital workplaces: the tools your business needs in a crisis.’

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#2. Connect them to the business

Keeping staff in the loop is more important than ever before.

Uncertainty can perpetuate feelings of isolation or disconnect; your remote workers will increasingly lose a sense of connection to their organization, unless we proactively nurture it. They need to understand what’s happening in the big picture of your organization.

Ensure you’re giving regular top-down comms outlining business continuity plans and celebrating business achievements – or even simple shows of resilience. If you have regular business rituals, such as senior leadership updates, replicate these where possible as virtual town halls, blogs, or vlogs.

“Employees will increasingly lose a sense of connection to their organization, unless we proactively nurture it.”

If your company values or mission play a central role in your culture, now is the time to call on them. Reiterate them to staff and communicate their importance. Align them to your current efforts where possible.

#3. Spotlight different departments, teams, and projects

Widespread home working often results in silos: individual departments or project teams operating in a virtual bubble, unseen by the rest of the organization. For individuals and teams alike, the result can be a sense of being cast adrift.

Set managers and leaders the task of actively promoting what they’re doing. This may be a weekly team roundup on your intranet, perhaps a department vlog update, or even hosting a live project drop-in or general ‘what’s happening’ session regularly to rotate around the different departments and projects in your organization.

The benefit is two-fold: those involved in the highlighted projects feel seen; those hearing about the different things happening will benefit from a better sense of awareness and connection to their colleagues and business.

#4. Make recognition – and appreciation – central and transparent

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Recognition and appreciation correlate to increased productivity, morale, and engagement: outcomes we need now more than ever.

When working from home, much of the effort of our employees takes place behind the scenes, unseen by others. Everyday appreciation can easily be lost in the now noisy digital workplace. 

“Creating a company-wide culture of recognition means bringing those single, hidden moments into the open.”

Many individuals are also be rising to some unique challenges in unprecedented conditions: and that needs acknowledging. It requires a proactive rethink around how we make our staff feel valued from afar.

Reinforce the importance of recognizing our employees to line managers: a simple ‘thank you’ goes a long way. However, creating a company-wide culture of recognition means bringing those single, hidden moments into the open.

Consider a nomination system where line managers or even employees can put forward individuals for a shout-out in senior leadership comms.  A company-wide Slack thread or Teams channel can serve specifically for public ‘thanks’ posts, or you can create a feature on your intranet, such as a forum, timeline, or rewards widget, dedicated to recognition.

#5. Make task and project management central and open  

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Not having visibility of what tasks, projects, and work is going on can be a trigger for isolation. It results in lost opportunity for those who have something to contribute, potential duplication of effort, and generally feeling ‘out the loop.’

Digital tools such as Asana, Trello, or Microsoft Teams Planner can be used to map out individual, team, and project tasks for smoother management of workload from a distance.

Giving teams access will provide much-needed insight and connection to what’s happening for individual employees. Consider establishing different channels or discussion areas for projects to provide real-time status updates.

Back this up with regular virtual team or project ‘stand-ups’: a brief update on what people are working on can shed light on potential challenges or areas where others can put forward their ideas or skills.

Back this up with regular virtual team or project ‘stand-ups’: a brief update on what people are working on can shed light on potential challenges or areas where others can put forward their ideas or skills.

Back this up with regular virtual team or project ‘stand-ups’: a brief update on what people are working on can shed light on potential challenges or areas where others can put forward their ideas or skills.

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#6. Identify ‘out of sight’ individuals for projects

Isolation can also occur when individuals feel overlooked when work takes place that they could contribute to, or when their skills are being under-utilized. Long-term, this leads to discontent as employees feel they aren’t being developed or sufficiently ‘challenged.’ 

“It’s an opportunity to unearth hidden, under-utilized talent across your organization.”

This tends to be a more significant issue for single remote workers who don’t get that much-needed face time with their peers to build their professional networks. However, without chance conversations or the simplicity of walking over to an individuals’ desk, there’s a risk our new remote teams will start to see a similar effect.

One option is to task project owners with mapping out not individuals, but the skills and expertise required when setting out work. If you have rich profiles on your staff directory or intranet that allow for individuals to add their attributes, this will make potential staff easier to find.

Now we’re no longer physically sitting with – and defaulting to – our teams, it may be an ideal opportunity to try a more collaborative, agile way of working: and unearth hidden, under-utilized talent across your organization.

Reducing loneliness

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Loneliness isn’t exclusive to remote working: it’s entirely possible for staff to feel lonely even when surrounded by people.

In today’s digital age, it’s now recognized as a growing phenomenon: research suggests anywhere up to 60% of people report feeling lonely regularly. Causes are varied and include social, mental, emotional, and physical factors.

However, the risk is higher for those who live or work alone or have limited contact with others. During the current pandemic, many of our employees will be experiencing both.

Individuals struggling with chronic loneliness and associated impact on their mental health may need professional support to manage how they’re feeling. For employers and managers, some steps can help prevent or reduce risk loneliness among staff, and especially those new to home working against the backdrop of social distancing.  

Our tips include:

  • Using technology to your advantage
  • Supporting different personality types
  • Using virtual open offices and social spaces
  • Scheduling coffee breaks, drinks, or larger ‘lunch and learns’
  • Encouraging non-work communities
  • Promoting ‘unplugging’ for staff
  • Reinforcing the importance of support networks

#1. Use tech to your advantage

It’s the go-to of the moment, but it’s essential to add to the list.

Technology has a dominant role to play, and when leveraged effectively, can go a long way in addressing potential loneliness.

Beyond tools, applications, and processes to minimize isolation – whether that’s document management or business-wide leadership communication – technology can provide that much-needed sense of connection that is now increasingly lacking thanks to isolation protocols.

Video calling and conferences are increasing in use, as the benefits of seeing our colleagues on camera are increasingly apparent. This spans everything from reading non-verbal cues and expressions, or helping everyone be a part of the conversation by seeing when they want to contribute, to ‘humanizing’ our peers by seeing them in their own spaces (often, these days, with a pet, spouse, or child to boot).

Instant comms channels with built-in social tools can promote conversation among staff, particularly those who are a little camera shy. Even in a digital workspace, a simple like or emoji can help keep communication open.

Using different channels for different purposes can help mirror the natural types of conversation that occur in physical workspaces, whether that’s one-to-ones, casual team chat, project groups, departmental briefings, and more. The more opportunities staff have to connect with their peers, the lower the risk of loneliness.

#2. Support different personalities

One of the challenges we’re seeing is difficulty engaging those individuals who are naturally introverted and maybe less proactive in reaching out to others or participating in virtual spaces and conversation. It’s a trait that becomes amplified when working alone.

“It’s not about trying to turn shy staff into social butterflies: it’s about creating low-stake opportunities for that individual to build a connection with others.”

If there are members of your team who are generally quieter, perhaps reluctant to get on camera, or noticeably withdrawn or subdued when it comes to contributing to team conversation, they may need additional support and encouragement.

Peer pairing may be an option in this scenario; designating a more extroverted personality to check-in or informally chat with those who have a higher risk of slipping under the radar.

Managers must also take proactive responsibility for reaching out to those individuals; setting a daily one-to-one check-in and using video will give them much-needed face time, even if they’re reluctant.

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In virtual meetings, designate a ‘slot’ or time for that individual to speak, using questions, and managing any interruptions to give them space to contribute. For those who are perhaps more self-conscious or nervous, setting a clear plan ahead of time can help them prepare.  

#3. Consider open virtual offices and social spaces

Those small, often over-looked interactions with colleagues – the ‘how was your weekend?’ on a Monday morning, the chat about the game or latest episode on Netflix when grabbing a coffee – are moments when our colleagues become multifaceted, real-life human beings: as opposed to the flat, work-orientated persona we associate with an employee directory photo or avatar.  

Giving space and circumstances for those conversations can be a challenge in a digital workplace. The underlining success of these connections is that they’re organic: try too hard, and it feels contrived and insincere.

However, we can lay some digital foundations. This may include dedicated informal/fun channels on your instant comms apps, such as Slack or Teams. A friendly ‘how’s everyone doing?’ and sharing on non-work banter will encourage others to follow suit.

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If you have a blogging tool, discussion forums, or even a timeline on your intranet or internal comms platform, these are all ideal channels to take this further still. If leadership shows non-work specific chat is not only OK but encouraged, others will follow suit.

Some teams or organizations are trialing ‘open virtual offices’: inviting staff to live stream as they work, to replicate the environment of an office where ad-hoc conversations have the opportunity to begin organically. Depending on the size and culture of your business, this may be an option – an open office hour, or an open team morning, to reduce feelings of being alone.

#4. Schedule coffee breaks, drinks, or a lunch & learn

While we’ve put forward the need for non-contrived, organic virtual social spaces for staff, sometimes for those experiencing loneliness, it can be a challenge to step forward and opt-in. Scheduling time in for watercooler chat may be an idea to bring together those who are feeling lonely or disconnected.

Team or project coffee breaks are an example; popping a conference or video call in people’s diaries will give the more introverted an invitation to connect. A team lunch or perhaps Friday drinks give people something to focus on or do against the background of general chat. Or consider taking it one step further with a virtual team quiz: it gives focus, while still having space for non-work conversation.  

“For those experiencing loneliness, it can be a challenge to step forward and opt-in.”

For larger-scale meetups, we’ve discovered first-hand that bringing together a large group of individuals from across the business and simply saying: “here you go, chat!” tends to struggle. While this will depend on the individual culture of your business, it usually needs a touch of steer to draw people out.

Identifying a host or champion is a good starting point; consider opening these sessions with a discussion topic, an informal update, or electing someone to conduct a micro ‘lunch and learn’ session. When staff have a focal or discussion point and steer from someone initially, it encourages thinking and debate. We’ve also found for those reluctant to speak or interrupt, having a written question panel alongside video sessions enables people to contribute.  

#5. Encourage non-work communities

The current circumstances around social distancing mean many employees have limited or no access to their existing communities: whether that’s through hobbies, sport, volunteering, family, or friends.

However, we are also now all uniquely in the same boat. Those feeling the effects of loneliness may benefit from a sense of connection over shared interests or circumstances in a virtual space, which we can foster via work.

For example, set up an intranet community for employees who have dependents at home and are looking to share experiences, ideas, or resources to keep children entertained, distracted, or engaged in schooling from home. A lighter version may be for fans of particular TV shows, a virtual book club, or a Fit@Home group to keep each other motivated and inspired to exercise in a new way.

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A ‘remote working’ Teams channel can provide a broader conversation for people to check-in, give tips, or simply share how impossible it is to work with a needy dog/noisy neighbor/aggressive typing spouse opposite. When staff understand they are not alone in their situation or feelings, it reduces feelings of loneliness.

#6. Promoting unplugging rituals

As benchmarks for our productivity shift and external distractions increase, there’s going to be a rising pressure and temptation to overwork.

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Staff are now judged by their output, rather than their presence and contributions in the office. As a result, many are far more likely to work extended hours and fail to ‘switch off’ in the evenings. When your workspace is also your home, it further breaks the boundary down between the two. Ironically, feeling as though you need to work longer and at all hours can make loneliness worse. 

Reinforce in your staff the need to establish and stick to work-life boundaries and fully unplug at the end of the day, to ensure they’re able to enjoy personal time and unwind.

For some, having a routine or timetable to know when that cut-off point is maybe beneficial; for others, it may be a particular task or event that signals close of play. If you have staff showing signs of being ‘always-on,’ consider a check-out at the end of the day to draw a line under work completed and help them switch off.

These boundaries help manage work-life balance, give staff a ritual to help them transition between work and home (even when both take place in the same space) and maintain those all-important external connections – even remotely – with friends and family.  

#7. Press the role and importance of a more extensive support network

Many of us are facing separation from friends and family due to social distancing. Still, if there’s one thing our new digital workplaces are showing us, it’s the innovative ways in which technology can keep us connected.

As employers and managers, it’s not our role to make staff keep in touch with others outside the workplace. However, where there is a risk of loneliness, it helps to reiterate the importance of those connections and share ideas on how to make it work in these challenging times.

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Ideas shared among our staff include a virtual dinner date, where two couples set up a video chat between to enjoy dinner and conversation. A family pub quiz or even a board game via video requires some creative thinking, but it’s still manageable. Apps such as Zoom or HouseParty enable multiple people to connect over video chat and share screens or even play games, helping to combat the boredom of being stuck indoors.

Isolation and loneliness will be normal: but they can be managed

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Organizations across the UK and US may now be venturing into their second or third week of mass home working. It’s essential to recognize that the transition is a process and journey: it takes time. Employees will experience a range of emotions at each stage.

The initial shock and focus on the immediate crisis will now, for many, be shifting into a phase of adjustment. With the latest predicted timescales spanning anything from 3 weeks to 6 months, there’s an understanding of the long task ahead.

Figuring out how to navigate that new reality and balance work and life boundaries long-term is now at the forefront of everyone’s minds. We’re seeing a natural array of reactions: fear, uncertainty, anger, a sense of being overwhelmed, frustration, anxiety, and more.

Organizations must recognize feelings of loneliness or isolation are going to be a part of that journey and process for many.

“Organizations must recognize feelings of loneliness or isolation are going to be a part of the journey and process for many.”

Efforts to prevent, identify, and support those experiencing these feelings need to be on-going. After an initial period of hyper-communication in the wake of any significant change, there tends to be a slump: and it’s during this period when isolation and disconnect can take hold. 

Don’t let your plans become nothing more than good intentions or a show of goodwill at the beginning of the outbreak. Both isolation and loneliness develop over time, and it’s within our power to mitigate their impact if we remain vigilant about supporting our employees.