For many people, working from home during COVID has been a big success. At least it’s worked better than many people anticipated. But the longer it goes on and the more uncertainty there is about what the return to the office will look like, or even if it will occur, the more we have to deal with a hidden and very destructive force—isolation and loneliness.
As the leader, you may even be feeling some of this yourself. Even as an admitted curmudgeon who has worked remotely for almost two decades, I know that there’s a whole world outside my window I’m not a part of. My one social activity a week was my writer’s group. While we now have Thursday night Zoom meetings to read and critique each other’s work, the last thing I need after a day of teaching and consulting is another freaking webcam meeting! And it’s not the same as convening at the pub afterwards for more discussion and socializing. Yet it’s the only time of the week I talk to people who aren’t either work colleagues or relatives. I’m not gonna lie. I’m climbing the walls a bit.
This is more than just me whining, though. There is a very real cost to employees (yes, even your introverts) feeling alone.
It’s more than just emotions
According to Gallup, most people enjoy working from home or remotely, and plan to continue to do it at least part-time when things return to “normal.” Yet twenty percent of people are experiencing very real feelings of loneliness and isolation. That’s one out of five. If you have five people on your team, odds are good at least one of them is struggling a bit.
North Americans have built much of their social life and casual acquaintances around the workplace. We spend forty of the 168 hours in a week working. Not only do we spend a quarter of our lives each week with coworkers, but many of us maintain social ties outside the workplace with these folks. These people are our friends.
While much of the press about working from home talks about families, there are a lot of single people who live alone. How are they holding up?
This is more than just a feel-good issue. Isolation can lead to disengaged workers, higher turnover, lower productivity and plummeting employee satisfaction scores. It also is a leading cause of depression, substance abuse and self harm.
What can a leader do?
- Watch for changes in behavior or attitude. Are people suddenly withdrawing, not participating in meetings or going “radio silent?” It might be time to reach out.
- Talk regularly, one on one, with every member of your team, not just your “problem children.” One of the challenges leaders face is not spending all their time putting out fires. Regular, casual conversation with every team member is important. Don’t assume that no news is good news.
- Know your team’s work style. Some people work best when left to their own devices, others will really struggle. If you don’t know the team’s work styles, may we suggest a simple online DISC assessment.
- Schedule both one on one and group activities. Help maintain a social connection between team members. Birthday announcements, celebrating “wins” on team calls, and sharing personal news can help people feel connected.
- Encourage webcams, even on peer to peer calls. Humans need visual connection. While some people will be uncomfortable, the line between being self-contained and isolated can be blurry. Sometimes people need to be pushed to do what’s good for them, even if it’s uncomfortable.
- Take care of yourself. Remember the 3-O model from The Long-Distance Leader. Taking care of ourselves is as important as taking care of outcomes and others.
The workplace is changing. There will be a thousand seismic changes in the next years, but one of the biggest is how not being in a central workplace will play on the social, psychological and spiritual life of human beings. You might not be able to prevent all these shocks, but you can help your people—and yourself– make it through another week.
Remote leaders need to establish relationships outside their teams. The Remarkable Way is a group of leaders, some remote, but not all, who encourage one another to develop their full Remarkable Potential.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. You can pre-order Kevin and Wayne’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, now.