A recent survey by Cigna found that nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling lonely or left out. One in four Americans (27 percent) rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them, while about half of the surveyed population have meaningful in person social interactions. Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful (43 percent) and that they are isolated from others (43 percent). Twenty percent of surveyed people report they rarely or never feel close to others and only eighteen percent feel like there are people they can talk to.
These numbers are troubling for the general population. What about remote employees who typically spend their days working alone?
Long-Distance Leaders Can Help
As leaders of remote employees, we can build a sense of community and connection in very intentional ways. The study points out that being connected should viewed in a broader context of physical, social and mental health. So all the connected parts that make up an individual could, together or individually, contribute to a feeling of isolation.
We know loneliness has a negative impact on performance and production. So how does this really affect how you view and approach your relationship with your employees who are not in close proximity to you? As formal leaders, we have a unique opportunity to be part of how we solve for this. The conversation between manager and employee becomes multifaceted. Conversations are not just about Outcomes but they must revolve around the employee, their overall happiness and connection with their work and others. (see the 3-O Model championed by Wayne Turmel and Kevin Eikenberry).
Using Other Resources to Create a Personal Connection
While the in-person interaction is the most meaningful in terms of human connect and relationship building, that is not always possible when your employee works hundreds or thousands of miles away. The next best thing: the use of a video camera for check-ins and touch points with your team. The level of connection is deeper and, while we might be great phone listeners, we know listening happens at so many levels and the visual aspect is so important.
Being aware of resources that are available for you and your employee becomes even more important in the context of connectivity. What does your Employee Assistance Program offer? What are other managers of remote employees doing and how can you do you stay in touch with them? What opportunities for employee development are available at your company? How does employee engagement initiatives help your efforts of staying in touch with your team in a meaningful way?
All Work and No Play…
Here is another tip: encourage your employees to take social breaks. Social breaks are time away from the work itself very much like breaks during worktime for employees at any location. If there are other employees at the location where your group works, ask questions about them. This will offer you a better understanding of everyone at that site, but will also keep some soft accountability on your direct reports’ part to actually have conversations with others. Social media can be an outlet for connection however, according to the same Cigna study, the in-person connection and conversation are more powerful and people who take the time to have face to face conversations have lower loneliness scores.
The Importance of Professional Development
Talk to your employees about their professional development often and give them a chance to explore what is possible for them; how can they become a better version of themselves in the context of professional and personal growth? Your role is to assist in celebrating the strengths and find ways in which appropriate challenges give employees a sense of worth and belonging. A simple way to concentrate on growth is to allow your team members a one-hour block of time every week to self-development:
- 15 minutes of reviewing their goals (personal and professional); take the time to imagine what the end result would look like
- 15 minutes to research in depth one of the goals
- 15 minutes to reach out to someone in your network of outside of your network to ask questions and connect on your areas of interest
- 15 minutes to compile data and practice gratefulness (what are you thankful for, what is going well)
Wise Use of Time Off the Clock
The Cigna study points to additional ideas on how to minimize isolation:
- Physical activity
- Quality sleep
- Spending time with family and friends
Your job as Long-Distance Leader is not to determine the root cause of the feeling of isolation that could stem from subjective social isolation, social exclusion, the amount of social capital, etc. Where you can help is paying attention to the needs of your employees and continue coach to performance while keeping an eye on the well-being and happiness of your team. Without you being there in person, your deliberate sense of connection with your team while focusing on the employee during every interaction is going to guide your decisions on how to have all employees feel connected at work.
About the Author
Cristina Ciorna is the Learning and Development Director for Midland States Bank in Effingham, Illinois. She has an MBA in Leadership from the University of La Verne in California. She has also received various certifications in Education, Coaching and Organizational Design from University of Southern California, Cal State University in San Bernardino and University of California, Irvine. Her career focus is designing and executing programs that elevate employee knowledge, productivity and engagement.