This article was originally published on 17 August 2020 on Forbes.com
Loneliness as a societal and workplace health issue was not newly-discovered with Covid-19. Researchers have long known that being lonely and not being connected to family, friends or one's community predicts mortality to roughly the same degree as more widely-recognized morbidity factors such as alcohol, smoking, or obesity. This makes sense. We are uniquely social creatures, and it's this social element that allows us to survive. A quote included in behavioral scientist Dr. Robert Cialdini's outstanding book, Influence, is by archaeologist Rickard Leakey, and he says: "We are human because our ancestors learned to share their food and hone their skills in an honored network of obligation." Is it any wonder that a need for connection continues to be critical for survival?
Less studied is the impact being lonely has on work performance. Taking a closer look at this dimension — and the forms of loneliness that are specific to lockdown — reveals three issues employers must address.
Issue 1: We lose a sense of identity
A large part of how we view ourselves is partially dictated by our interactions with others. It's not static or solely determined by our sense of self. Rather, our sense of who we are is prismatic. It's influenced by the lens that others see us through, and the way they react to us and the part they expect us to play. Take for instance your friend with an accent whose accent gets thicker when he or she is back home. They are subtly changing and morphing who they are in response to the feedback they get from others. Yet in lockdown, we have a reduced amount of these interactions, which means we are missing these additional sources of information about who we are. We start to fundamentally miss a part of ourselves. And it makes us lonely.
Tip for employers: This is tricky. But, part of the solution is creating more forums for self-expression. Perhaps it's a company or team talent show, where employees can show a part of themselves usually reserved for friends and acquaintances. Or consider launching more internal groups, organized around collective interests. Perhaps there is a team for sourdough bread baking. And another for a 28-day ab challenge. The idea is that we need to replace location-based interactions (which are easy and automatic) with intentional-based interactions (which are much more effortful and thoughtful). Because the latter is more difficult, it happens less.
Issue 2: Isolation fatigue has set in
We're tired, we're frustrated, we miss face-to-face contact, and we long for the days where stepping out for a cup of coffee wasn't considered an extreme sport. In London, where some parts of life have returned to normal — including the ability to see friends in person and share a glass of wine without a face mask — the difference that in-person connection has made for both my attitude and productivity was astonishing. My managing director shared a personal story on a recent leadership team call, where he told us about a serendipitous moment with a broadband installation engineer arriving at his home to improve his internet connection. After the 5-minute appointment ended, the engineer ended up staying for an additional 45 minutes to chat about "life in general." Both were just excited to see a non-housemate in person that they dragged out what would otherwise be a perfunctory and short encounter. It is in those small moments of connection that we feel seen — and we don't have those moments anymore.
Loneliness stemming from isolation has also been known to impact work performance. It takes a lot of energy to self-regulate behavior and emotions under the best of circumstances. But when one is lonely and feeling removed, the energy expenditure required to "act normal" can take people's attention and focus away from task completion.
Tip for employers: It's time for your wellbeing efforts to shine. Messaging must evolve from the common advice of "take care of yourself and set boundaries between work life and home life" as your people know this. They have been given tips on how to make remote working work and have already applied them. What people now want is a safe space to talk about their feelings; to share stories on how isolation has made everyone go a little bonkers; a place to swap their best work from home lifehacks with one another. Creating internal communities for people to vent or share stories and ideas goes a long way in normalizing feelings that previously may not have been spoken about at work. Also, encourage your people to share the positive — what things from lockdown do they want to keep? After all, what we focus attention on largely dictates how we feel. The added bonus is that an activity such as this provides yet another avenue for people to increase social connectedness with their colleagues.
Issue 3: Remote working can weaken ties
We miss our colleagues. Gone are the spontaneous moments of connection in the office lunchroom or hallway that we didn't know made up so much of our interactions at work — until they were no more. Our normal ways of interacting have been disrupted, and there isn't yet a way to recreate an in-person experience online. This exacerbates loneliness for some, but it also has another spillover effect: It is reducing "weak ties" within an organization.
The concept of weak ties, publicized by Stanford professor Mark Granovetter almost 50 years ago, refers to our peripheral relationships. For example, the office manager you see every morning and say hello to, but never directly collaborate with, would be considered a weak tie. But it is exactly just such weak ties that can improve organizational performance. How? By introducing new viewpoints. Think of it as a novel form of neurodiversity. At my old agency, a common joke was that the most creative person on the team was actually our financial accountant. We subsequently included her in all brainstorms after making that discovery. In our remote world, the interactions that epitomize weak ties simply do not occur over Zoom.
Tip for employers: Encourage your people to more actively engage on your main collaboration platform, whether it be Yammer, Slack, Teams, Asana, Workplace, etc. Feelings of connectedness increase when we're engaged online — that means liking, sharing, and commenting on content — versus being a passive consumer of content, such as scrolling endlessly through a feed. So go ahead: Tell your employees to like or otherwise acknowledge their teammates' posts across multiple platforms. Encourage sharing of non-work updates, too, to get that cross-pollination of ideas that are missing with our diminishing "weak tie" relationships.
You can also encourage your people to do something for others, such as volunteering or donating. Helping others is a well-known way to increase feelings of connectedness. Many companies offer volunteer time off. This would be a great time to promote such a program. You can even organize a socially-distanced volunteering event, such as a beach clean-up, to bring people together. Be creative!
Want more ideas like this?
A stellar resource for combatting loneliness, both in the time of Covid-19 and beyond, has been collated by Behavioral Science & Policy. The trick for employers is to take these ideas and think about the novel application to your business and your people. That is the secret sauce for generating new techniques, policies, and tactics that create meaningful behavior change.