As I walked away from my cubicle in March of 2020, I was anxious, worried, and cautiously optimistic. While I was excited to cut down on commute time and regain some work-life balance, I asked myself, “Am I set up for this?”
I’m an extrovert who talks to people for a living. My coworkers are like my family. What would being unable to make small talk over cubicle walls or swap weekend stories around the coffee machine do to how I felt about my job? Would I start liking it less?
It took me some time to adapt, accept, and understand that being physically isolated from the world did not mean I was cut off from it. But even almost three years later, I still struggle with the challenges of isolation from time to time.
According to Harvard Graduate School of Education, 36% of American adults surveyed in October 2020, felt a sense of loneliness frequently or almost all the time in the four weeks prior.
And I’m sure that if you’re working a remote job, these feelings of loneliness and isolation are felt more intensely. So, how can you make yourself feel more engaged and connected to the outside world if you’re working from home?
1. Does it matter where you work?
Just because you can work from home doesn’t mean you have to be at your home. Of course, you’ll want to double-check with your employer about working from anywhere before you do it in case there’s something you’re not aware of that would limit where you can work. You’ll also want to make sure wherever you go, is a place you can actually work.
Even if you’re traveling to your parents’, friends’, or local coffee shop for a change of scenery, it’s always better to ask for permission than forgiveness.
If it does matter where you work, maybe you have too much equipment to work with that you can’t change your physical scenery – work in front of windows, have some sunshine in your life.
2. Go Out After Work
Everyone’s risk thresholds for being in public are different. If entering a new public space isn’t for you, you can still mix it up and add new environments to your routine by getting out on your breaks or after work.
Even if it is just a simple walk around the block or taking a different route on dog walks, fresh air always helps. The point, really, is to break up the routine and explore new spaces to make your world feel bigger.
3. Don’t Have a Pet?
If your feelings of isolation have been fueled by physically being alone, now might be the time to pull the trigger on adding a four-legged friend to the family -especially if you’ve been thinking about it for a while. Keep in mind, though, a pet is a long-term commitment and shouldn’t be used as a band-aid for short-term circumstances.
4. Phone a Friend or Coworker
And by phone, I mean video calls, too! Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, you name it; video calls have become the norm in communication, so don’t feel bashful about asking someone to turn that camera on. Technology has kept the world from completely breaking down, so don’t be afraid to use the technology literally at your fingertips to help you feel more connected. It’s what it’s there to do.
Connecting with your friends and family via video or phone call can help you feel connected with your peers and make new employees feel welcome.
What Can Team Leaders Do?
According to Forbes, loneliness and isolation take a toll not only on employee mindsets but also their performance and motivation. On average “lonely workers take twice as many sick days.”
This results in putting more work on these employees’ peers and therefore increases the potential for employee burnout. So, what can you, as an employer, do to help alleviate feelings of isolation for your employees?
1. Let Your Employees Work How They Need to Work
If you sense your remote team dynamic is getting a little stale, let them refresh their scenery to help them hit the mental restart button. Trust is critical to letting to making this model work, so open and honest communication about expectations is needed.
2. Have Some (Themed) Fun!
Never feel that business is more important than your employees because without them there is no business. Feelings of loneliness can have an impact on employee morale and motivation. Organizing some fun events (where work talk is banned) can go a long way in building team comradery, strengthening relationships, and making work feel less like a grind.
Here at Bridge, we’re fans of virtual Bingo. But you can check out other ideas here.
3. Build a Safe Place
Many times, employee fatigue and isolation fly under the radar because team members may not feel fully supported by supervisors. Studies have shown that employees are reluctant to speak up, and are hardwired to remain silent.” These issues then go unnoticed and compound to a boiling point that ends in top performers leaving.
The irony is that team leaders can’t work to solve problems they’re not aware of. So what can you do? Open and transparent communication starts with trust. As a leader, work to build a team culture where your employees trust they can come to you about how they are feeling, and not worry that that information will be leveraged against them at some point in the future.
Whether it’s something as simple as voicing an opinion or simply talking through a challenge they’re facing, employees need leaders who are approachable, respectful, trustworthy, and committed to their success.
4. Encourage Your Employees to Take Time Off
Feelings of exhaustion and isolation are intricately tied to feelings of being stuck and not having the tools to affect change. Because of this, any action to break up the monotony goes a long way in combatting these feelings. Reiterate to your employees their mental well-being comes first. Taking mental health days should be encouraged.
Employee performance will always be colored by your team’s mental state, and remote employees are at a higher risk for isolation-based burnout. “Me days” should be regularly incorporated into their schedules, as such.
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Being Alone, Together
While everyone’s experiences since 2020 have been different, certain feelings have been universal. We all know what isolation feels like and the toll it can take on our mental health. And with the employment market decidedly embracing a work from home structure, it’s more important than ever for business leaders to be vigilant and explore as many opportunities as possible to keep their employees productive, connected, focused, and mentally healthy.