It has been estimated that 46.6% of employed adults in the UK were working remotely in April 2020, with the vast majority doing so due to the pandemic. Employees have had very little time to adjust to this change. Many have found themselves facing unprecedented social isolation and, in many cases, loneliness.
Isolation vs loneliness
Despite common belief, isolation and loneliness aren’t the same. Simply put, one is a physical problem, the other is an emotional one.
Isolation is a systemic issue that’s caused by a lack of contact. In a work scenario, this could mean being cut off from colleagues and support networks, not being able to access tools, materials, information, and feeling like achievements are ignored.
Loneliness is an emotional state that’s caused by a lack of connection. Although isolation can lead to loneliness in many cases, they are not the same thing. Just because an employee is working remotely doesn’t automatically mean they will experience loneliness. It’s important to remember that some employees will have spouses, children, and then others will live alone.
Effects of loneliness & isolation on remote workers
Loneliness can contribute to depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, and accelerated cognitive decline. For employees working remotely, this will have a direct impact on their work ethic, performance, and overall engagement.
Remote workers may also be less approachable. They might undermine trust, group cohesion, and collaboration with others. This negative impact then has a ripple effect, leading to bigger organizational problems.
Even though isolation can have a detrimental effect on productivity and wellbeing, as it’s usually a structural issue, the problem can be solved. With the right strategy and tools, managers can find ways to help employees that are feeling cut-off from the world, left out from their team, and disconnected from their company culture.
It’s important that managers adapt to these challenges, learn to talk about mental health in the workplace, and help employees to cope in these conditions. Here are some of the ways managers can adapt to the changes and foster a sense of togetherness among employees:
1. Identify individuals who may feel overlooked
With remote working, businesses run the risk that some members of staff will be overlooked. It’s much harder to get involved or volunteer contributions for projects at home than it would be in an office environment.
This means that employees that would normally be taking on new challenges may feel stuck in their roles and unchallenged. As a manager, it's important to spot when this is happening.
One way to do this is to encourage project leaders to assign tasks based on expertise, rather than just giving it to someone they know by default. Managers can also ensure employees are being developed to reach their full potential by having a Learning and Development (L&D) budget for employees to spend on a class or program related to their field. Such training programs are great for keeping employees engaged and challenged.
2. Extend your appreciation
In an office environment, feeling recognized and appreciated is a key driver of employee engagement and morale. It also has a huge impact on productivity levels due to feeling rewarded.
When remote working, most of the hard work employees put into their work happens without anyone seeing. Lots of employees miss the everyday appreciation they get when working with others. Therefore, if you want to keep your team performing at the same level, your business must adopt new ways to recognize achievements.
For example, lots of people are still facing challenging tasks in their projects. When employees rise to these difficulties, they must be thanked for their efforts.
Creating a company-wide culture of appreciation can work wonders. There are lots of ways to do this - by using Slack (or a white label chat app), for example, to create special threads, channels, or by simply writing a thank you note.
3. Provide access to resources, tools, & information
A common barrier to effective remote working is not being able to access materials, platforms, or information that’s required to meet job requirements.
First and foremost, this can lead to ongoing frustration. It makes it more difficult for employees to do their jobs well and meet deadlines without access to the same tools and support.
Also, this can, over time, result in team members feeling as though their roles don’t matter. It can make them feel undervalued or as though they are not important.
This is an issue that can be addressed through technology and ensuring all employees can access everything they need. This can include IT cloud-based storage systems that offer data loss prevention (DLP) and advanced reporting, such as Google Drive.
To ensure everything is in place and there are no gaps, businesses should also ask for feedback and create an audit system. This can help address any issues with access or permissions, or any areas that workers feel their needs aren’t being met.
4. Make project & task management transparent
Another key cause of isolation is not being able to view work schedules, tasks, and other information that would be highly visible in an office. Not only does this leave employees feeling ill-informed, but it can also result in fewer contributions to projects, losing out on potentially awesome ideas, and even duplication of work.
Using digital tools like Trello, Asana, or any other team planning software can manage workloads, keep everyone up-to-date, provide real-time updates, and streamline communications. When using these types of tools, try to give individual team members access to as many channels as possible, including vital areas for projects they are involved in.
As well as this, aim to provide virtual meet-ups as regularly as possible. This gives everyone a chance to catch up, and it also enables in-depth project discussions and thorough answers to pending questions.
5. Engage in video calls and messaging
When remote working, emails can start to feel a bit disconnected. Having face-to-face calls or real-time messaging is a lot more personal, and it’s important to have a tool that’s specifically for work purposes.
Using a communication tool that’s rich in features means teams can speak face-to-face over video, share documents, send real-time instant messages, talk about projects and solve problems, and make sure everything runs smoothly. There are plenty of options available for this, such as Zoom or GoToMeeting.
With sustainable strategies and support in place, loneliness and isolation amongst staff can be managed - it's just about ensuring employers are doing their bit to support staff. It’s important to recognize that this is an ongoing process. This means learning to navigate the reality of remote working. It also means providing adequate care and support and ensuring employees maintain a strong work-life balance.