Loneliness is a growing public health issue around the world.
This problem isn’t unique to the isolating circumstances of the pandemic. In 2018, the UK appointed the world’s first Minister for Loneliness, spurred by findings that more than 1 in 5 adults felt lonely all or most of the time. In the same year, studies from the University of Swinburne suggested that 1 in 4 Australians are feeling lonely regularly.
Why is loneliness becoming more prevalent? There are a few common theories. More people are living alone than ever before, some people may be substituting authentic connection for time on social media, and – of course – the pandemic has exacerbated existing feelings of loneliness with enforced social isolation.
Another source of loneliness in our lives can be the way we work. Despite the office working population having a great response to remote work (our report found that up to 94% of people would like to continue remote work for at least one day a week), it also triggers a risk that needs to be tackled head-on – the condition of remoteliness.
What is remoteliness?
Remoteliness is a feeling of loneliness experienced when working remotely. In absence of the bustle of the office, workers can begin to feel isolated and disconnected from their colleagues and organisation.
Even though there are so many things that people like about the remote working model – our report found that the thing we most missed about the office related to our colleagues. 54% of our survey respondents said they missed being able to easily speak to coworkers, and 44% said they missed the sense of camaraderie with their team.
Like regular loneliness, remoteliness is a very subjective feeling depending on the individual. You can feel it mildly or deeply, and it can have a small or significant impact on your life outside of work. Some people may be able to spend long amounts of time alone and never feel a sense of remoteliness, for others, it may appear soon after they enter a remote work environment.
What are the impacts of remoteliness?
The knock-on effects of this condition can be wide-ranging. Someone who is experiencing a small amount of remoteliness might find it more challenging to communicate with others and may lose some enthusiasm for their work.
Someone who is feeling large amounts of loneliness in any context can experience very serious health impacts. According to the Black Dog Institute, loneliness can have extensive mental and physical health impacts, noting that “increased blood pressure, cholesterol and risk of developing cardiovascular disease, plus reduced brain function, are all long-term side-effects of loneliness.”
As Mind suggests, loneliness in itself is not necessarily a mental health problem – but it can lead to or be heightened by mental conditions. Loneliness has been associated with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, sleep problems and increased stress.
How can leaders tackle remoteliness?
So what can managers, HR professionals and employers do to reduce feelings of remoteliness in remote or hybrid workforces?
Keep regular communications and chatter
For desk workers, it can be easy to become consumed by tasks and deadlines. When we’re busy at work – especially when we’re doing it in a home space – a reason to connect casually with colleagues might not appear.
When you’re working remotely, keeping up the communications with colleagues has to be intentional. This can feel a little awkward at first, especially if you’ve recently made the switch to remote working – which is where getting into a routine can come in handy.
Set up a group chat with your team and say hello when you jump online in the morning. Something as simple as sending and receiving a “Morning ☕ Hope everyone has a great day!” can help everybody remember that even though you may be working separately, you’re still working as a team.
There’s so much value in general chatter. Asking people what they’re up to and sharing details of your day can have a huge overall impact on the virtual ‘vibe’ of your workplace.
Casual chit-chat is so much easier when you have a company-wide instant messaging system. If you run a business with remote staff – make sure you have one set up!
The Employment Hero team uses Slack for our internal communications. We’ve also rounded up some other options to check out.
Encourage ‘face-to-face’ contact
As a key factor of regular communications, try to host a meeting at least once a day to keep up the ‘face-to-face’ contact. Create a ‘cameras on’ culture and lead by example.
Yes, it can feel a little bit ‘dystopian future’ knowing that you’re talking to a laptop all day – but it’s important to give and receive as many of those body image cues as possible. It’s much easier to connect with someone when you can see their face, and video calls can also be a great conversation starter – whether that’s about a funny background or something unique about their home office.
Talking to someone with a camera on when yours is not can also create an awkward or unfair dynamic – so try to make it general practise to keep cameras on.
Organise virtual activities
We get it, the prospect of hosting some kind of online event can be a little daunting. After all, everyone’s been to a shocking virtual activity that has left them feeling more awkward than to begin with.
But organising some kind of virtual get-together is well worth it to ease remoteliness and boost a sense of connection. It’s a great way to get to know each other’s personalities, interests and communication styles. This can be a great substitute for in-office interactions.
One important thing to remember… If an activity would feel weird or awkward in real life, it’s going to feel twice as awkward in a digital space. If the idea of an office disco fills you with dread, what would make you think it would be any better online? Please discard any ideas of dance parties and sing-a-longs – you’ll thank me later.
So what are some good ideas for online activities? Start with something easy to break the ice – like a simple quiz or a chat about favourite TV shows. From there, schedule a regular discussion or games session. If you’re struggling for ideas, find 39 right here.
Start digital clubs
An important part of fostering an online culture is to meet people where they are. Loneliness can often lead people to become self-conscious. When you shine a light on their personal interests, this can give them the confidence to engage.
By facilitating online groups, you empower your team to build meaningful connections over what matters to them. This can fast-track friendships at work which can have a significant impact on loneliness.
Leaders can get behind digital clubs by helping founding members set up chat channels, connecting like-minded individuals, and allowing staff to dedicate a small portion of their working time to club activities (just as you would if your office had a soccer team that played one afternoon a week). You could even help out established clubs with a small budget – like giving a book club money for a seasonal read.
Keep up one on one check-ins
It’s hard to identify remoteliness in your team when you’re only seeing each other in big meetings or catching up over instant messaging.
Every manager should have a weekly or fortnightly meeting with each of their direct reports, where they have ‘face-to-face’ discussions. This is time dedicated for the employee to talk through how their past week or fortnight has gone, as well as commit to things for the future.
One-on-ones (1:1s) are a powerful management tool that can enhance trust and productivity, but they can also help managers identify changes in behaviour. If the junior person over time becomes withdrawn, gives increasingly short responses, or seems preoccupied – it could be a signal that they are feeling a sense of remoteliness.
The confidential nature of the 1:1 then gives managers the opportunity to reach out to help. With an established sense of trust, it is hopefully considered to be a safe space by all for transparent conversations about wellbeing.
Celebrate personal and professional milestones
Shouting out birthdays, sharing photos of newborns, highlighting work anniversaries. These are moments that are worth celebrating.
When we highlight special times in our colleagues’ lives, we draw our teams closer. These events aren’t just meaningful to the individual – making them feel seen – they’re a great way to start conversations and the perfect excuse for virtual get-togethers.
When you recognise milestones, you don’t just reduce the mental distance between your team members, you also create impactful cultures. In our recent blog on supporting working parents, one of our own parents highlighted the importance of celebrating family life in helping everyone in the team feel accepted and appreciated.
“[At Employment Hero] we celebrate people who are falling pregnant, we celebrate when someone gives birth,” says our team member Brigid. “It speaks to a culture where having kids is not only accepted but it’s also celebrated, which is still not common practice.”
Get together in person when you can
Before remote working, colleagues were forced to be physically together all the time. Throughout the workday there would be endless group meetings and constant small talk, which could be incredibly disruptive.
In many of these in-office formats, spending time socialising can sometimes feel like just another thing on the to-do list – adding more time together with colleagues that you’ve been working with all week. Even for the most extroverted among us, this wasn’t always a welcome proposition.
When we’re working remotely, time spent together in-person takes on a whole new value. Physically present get-togethers become exciting, novel and fun – a great chance to interact with colleagues and socialise.
Remote teams are often distributed, and there can be costs associated with getting everybody to the same location. So single out a couple of times a year to get everybody together. Maybe you go with the classic Christmas and EOFY party, or maybe you come up with unique reasons to gather. Make it special – whether that’s with dinners, games or time in a special location. Your team will benefit from the event itself and they’ll also have something to look forward to during ‘remotely’ days.
Invest in an EAP
When you’re feeling lonely or isolated, sometimes you just need to talk your feelings out. In a professional environment, even if you’re the most approachable manager, most staff won’t want to have a long conversation with you about their mental health.
What they need is the ability to have a third-party person to speak to, confidentially – and you can help give that to them. An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a counselling service that companies offer to their staff as a benefit. Your team can access the EAP free of charge, giving them access to mental health professionals who can help them unpack their experience.
Remoteliness – and loneliness in general – is a curious thing. It’s not always related to being physically isolated. Just as you can feel lonely when you’re surrounded by people, you can feel comfortable when spending time alone. Often there is a more complex reason for feeling disconnected or like you don’t have the social relationships that you want. A mental health professional can decode these feelings, and help individuals take on coping mechanisms for their circumstances.
Be cautious of social contagion
Have you heard social or emotional contagion? It’s a phenomenon by which people in a home or workplace absorb the feelings of those around them.
Imagine working with a manager who’s extremely pessimistic. Through their messages, emails and video meetings – you can start to pick up and take on their energy. You can start thinking like them, and subconsciously their negativity can seep into your own mood.
No one’s perfect, there will be days where you feel sad and over it, no matter what your rank in the company is. But if you’re consistently bringing a sour, blunt or distant approach to your work, it’s likely that your team will take this on – and this could spur them to withdraw from the social aspects of working.
Take care of yourself first. When you bring your best self to work, you create the best environment for your staff to feel positive, comfortable and hopeful for the future.
Taking on a new working style can be disorienting in itself, but when you add the stress of a pandemic and months of mandated self-isolating? It was never going to be easy.
While we’re huge advocates of remote working, it’s ok to admit that sometimes working alone can be challenging. We’re firm believers that you can be cautious and aware of conditions like remoteliness without wanting to return to the office 5 days a week.
Mastering any working style takes adjustment. Through empathy, effort and time – we can build a sense of togetherness in any environment.