In a 2020 US report about loneliness and the workplace, Cigna reported that 40% of people say they feel isolated at work. Lonely workers are two times more likely to miss work due to illness and five times more likely due to stress. Lonely workers are also less productive and churn out lower-quality work than their connected counterparts. What’s more is that these statistics likely multiply dramatically with remote workers who have little to no in-person connection with their co-workers. According to the State of Remote Report which surveyed 3,500 remote workers around the world, loneliness is one of the biggest struggles they face. 

After spending a year interviewing dozens of people around the world about their experiences with loneliness and finding meaningful connection, certain threads emerged in my findings. When asking people what they felt the most important pieces of building connective relationships were, three themes became obvious: empathic conversation skills, ritual or repeated group practices, and significant shared experiences. What also became clear through these interviews was the way that loneliness and strong desires for connection translated to job dissatisfaction – and what can be done to reverse it.

Empathic Conversation Skills
Participants in the interviews found that asking the same “How are you?” and “How was your weekend?” type of questions were leading to – no surprise – equally unfulfilling interactions in their workplace relationships. Many participants commented on the superficial, transactional nature of their workplace relationships. Beyond this, when it came time to have an important or uncomfortable conversation with a team lead or manager, they often withheld their true thoughts and feelings or avoided the conversation altogether. We attribute this withholding of their inner experience to a lack of psychological safety. Dr. Timothy Clark, author of The Four Stages of Psychological Safety, attests in his book that “the need to be accepted precedes the need to be heard.” If employees don’t feel seen or known – beyond their name and job title – by their coworkers or managers, it becomes increasingly difficult to have a skillfully candid conversation about personal and professional things that really matter in the workplace. Again, these types of conversation skills become ever more important with remote teams when the social environment of a workspace isn’t available to foster this inherent sense of connection.

Don’t let the word scare you – ritual is simply a meaningful practice that gets repeated intentionally. Participants in the loneliness interviews commented on a lack of repetition being one of the main reasons they feel disconnected in their personal relationships. Those that did have some sort of ritualistic friendship behavior – such as a weekly phone chat with a friend or renting a lake house with a group every summer – felt those ties much stronger. Implementing ritual in the workplace doesn’t have to mean taking a vacation together; it’s actually quite easy to implement and could be as simple as a daily full-team check in, or a different ritual that celebrates an employee accomplishment.

Remote teams lack casual social moments compared to co-located teams that cultivate social connectivity. Leaders of remote teams must intentionally create space for social connection or else it doesn’t happen. A lack of ritual in the workplace can lead to feelings of aimlessness, disconnection, and disengagement. While rituals might not be the first thing most remote companies think of implementing in their teams, they are crucial to building strong culture and a sense of “This is what we’re about” on a human – not just professional – level. Rituals serve as reminders of purpose, the more purpose a worker feels, the more quality work and engagement they’re going to demonstrate at their job.

Significant Shared Experiences
When describing significant shared experiences, participants often pointed to things like summer camp, study abroad, youth groups, or their freshman year college dorm as communities of people to whom they will always feel connected, simply for the fact that it was a momentous, powerful time in their life. While it’s difficult to objectively determine what qualifies as “significant” for someone, the types of experiences named above point to themes like high quality time spent communally, deeply getting to know others, and getting outside of our comfort zones and normal life.

Companies have the opportunity to create significant shared experiences for their employees – even virtually (or perhaps even more so, with the barriers of cost and travel removed). Virtual team bonding opportunities abound – from facilitators who focus on creating meaningful friendships at work to professional party scientists, there are many ways to bring connection to your team. In the world’s current state of uncertainty, it is crucial that companies focus on creating powerful experiences for their employees to maintain engagement, deepen connection, and feel purposeful. 

Companies Are Communities
Given that so many people – particularly millennials and Gen Z-ers, who will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025 – feel lonely, it should come as no surprise that many workers found their social life at work. With most office spaces being closed for the foreseeable future and perhaps permanently, we stand to lose a lot: the joys and comforts of casual workplace interactions; the oxytocin from a handshake or warm body language gesture; the bonding that comes with seeing a person – in person – every day. With all this gone, the mental health of our workers is guaranteed to suffer. When we reckon with the facts, we see that companies are, and always have been, communities. It’s time to start building our employee connections as such.

Article Written By Kyla Sokoll-Ward.  You can learn more about Kyla here on her LinkedIn Profile