Everyone suddenly working remotely from home comes with many challenges. In addition to being overwhelmed by new video conferencing technologies and collaboration tools—and worrying how to get work done when everyone is on their own island—this new way of working has another side effect: loneliness and disconnection.
Harvard Business Review reported that 40% of employees reported feeling lonely at work—and that’s before the pandemic that forced us into social distancing. Research also shows that loneliness is as harmful to employees’ health as smoking. And if employees were feeling lonely at work before the 2020 global pandemic, imagine how they feel now working alone in their homes.
How can you help employees stay connected during a time of social distancing?
1) Check in daily
Before the pandemic, you may have been able to pop into a team member’s office, grab a minute with them while passing each other in the hallway, or “shoot the breeze” in the cafeteria during lunch, but now you must be more intentional about checking in. All the technology and tools at your won’t work unless employees use them. So check in daily—and not just through email.
Ask the right questions. Instead of “How are you?”, ask “What worries you right now?”. Or rather than ask “What’s new?”, ask “Has anything changed?” or “Do you have the tools/information/resources you need?”. Another great question is “What are you looking forward to this week?” Also find out if employees are staying in touch with their team members. And don’t make it all about work. Just as, in normal times, employees chat and connect on a personal level in the office, do the same while working remote. Share pics of the cookies someone baked over the weekend, video of the kids doing an activity while you are on a call, personal news, and funny stories. Are you battling squirrels breaking into your birdfeeder? Share a video with your team and give updates on your squirrel-proofing progress. It might seem silly or mundane, but your employees will appreciate a light-hearted glimpse into your personal life, just like they would if you were face-to-face at work.
2) Connect to purpose
Employees need to feel like they are making a difference, especially during tough times. They may not be on the frontlines taking care of patients, developing a vaccine, or stocking shelves with supplies, but they don’t have to feel helpless. Share the impact your organization is making on the world, for your customers and community, and specifically connect each employee’s contributions to that purpose.
Don’t think your company’s purpose is inspiring? Then take this time to rethink and reevaluate how you articulate your purpose. Ponder why your organization exists in benefit-to-the-world terms, what would go missing if your company ceased to exist, and then communicate and reinforce that to your people. Employees who see and hear their company’s purpose often are 20% more likely to be motivated by it and 32% more likely to believe their organization positively affects the lives of others (2019 Global Culture Report, O.C. Tanner Institute). Employees may be feeling helpless right now and wishing they could find a way to help. So empower them.
3) Celebrate one another
Appreciation is vital during challenging times, not just because it helps people feel like their work matters, but because it helps connect people to one another and remind us that we are all in this together. Encourage your team members to recognize each other for helping someone out. Send a thank you note for extra effort you’ve (virtually) witnessed. Give formal recognition for employees who’ve stepped up or gone above and beyond during these trying times. And don’t forget employee milestones. Just because you can’t celebrate someone’s 5 or 25-year anniversary in person doesn’t mean it can’t be celebrated virtually. Set up a Zoom team meeting and share stories of that person’s contributions and career from the comfort of your living room. And consider inviting the employee’s family to take part in the celebration. They’re probably in the next room anyway.
Don’t forget to celebrate personal events too. You may get a better picture of employees as people by working remotely—notice their spouse passing by in the background of your video conference or hear their kids on a conference call. You might get to know details about team member’s personal lives through the stories they tell: the run they just got back from, the dinner they are about to cook, the view from outside their window. Use this opportunity to celebrate people as people: their birthdays, personal triumphs, and family milestones.
Social distancing doesn’t have to mean feeling disconnected. By intentionally helping your employees feel connected to a purpose, accomplishments, and each other, you can help them thrive during these potentially lonely times.