As we inch closer to the one-year anniversary of millions of Americans working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one surprising new reality human resource managers and employers are seeing in their workplaces is workplace loneliness. In this article, we’ll look more closely at the concept, and what employers can do to help ease these feelings of isolation.

What is workplace loneliness?

When you hear the term workplace loneliness, do you think of it in the sense of being geographically disconnected from the workplace? Or do you think of being emotionally isolated from your colleagues? Both scenarios apply.

Workplace loneliness is when an employee feels isolated or disconnected from their coworkers and their role in an organization. Whether the loneliness is due to geographical or emotional disconnection, it’s a big deal for employers.

The Harmful Effects Of Employee Loneliness

“We find support that greater workplace loneliness is related to lower job performance; the mediators of this relationship are lonelier employees’ lower approachability and lesser affective commitment to their organizations” (Ozcelik & Barsade)

In many cases, lonely employees are:

With almost a third of employers reporting no strong relationships at their places of employment, workplace loneliness is a big deal for employers. It’s clear that employee loneliness is a bad thing—but how to go about recognizing it? First and foremost, managers should be paying attention to all employees—especially those who seem distanced from the rest of the team. Because loneliness can be difficult to recognize (sometimes people just generally prefer to be left alone and are not actually lonely), it’s important for managers to do frequent check-ins in various ways: face-to-face, surveys, casual chats, etc.

What causes workplace loneliness?

While there’s no single root cause, workplace loneliness typically appears in the following situations:

  • When a new employee comes on board
  • When an employee is bullied
  • When employee personalities clash. Someone sitting next to a shy, introverted employee may assume they are disinterested and ignore them as a result. While this disinterest may appear intentional, it rarely is; it’s important to recognize all types of personalities and encourage intermingling.

The above situations address workplace loneliness in an in-person environment, but thanks to COVID-19, loneliness caused by geographic disconnection is rising. Even if you aren’t feeling lonely or isolated, it’s easy to forget people when you’re not walking past their offices each day and being reminded to pop in and say hi. But for those who were previously affected by workplace loneliness, these feelings may be especially strong. Sometimes, weeks or even months can pass before you realize you’re only reaching out to certain colleagues only when you need something.

7 Ways To Combat Isolation In The Workplace & Boost Employee Morale

1. Leaders and managers should be hyper-mindful of creating interpersonal relationships however they can.

  • Develop a culture that “requires” small talk.
  • Set aside time each week for the whole company to have watercooler talk for 15 to 30 minutes.
  • Encourage your employees to have independent conversations amongst themselves.
  • Call them to vent about appropriate situations you are experiencing.
  • Have conversations about things other than work, and encourage your employees to do the same.

2. Managers should listen to cues that people might feel completely isolated at work.

Examples to listen for include:

  • Changes in communication (less water-cooler talk/sticks to work-related discussions only)
  • Changes in work productivity
  • Concerns raised by colleagues that something isn’t right with a co-worker
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Decrease in collaboration and/or providing input on projects

3. Company leadership and managers should encourage employee engagement.

For those working remotely, that includes using video tools as often as possible—not just messaging. Prioritizing video as a means of conversation gives you an opportunity to chat about “the small stuff” as well as your work. Additionally, consistent, regularly scheduled team “all hands” or “standup” meetings on video give your entire team a chance to see and communicate with each other.

4. Don’t leave the room until everyone’s engaged in conversation.

Some people are talkers and some people are listeners. However, make a point to engage all people in the room (be it physical or virtual), and don’t end a meeting until you’ve heard from everyone.

5. Create an environment conducive to collaboration.

Whether your team is together in the office physically or working remotely, make interdepartmental collaboration a must for your company. Collaboration between departments or units will give your team the chance to communicate with people they might not get to know otherwise, and can help people make new friendships.

6. Take time to explore your employees’ individual skill sets.

As a manager, spend time learning about each team member’s unique skills and strengths and then putting them to work for the benefit of your department and organization.

  • Have each person lead meetings in a way that showcases their styles of leadership and expertise.
  • Give and find opportunities to be inclusive. (You can do that when you know individual skill sets.) This includes: Engaging employees by asking them for specific feedback perhaps using an example of how they positively influenced something similar in the past, bringing someone in on a work project from another team if they have an applicable skill (like, formatting documents or particular excel skills that could help move a project along), and simply asking for their feedback/opinion on a discussion item in a meeting.
  • Take time during meetings to highlight the ways your employees are contributing and collaborating. (If they aren’t doing it on their own, this allows you to help the process along.) Avoid “dumping” kudos; it’s best to share contributions one meeting at a time so you can give genuine feedback.

7. If you suspect a problem stemming from mental health issues, consult with HR.

Sometimes workplace loneliness is a symptom of something greater. It is up to you to support your employees in whatever ways they need it—which, in some cases, may involve sensitive conversations. Speak with your HR team to see how to best handle these types of situations, and don’t hesitate to speak up if you sense something is off.

Additional Resources

To learn more about providing support to your employees working in-person and remotely, check out the following articles: