Over the past several decades, connections with our work colleagues have become increasingly virtual and electronic in nature. Whether "shooting the breeze" occurs in a cubicle, or via instant messaging with an associate sitting across the room — or whether it occurs with no face-to-face interaction at all, because of the many people now working remotely –the social phenomenon of gathering around the water cooler has dwindled.
And the result of this social shift? It's making employees lonely, and impacting employees across the board, from entry level to executives.
Blame the evolution of communication channels, whereby work is so often now completed virtually via text and email — with a video chat or phone call falling into the category of a last resort.
In businesses' continuing quest for increased productivity, meetings are structured around bullet-point agendas, and small talk is limited to the moments before the meeting organizer arrives. What's more, there's that issue of teammates working remotely, in another office or even another country.
All of this has fostered a slow-creeping but nevertheless growing trend, with the result being the shrinking social dynamics of the American workplace. What's arisen is a new business reality that’s being coined “Corporate Loneliness.” And it’s crushing morale, productivity and impacting employee happiness at work. So, what can leaders do?
Is workplace loneliness really an addressable issue?
While little formal research has been done on how this loneliness affects productivity in the workplace, there’s an increased awareness that it is real. Earlier this year, British Prime Minister Theresa May created a new Minister for Loneliness post, and one of America’s foremost physicians, former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, identified workplace loneliness as an emerging health issue that business leaders need to address.
Humans are by nature social animals and feel most fulfilled when verbally communicating, or using non-verbal cues, or learning, feeling valued, trusting and sharing a laugh with others face to face.
What actions can be taken?
At first, it would seem that HR executives and other business leaders are in a bit of a quandary. How can they embrace the competitive advantages digital communication channels provide, while supporting the essence of what makes their valued employees, well, human?
It’s easy to assert that office environments are already suitably vibrant and teeming with social contact and interaction opportunities. However, those studying the phenomenon suggest there is a genuine difference between the passive human “touch points” the digital world has established — comprised of witty out-of-office notifications or the latest memes being shared over company email — and quality human relationships.
To achieve those quality human relationships, here are steps companies can take:
Foster collaborative teams.
While it’s easy to rely on apps like Slack to help coordinate team productivity in the workplace, it’s important to build-in some face-to-face interaction as well. Launches and project completion celebrations are great for pulling members of the team together. So are post-mortems. The idea is that the players get to know one other, connect faces to online personas and participate in handshakes and smiles. Encourage your teams to meet so that individuals can get to know one another in the flesh.
Make it a point to celebrate individual employee milestones.
Birthdays, engagements, marriages, births, a new hire’s first day and final days before retirements are events that should not pass unheralded.
These milestones are perfect opportunities to gather employees together and acknowledge people's accomplishments, outside the office as well as in. Monthly staff meetings are a great time to commemorate these life events. Make the act of recognition an integral part of your company culture. It will help lonely employees understand that others do see them as actual people, not just a name on an email header.
Develop a company-mentoring program.
In an attempt to satisfy the professional development needs of all generations in the workforce, many companies have started building employee mentoring programs that match rising stars with experienced professionals. In a structured and well-managed program, mentors and their protégés share knowledge, help each other grow, and (in the best relationships) definitely share a few laughs as mentor and mentee get to know each other on a personal level.
It’s that kind of personal knowledge that helps a mentor provide the best guidance based on an understanding of how career decisions will impact the mentee as a person. Employee mentorship programs promote personal bonds that eliminate loneliness and create a feeling of community in the workplace, which increases employee engagement, retention and professional growth.
Offer informal social spaces at work.
In workplace environments that feature hoteling and hot seating, it’s important to provide informal spaces where both resident and nomadic workers can step away when necessary. These lounges provide an arena for face-to-face communications, whether it’s business related or just a quick social chat during a coffee break.
This can be as simple as throwing a couple of bean-bag chairs into a break room or setting up a corner with couches and loungers. The idea is to create safe, neutral spaces — away from the rigid conformity dictated by cubicle etiquette — where employees can flex a bit, socialize, brainstorm or take care of personal matters.
In an age when communication takes place on a mobile screen, via the written word or through data sent wirelessly around the world, promoting genuine engagement and battling corporate loneliness will cut down on employee turnover and create the type of culture that will attract top talent at all experience levels.