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How to Help Your Team Fight Social Isolation

By Kate Rockwood | June 10, 2020 | Rally Health

The videoconferencing kinks have been ironed out, schedules have settled down, and productivity seems to be OK. Yet even for those companies in which working from home seems to have settled into a new normal for employees, the fear of job loss and the threat of business disruption can be pervasive sources of stress. 

“Employers must realize this is not remote work as usual,” says Ravi Gajendran, PhD, a professor of management at Florida International University. “These are unusual circumstances.”

Kids at home, sick relatives, or simply going stir crazy may all pull your employees’ attention in a variety of directions, and take a toll on their mental well-being. Being at home also means your employees are missing the social aspects of office life, such as connecting with friends and co-workers in the hallways or over lunch.

According to Owl Lab’s 2019 State of Remote Work report, 59 percent of remote managers were worried about their team members’ experiencing loneliness — and that was before COVID-19 forced an unprecedented number of people home.

“Loss of informal conversations and colleagues’ social support means people may be feeling isolated,” says Cathleen Swody, PhD, organizational psychologist and founding partner at Thrive Leadership. “Loneliness and sadness chip away at employee mental health, and employees who feel disconnected are not going to motivate themselves or give their best effort.”

 Fortunately, it’s possible for employers to help foster connections from afar, and lessen the negative impacts of social isolation while your entire team is WFH.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

From small talk at the coffee maker to a quick question lobbed over a cubicle wall, office days are filled with informal communication. But much of that informal interaction disappears in a virtual setting.

“As leaders, we have to be more intentional,” says Kevin Eikenberry, founder of the executive leadership firm Kevin Eikenberry Group. “We've got to make sure that we’re picking up the phone, or even better, turning on the webcam, not just for the team meeting but also with individuals.”

When everyone’s remote, it’s harder to tell who is stressed or distracted or feeling disconnected. Communication can clue managers in, but only if there’s lots of it. So consider the following:

  •  Does it make sense to turn weekly 1:1 meetings into a daily event?
  •  Would that company update shared by email also benefit from a virtual meeting to address questions or feedback?
  •  Is now the time to host open-door office hours, in case people need to chat?

“Leaders often assume that communication is happening more than it actually is,” Swody says. Now more than ever, they need to let their team know when they’re available, and set norms around how to communicate.

Be Human

While inquiring about a team member’s personal life may have been considered forward when life was business as usual, COVID-19 is understandably blurring the lines between home and office. Managers need to find ways to (respectfully) convey their concern for their employees’ total well-being, not just their ability to meet deadlines. Commenting on a pet or art piece visible in the video conference frame may provide an opportunity for colleagues to connect on a more human level.

“Employers have sort of become armchair psychologists,” says Gajendran. “They need to create opportunities in their conversations with employees to ask about how they’re doing, how their family is doing, and how they’re coping with the situation. Sending the message that you care about them as a human being, and care about their life circumstances, is a powerful way in which managers can be supportive.”

When Eric Santa, Rally’s CRO, noticed that employees’ kids would often playfully drop into the team’s video meetings, he wasn’t concerned about the disruption but worried that some parents seemed on edge, or even embarrassed. Rather than ignore the kids, he addressed them head on, by hosting a family meeting. Santa’s youngest son presented slides on what Rally is and what the kids’ parents are doing all day, and then other kids in the audience could introduce themselves. Over two virtual sessions, roughly 40 employees participated. 

“One of the most popular was a woman who had trained her dogs to bark in a specific way to the sound of a doorbell,” he says. “The other kids in the meeting loved that.” The family sessions were a big hit: Santa noticed that, with their curiosity about the calls slaked, kids seemed to be popping into fewer meetings. 

Creating virtual spaces for team members to connect as people — away from work — can also help stave off feelings of social isolation, says Timothy Golden, PhD, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Lally School of Management. One technique he points to is virtual lunches, in which co-workers take a break (or even take a walk outside) without chatting about task lists or projects. “It’s helpful to avoid feelings of isolation and build trust,” he says.

Embrace Empathy

In this new work-from-home normal, your team members may be acting as employees, spouses, parents, and caregivers all at once. Expecting employees to maintain the same levels of professionalism, productivity, and availability can leave them feeling more isolated and alone, Gajendran says. “Having empathy for employees’ unique circumstances is so important to creating connection,” he says.

This doesn’t mean putting all responsibilities on pause, but rather being flexible with expectations so that employees can feel empowered to get their work done under new circumstances, says Swody. 

“Motivated employees will find a way to accomplish goals if they feel supported and they have flexibility to take care of their other responsibilities,” she says.

Put new best practices on the table, whether it’s shifted communication norms, flexible work hours, or a reshuffling of team responsibilities. Asking employees to brainstorm solutions not only generates more buy-in, but helps them feel more connected to the team as a whole, she says.

Remind Them of Resources

Employers may have a wealth of resources available for their teams, but if people don’t know about them or have forgotten about them, they won’t do much good.

“Assumptions are not communication,” Swody points out. “Deliberately encourage employees to take care of themselves and remind them of the resources you have available for them.”

For many companies, that means spotlighting an employee assistance program — not just its existence, but perhaps a video tutorial on how to access it or what it’s good for. “Remove any barriers and make it easy for people to use those things,” says Eikenberry.

Also remind employees that each of them can be a resource to one another. By dedicating an internal messaging channel like Slack or Microsoft Teams to all things nonwork, you can encourage your employees to share tips and tricks that are helping them work remotely, from recipes and child care hacks to Wi-Fi troubleshoots. 

Here at Rally, the well-being team uses a dedicated Slack channel to promote campaigns and resources from team members. The team also maintains a comprehensive list, called Rally Together Resources, that spans both employer-sponsored benefits and peer recommendations, curated from the Slack channel. “There’s naturally a sense of community and conversation that arises around posted topics,” says team member Claire Pouliot.

Employers can prompt engagement with daily themes, photo challenges, or polls to get the conversation going. Think of this as a way to leverage your stellar company culture and bring it online, Eikenberry says.

“Encourage people to rely on each other and ask each other for help,” he says. Both the person seeking and the person offering guidance wind up getting something: connection.

Humans are naturally social creatures, which means it can be tough to fight feelings of isolation when everyone is working solo and maintaining distance. But with a bit of planning and some proactive outreach, it’s possible to foster a sense of community among teams and remind employees that they’re in this together.

Note to our readers: This information is being made available as a free resource to the public. It is not an endorsement of any of the consultants, services, games, or websites mentioned. These individuals and organizations have not solicited Rally Health to be included in the article and Rally Health receives no compensation from them.

Kate Rockwood
Rally Health