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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Employees are lonelier than ever. Here’s how employers can help.

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By Constance Noonan Hadley

Rising rates of loneliness among employees during the pandemic have put worker well-being top of mind for most companies as they map out the future of the workplace. They know that loneliness can bring health problems, reduced productivity, turnover and burnout.

As companies craft their return-to-work strategies, they should keep in mind that while increasing face-to-face interaction may be beneficial in some areas, it will not, by itself, create strong interpersonal bonds among colleagues. If it did, my research with Mark Mortensen wouldn’t have shown such high rates of employee loneliness in the period before the shift to social distancing and remote work.

Whatever form the return to the workplace takes, building high-quality connections will require a focused set of structures and practices built on a bedrock of psychological safety. Here are five important elements to consider:

  • Look out for the invisible enemy: Employees don’t advertise their loneliness. Objective markers like team membership or someone’s degree of extroversion don’t reveal it either. Loneliness at work is an entirely subjective internal belief that few people truly know you or would support you in time of need.

Employees themselves may not even recognize that they’re lonely. For example, an executive recently came to me with what he thought was a motivation problem. “When I took my new job last summer, I was excited about the pharmaceutical industry,” he told me. “But six months later, I’m really unmotivated. I guess I really don’t like this industry or job as much as I thought.” When we unpacked his dilemma, it became apparent that his waning motivation was related to the social context in which he performed it. Working on a small team embedded in a large department, he had plenty of professional ties, but didn’t feel genuinely connected to any of his colleagues. Upon reflection, he realized he lacked social fulfillment at work.

  • Understand psychological safety: Psychological safety is the perception that a given environment is conducive to interpersonal risk-taking. Employees are unlikely to speak up unless they know that they’ll receive positive reinforcement from leaders and colleagues for doing so. Similarly, people are unlikely to reach out to colleagues to connect interpersonally without a psychological safety net.

Going beyond superficial workplace relationships can be risky, because true intimacy involves some level of vulnerability — for example, the disclosure of something private or emotional to someone else. My research and advisory work has shown that employees of all levels and backgrounds frequently cloak their inner worlds—not just their negative feelings and experiences but also their positive ones. As a health care executive said in one study, “I feel like our system is a little bit impaired in that way. It’s not a real safe place.…It’s just like, identify your supports and stick with those and otherwise keep it under wraps.” Such perceptions exemplify how essential psychological safety is to facilitating those first vulnerable moves toward bonding with someone else in the workplace.

  • Orchestrate empathy: Organizations are increasingly turning to scripted social interactions to facilitate the creation of psychological safety. For example, some companies are holding empathy workshops designed to help team members articulate their emotional responses and establish connections with other participants. Others are orchestrating social support and empathy in alternative ways. Researchers at the University of Michigan and Notre Dame, meanwhile, are studying the use of gratitude circles at a restaurant chain. Before the lunch shift, employees gather in a circle. One member is randomly chosen to stand in the circle, while peers describe aspects of that person that they like and admire. Early results indicate that gratitude givers and receivers can emerge from this practice feeling more connected.
  • Design for higher interdependence: Although workshops and exercises can help kick-start high-quality connections, they will not solve loneliness in the long term. As we return to the office full time or adopt hybrid models, much of the advice about preparing teams still applies: Reestablish the team’s mission, set explicit interaction norms, consistently enforce them, create a shared team identity, make processes transparent, stabilize membership and reduce cross-team switching costs. These steps will promote a strong foundation for team effectiveness. However, for deeper relationships within a team, additional structural changes may be necessary. As a financial firm leader remarked, “I have realized that just adding more social time to our team’s calendar this fall won’t create the depth of relationships we want. We really have to rethink how we approach the team’s day-to-day work.”

Key aspects of teamwork to consider when designing for relationship building are collaboration and social support. Working in parallel or merely passing the baton from one teammate to the next is unlikely to create as many opportunities for true connection as more integrated forms of collaboration. For example, I recently encouraged the manager of a health care organization to take a pulse-check of her team as she considered plans for the return to the office. To her surprise, she found that while team members were satisfied with their individual work products, they felt disconnected and disengaged as a team. Her team consists of brilliant scientists, whom she had incorrectly assumed were fine on their own. Galvanized by the prospect of losing one of these valued employees, this manager quickly devised structural changes in how the team operated, including creating more opportunities for her reports to develop work jointly.

  • Reinforce relationship risk-taking: Another element that needs to be reconfigured is the performance-management system. Companies need to increase the benefits, as well as reduce the risks, associated with reaching out to others at work. This means noticing and rewarding people for making the first move and for responding supportively to others’ outreach. For example, Microsoft found that companies that provide bonuses and promotions for internal relationship-building activities also had employees with higher levels of job satisfaction and happiness. These types of extrinsic rewards are crucial to reinforce the importance and legitimacy of company efforts in the eyes of employees.

Long before the pandemic led to the forced physical separation of employees, workplace loneliness was growing. Without a new approach to facilitating relationships at work, employee isolation and disconnection will continue to grow—regardless of whether people are back in the office. The post-pandemic transition provides the perfect opportunity to put the structures and rewards in place to facilitate a more connected work force.

Constance Noonan Hadley is an organizational psychologist.

Image courtesy of PEXELS.COM | Andrea Piacquadio

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