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How to Beat Loneliness in Remote Work

Even before the pandemic, worker loneliness was a major public health crisis. The situation today is more troubling still.

By Darryn King

May 10, 2022

The other epidemic

Even before the events of two years ago, pervasive loneliness was doing serious harm to workers’ health and happiness. In 2019, three in five Americans (61%) reported feeling lonely, with 53.7% saying they did not have good relationships with their coworkers.

Former surgeon general Vivek Murthy described the situation as an “epidemic,” noting that loneliness is not only strongly linked to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, but impacts physical health too.

Today, the state of worker loneliness is even more troubling. The rise of remote work has left many workers feeling disconnected from their teams. Even the term “remote work” itself carries with it the suggestion of unmoored isolation.

But so-called remote workers don’t have to feel remote. For one thing, improved work-life flexibility allows workers to spend more of their precious time with people outside of work: friends, family, and loved ones. The freedom to work remotely also means that workers are no longer forced to uproot their lives, relocate, and disconnect from their personal communities.

Beyond that, it is possible for distributed orgs to create a real sense of belonging at work, and allow individuals to feel like part of a larger team. It requires conscientious effort and perhaps a change of perspective: that it’s not so much about counteracting loneliness as actively promoting connection.

Encourage extracurricular chatter.

Colleagues gathering around the water cooler to discuss sporting results or the previous night’s episode of Game of Thrones — it’s a workplace cliche. It’s also an incredibly important ingredient for the success and wellbeing of a team.

In other words, small talk plays a big role at work.

Even when the subject of conversation itself is trivial, informal interactions contribute to a sense of belonging. They also help instill psychological safety, which is associated with higher levels of knowledge sharing, more giving and receiving of support, and an increased likelihood to discuss the stuff the matters.

These kinds of interactions occurred naturally in and around the office, the byproduct of people being in close physical proximity. For decades, workplace design, too, has contributed to informal encounters between colleagues.

But working in a digital workspace with a distributed team shouldn’t mean having to go without these kinds of interactions. Hint: Water cooler conversations don’t require an actual water cooler.

What better place for chatter than your org’s chat tool of choice? Particularly when crucial work-related conversation is kept elsewhere, your instant messaging application is the perfect venue for non-work conversation. Users can create topic-specific channels where they can share photos, scatter emoji, bond and banter over, well, everything that people talk about when they get together. These channels can be the basis for any number of thriving micro-communities.

The range of potential topics is limited only by the extent of your team’s collective interests and imagination. Here are some examples:

#furry-friends

#work-soundtrack

#bon-appetit

#plant-playground

#weekend-plans or #weekend-adventures

#cutefeed

It’s important that none of this should feel like work: team members should be free to opt in or opt out of channels, and chime in asynchronously.

The same chat tool can enable less public, one-on-one interactions too. The made-for-Slack app Donut, for example, introduces teammates via direct messages and suggests conversation starters. (Since the app launched in 2016, Donut has made more than ten million connections across 20,000 companies.)

Employee user manuals or READMEs are not just a useful means for workers to share their working styles and preferences. They should also be a space for sharing hobbies, interests, and obsessions, past experiences and future aspirations, thus offering another opportunity for team members to connect, bond, and simply learn to see each other as rounded human beings. (As Ultranauts CEO & Founder Rajesh Anandan said on the subject, “With a simple search, I can find someone who’s also into, you know, deep house music.”)

While not every interaction can or should be profoundly deep and meaningful, it’s about giving workers an opportunity to recognize and appreciate the richness of each other’s life experiences — and, in turn, have their own rich life experiences recognized and appreciated.

Make meetings more meaningful.

Whatever the actual agenda, meeting with your team inherently creates connection. “Fascinatingly enough, seeing each other for even five to seven minutes has a huge impact on morale,” Suki CEO Punit Singh Soni told us. “You can see you’re all in it together.”

At the same time, meetings are an expensive use of time and energy, and limiting a meeting to discussion of work alone is a missed opportunity to build empathy, trust, and rapport.

This is particularly the case for meetings between managers and their direct reports. Remote managers require strong interpersonal and socio-emotional skills, and the ability to build and nurture personal relationships with team members.

But meaningful team bonding can occur even in larger group meetings. Done well, they will make the meetings themselves more entertaining and appealing in general.

A pre-planned ice-breaker or warm-up question is a simple way for colleagues to connect, while also priming a meeting for rigorous discussion. These can be designed to be short and sweet or more discursive, and range from the purely playful to the politely probing (or utterly ridiculous).

What is your go-to karaoke song?

What was your favorite cartoon growing up?

What’s your current obsession?

Are you a cat person or dog person?

What’s your pet peeve at work?

To more frankly invite vulnerability and empathy, you might ask team members to volunteer something sweet along with something sour about their workday or work week. (The actual category titles are flexible — try roses and thorns, or peaks and valleys.)

A show-and-tell or grab-the-mic feature, or similar segment where one employee assumes the spotlight for a few minutes of a meeting, is also an effective and entertaining way for team members to learn about who their colleagues are outside of work. (The same concept can of course be executed async — in a few paragraphs in your weekly internal memo, for example.)

You’ll note that these ideas are in considerable contrast with Zoom happy hours, which typically emphasize unfocused small talk, are dominated by a few individuals, and now lack all novelty value they may have once had.

Spend time together in person.

It’s part of how our brains are wired: we want to connect with people face-to-face. Studies show that on a physiological level, interacting in person is more impactful, and more conducive to feelings of genuine connection.

A remote-first, async-first company get-together may seem like a contradiction in terms. In fact, long before the pandemic, remote-first companies would invest in regular team off-sites and company-wide retreats.

As many would attest, a retreat is the surest way of fostering meaningful friendships between colleagues, and a very conscious investment in a company’s health and culture and future resilience. (You might justify the expense as being far preferable to paying up to $74 per square foot of office space.)

Given that most work communication occurs between members of the same team, retreats present invaluable opportunities to forge new inter-departmental friendships. On an Automattic company retreat, for example, software is used to organize seating arrangements at dinner, grouping together workers who haven’t met yet.

Co-working/offsite weeks are suitable for sprints: short periods in which a team works to complete a specific project or set amount of work. Other retreats can feel more like group vacations. The right balance of work and play will depend on the organization and the situation. In either case, there will be an emphasis on sharing meals, sharing stories, sharing one another’s company, and ultimately sharing a sense of being a single, cohesive unit.

Get proactive about organized team activities.

It turns out you can do a lot more with videoconferencing software than videoconferencing. Even before the pandemic, remote teams were coming together online for structured team building activities being offered by professionals.

Today, there’s no shortage of businesses offering organized team building activities catered to distributed teams. These might be gaming-oriented (escape rooms, scavenger hunts, murder mystery parties, trivia contests, bingo), wellness-oriented (meditation, yoga), or more focused on learning something new together (cooking or mixology classes, guest lectures, soap-making). Or, the activity might be for pure entertainment value (stand-up comedy, magic shows).

Not that the activity has to be limited to Zoom. Super Mario Party tournament, anyone?(Among Us is also a popular choice for work teams.)

“When you’re laughing together and having a fun, shared experience,” Shuai Chen, founder of Patchwork Adventures, told us, “you’re awash in pleasure neurotransmitters and bonding chemicals: serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin.” Additionally, the more gaming-oriented activities can nurture certain skills, such as collaborative problem solving, that are directly analogous to the workplace and may come in handy in a professional context.

Dr. Connie Hadley, an organizational psychologist, suggests that teams can find ways to learn together. “For example, bringing in a guest speaker to explain the metaverse and then brainstorming new ideas for related products and services,” she said. “Or assigning team members into dyads or trios to ‘teach’ the rest of the team something of personal or professional interest to them via prerecorded videos. Or taking a lesson from MBA classes and do a simulation or case study to trigger new forms of experiential learning.

“Essentially, the idea is to create forums in which there is a chance to learn, laugh, and chat together. Doing something novel and purposeful together in a low-pressure environment is one of the best ways to create a deeper connection between people.”

But there’s a caveat. “None of these interventions will work if people do not believe the intention behind them is sincere and inclusive,” she said. “Which means, don’t just tack these events onto 60-hour work weeks and expect people to with a smile. Moreover, don’t expect all the junior people to go but let the senior people off the hook either. If these activities are going to work, they have to be thoughtfully integrated, promoted, and reinforced.”

Create more connected ways of working.

Work itself can be an antidote to loneliness. Work systems can be intentionally designed so that each employee understands how their work is intrinsically connected to the work of her colleagues.

In that regard, it would be hard to overstate the power of a sense of shared purpose. Workers are happier and more motivated when they have a clear understanding, not just of the company’s broader objectives, but how their individual efforts contribute to the greater whole. It’s up to leaders and managers to provide that clarity.

Also beneficial is the ability to have genuine insight into other aspects of the organization. Transparent processes and workflow, in which team members are uniquely aware of each other’s work — and aware that their own work is visible — amount to a kind of psychological common ground.

Successful remote orgs also develop rituals for recognizing team members’ wins, achievements and milestones. Recognition rituals can be as simple as a chat channel dedicated to giving kudos, or a regular awards segments at all-hands meetings. The most important thing is promoting a company culture where great work is acknowledged and celebrated.

Finally, an essential part of guarding against loneliness is a commitment to inclusivity that permeates every aspect of the organization. Your org must design programs, policies, and activities that make each employee feel genuinely heard, seen, appreciated, and supported.

Of course, the org must respond swiftly to accusations of bias, harassment, and discrimination. There are other further considerations: Are religious and cultural holidays acknowledged and observed? Are team bonding activities, that may be stressful for some team members, offered on an opt-in or opt-out basis? Are team members empowered to share their pronouns? Are work processes themselves inclusive? (For example, do your regularly scheduled meetings reflect a timezone bias?)

For a company to be truly inclusive requires commitment and vigilance. The chief reward is a team of workers who can bring their whole selves to their work.

Get out into the community.

There’s another way that companies might foster a sense of shared purpose among employees — and do some good in the world. As GitLab Head of Remote Darren Murph told us, remote companies are uniquely placed to tap into “company culture” time to get workers involved in their respective communities.

“Instead of getting everybody together for a Zoom happy hour, that time could be much better spent by deploying everyone into their own communities,” said Murph, “getting them to spend that hour doing something meaningful to them.

“If you have 10 people all going out to various neighborhoods in New York, that’s awesome. But imagine if you have people all over the world contributing to their communities. Everyone wears their company swag and takes a selfie. You can create a mechanism so that it’s all shared back in the workplace, maybe at next week’s meeting or stand-up.”

Promoting prosocial activity will help employees feel connected to one another, while also encouraging them to forge connections with their communities.

Not to mention the benefits to the wider world too. As Murph said: “The impact could be just amazing.”

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