What Our Research Says About How to Mitigate Loneliness at Work
The Surgeon General's 2023 advisory raised the alarm about the epidemic of loneliness, and with most people spending one-third or more of their lives at work, it’s unsurprising that the workplace would play a major role in mitigating or exacerbating those feelings. At the same time, leaders continue to make headlines about mandates to get their remote-capable employees back to the office. Many cite culture and connection as reasons for wanting their teams back in person, and this data reveals that they aren’t all wrong. Perhaps predictably, fully remote workers are the most lonely. What might be less predictable is that fully on-site workers come in second when it comes to feelings of loneliness, while those in a hybrid working arrangement boast the smallest number of “very lonely” employees. The bottom line? Proximity isn’t enough to build human connection.
Perceptyx has previously reported on the advantages of a hybrid work environment for employees. Our latest report, Loneliness as an Organizational Crisis: A Persona-Based Approach to Navigating Through the Silence, extends those findings to feelings of loneliness. One could argue that this arrangement offers the best of both worlds: the autonomy and independence of remote work, coupled with the social interaction and camaraderie found in physical environments. This balance seems to produce the Goldilocks scenario for professional loneliness: the conditions are just right to facilitate optimal connections among employees.
But it would be overly simplistic to declare hybrid work as the universal solution for workplace loneliness, particularly when we take into account that only about half of all workers are remote-capable. However, employees continue to demonstrate that when given the flexibility to manage their time, they can be equally productive and retain vital connections to teammates.
Our study found that opinions on the role of the office in combating loneliness are divided. Those who report feeling very lonely tend to believe that being in an office would alleviate their sense of isolation. Conversely, individuals who identify as somewhat lonely do not think that an office environment would make a meaningful difference in their emotional state. In addition, those who spend at least some time in the office are more likely to increase that time if they could be guaranteed it would result in stronger feelings of connectedness.
Another counterintuitive finding comes in the realm of meetings — a common and frequently maligned aspect of corporate life. The data suggests that individuals who have a higher number of meetings report increased feelings of loneliness. At first glance, this seems paradoxical. Aren’t meetings a form of social interaction that should theoretically mitigate feelings of loneliness? However, the nature of most meetings — often transactional — may not provide the kind of organic social interactions that humans require to feel truly connected.
In remote environments, meetings have increasingly become checkpoints, rather than connection points. They can become geared towards information transfer or a way for managers to “lay eyes” on their teams, rather than an opportunity for genuine human connection. In addition, compulsive over-scheduling often means team members are participating in back-to-back meetings, cutting off any non-essential chatter before it begins. The lack of emotional exchange can create a sense of isolation even in a room full of people.
With that in mind, here are some strategic tips tailored to each work setting to mitigate loneliness and foster a sense of community and connection, as well as some best practices for ensuring that everyone attending a meeting feels like they belong there.
Office Setting: Cultivating Connection On-Site
In a traditional office setting, the presence of co-workers and the buzz of office life can be double-edged, offering the potential for connection but also the risk of isolation amid a sea of busy people. It’s also clear that the pandemic changed some workplace customs, where people arrive at the workplace and work independently, closing office doors, or eating alone. Combating loneliness in this environment can be approached in the following ways:
- Facilitate Social Interactions: Create common areas where employees can naturally congregate, socialize, and unwind. It's time to consider bringing back the cafeteria space or other leisure spaces and encourage folks to gather for casual interaction beyond work-related tasks.
- Host Community Events: Organize regular events such as team lunches, after-work socials, or interest-based clubs that encourage staff from different departments to mingle and bond over shared interests.
- Create Mentorship Programs: Develop mentorship programs where employees can build one-on-one relationships that foster both personal growth and a sense of belonging.
- Identify and Encourage Volunteer Opportunities: Encourage group volunteer projects that not only contribute to corporate social responsibility goals but also allow employees to connect with one another and with the broader community.
- Practice Inclusive Meetings: Revamp meetings to be more interactive. Encourage participation and ensure that every voice is heard, fostering a culture where everyone feels valued and connected.
Hybrid Setting: Balancing Autonomy and Affiliation
Hybrid settings — the least lonely, according to our research — provide a unique opportunity to address loneliness by offering both independence and the option for in-person interaction. Here are strategies tailored for hybrid environments:
- Scheduled Office Days: Coordinate in-office days for whole teams or departments to ensure everyone can interact face-to-face regularly.
- Purposeful Collaboration Points: Ensure that those who work together can come together at regular intervals to collaborate towards a common goal. Even short bursts of in-person time can make virtual collaboration more productive.
- Virtual Water Cooler: Implement virtual spaces or times where employees working from home can connect with their on-site colleagues for non-work-related conversations.
- Hybrid Events: When planning company events, include virtual participation options so remote employees can join in real-time, ensuring inclusivity.
- Empathy Training: Provide managers and team leaders with training on how to recognize and address loneliness, encouraging them to create personalized check-ins and offer support for both in-person and remote team members.
Remote Setting: Bridging the Distance
Remote work can significantly heighten feelings of isolation, making intentional efforts to connect crucial. Strategies to combat loneliness in remote settings include:
- Regular Check-ins: Managers should establish regular one-on-one video calls with remote employees to discuss not only work matters but also personal well-being.
- Virtual Hangouts: Create scheduled times for virtual hangouts where team members can chat informally, share personal news, or engage in group activities like online games or happy hours.
- In-Person Get-Togethers: Find ways for remote-only workers to spend time together periodically. Whether that’s regional meetings or an all-company meeting, small bursts of in-person interactions will go a long way to encouraging relationships that can be maintained virtually.
- Collaborative Workspaces: Utilize collaborative tools and platforms where team members can work together in real-time, providing a virtual space for the spontaneous exchange of ideas and casual interactions.
- Digital Detoxes: Encourage periods where employees can step away from the screen to avoid digital fatigue, which can compound feelings of isolation.
Each work setting presents unique challenges and opportunities in the quest to combat workplace loneliness. Leaders and organizations must be proactive and creative in their approach to fostering a sense of community.
Redefining Meetings to Foster Genuine Connection
Our finding that increased time spent in meetings can correlate with feelings of loneliness reflects a significant gap between the quantity of interactions and the quality of human connections. To bridge this gap, we recommend reevaluating how meetings are conducted in your organization. Here are some tips and best practices to transform meetings from mere transactional gatherings into opportunities for genuine connection:
- Set Purposeful Agendas
- Define Clear Objectives: Ensure each meeting has a clear purpose beyond just a routine check-in. If a meeting is meant to foster team connection, state it explicitly in the agenda.
- Limit Meeting Size: Keep the number of participants to a minimum necessary to achieve the meeting's goals, allowing for more meaningful dialogue.
- Incorporate Time for Personal Connection
- Check-In: Begin meetings with a brief personal check-in, allowing each participant to share something about their day or current mood.
- Dedicate Social Time: Allocate time at the beginning or end of the meeting for non-work-related conversation, emulating the informal chit-chat that occurs naturally in an office setting.
- Rethink Remote Meetings
- Encourage Presence: Beware of multi-tasking becoming a badge of honor. Fewer and more purposeful meetings allow for more focus and participation.
- Limit Side Conversations: Quick digital messaging during the meeting can further separate groups into factions, rather than building team connection. Consider whether you would whisper your comment to a neighbor in a conference room or whether raising the issue to the full group is a better choice.
- Cultivate an Inclusive Environment
- Rotate Facilitators: Rotate the role of meeting facilitator to give everyone a chance to lead and contribute to the group dynamics.
- Encourage Participation: Create a safe space where all attendees are encouraged to contribute, ensuring that quieter team members have the opportunity to speak.
- Emphasize Quality Over Quantity
- Evaluate Necessity: Regularly assess whether recurring meetings are still necessary or could be replaced with a different form of communication.
- Be Mindful When Scheduling: Avoid back-to-back scheduling that can lead to cognitive overload and a lack of space for informal interaction.
- Consider Interactive Formats
- Utilize Breakout Rooms: In larger meetings, use breakout rooms to foster small group discussions, allowing for more intimate conversation.
- Embed Interactive Tools: Make use of interactive tools like live polls or whiteboards to create a collaborative atmosphere.
- Incorporate Follow-Up Mechanisms
- Be Clear About Action Items: Assign action items and follow-up steps to maintain a sense of progress and joint accountability.
- Use Feedback Loops: Implement a feedback mechanism post-meeting to gather insights on the meeting's effectiveness in connection and productivity.
- Leadership by Example
- Build Emotional Intelligence: Train leaders in emotional intelligence to recognize and address the underlying emotional needs of their teams. This is where an AI coaching product like Perceptyx’s Cultivate Intelligent Coaching can prove invaluable, consistently prompting leaders to address positive feedback to all team members regularly.
- Practice Transparent Communication: Urge leaders to share their own challenges and encourage others to do the same, normalizing vulnerability.
- Focus on Professional Development
- Plan Skill-Building Sessions: Occasionally transform meetings into skill-building sessions, which can be more engaging and provide a shared learning experience.
- Enlist Guest Speakers: Invite guest speakers to stimulate new ideas and discussions, breaking the monotony of routine meetings.
By adopting these practices, organizations can restructure meetings to serve as platforms for authentic human connection rather than contributors to a sense of isolation. It is through these meaningful exchanges that employees can feel truly seen and heard, countering the loneliness that can permeate even the busiest meeting schedules.
Perceptyx Can Help You Address Loneliness Wherever Your People Work
Regardless of whether you're trying to determine which well-being resources your potentially lonely employees need, or merely want to understand the efficacy of your existing approach to foster belonging and connection in the workplace, Perceptyx’s People Insights Platform delivers listening solutions and data-driven insights to guide your organization’s approach. To learn more, read the full report, or schedule a meeting with a member of our team.