Keeping Connected During Crisis and Beyond: Reducing Isolation for Remote Workers
A year into a pandemic that saw millions of Canadians shift to remote work, isolation remains one of the top concerns for employees working from home. Without the regular watercooler talks, coffee chats, lunch breaks, and in-person team meetings, many employees who regularly had social interactions with coworkers continue to experience a lack of connection. These employees may face greater mental health and productivity challenges than they did pre-pandemic.
Remote Work is Here to Stay
Organizations who thought remote work was temporary may need to make long-term changes to their workplace culture to help employees stay connected beyond the crisis. Of the five million employees who started working remotely during the first lockdown, over 2.4 million Canadians who normally do not work from home were still doing it in October (RBC, 2020). RBC economists report that not only do most Canadians want to work at home at least some of the time, but also that this culture shift is coming whether employers want it or not (Better Dwelling, 2020).
With remote work becoming a mainstay for many working Canadians, employers should consider how they can continue to reduce the impacts of isolation and improve relationships between coworkers and managers over the long haul.
New Remote Workers Are Feeling Less Connected
Without in-person interaction, employees rely on good workplace culture to provide them with a sense of belonging, value, and purpose. According to researchers’ analysis of emerging workplace trends in 2021, surveyed employees ranked workplace culture higher in importance than job security, benefits, and even income (O.C. Tanner, 2020). Employees, particularly Gen Z employees, reportedly most valued a sense of community, connection, and wellbeing. However, a study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that two out of three companies struggled to keep up employee morale during the pandemic and one third said maintaining company culture was a struggle (O.C. Tanner, 2020).
A new study by Stoneside of over 1,000 remote employees show how social interactions have shifted since the pandemic began.
- Over one in four respondents said they felt less connected to their coworkers, and about 30% said the same about their managers.
- Almost 56% of respondents said that the pandemic had strained their relationships with coworkers.
- About 43% of respondents who did not work from home prior to the pandemic reported less interaction with coworkers.
- Workers who primarily worked in person prior to the pandemic were three times as likely as those already working remotely to report worse workplace culture since the pandemic began.
Why You Need Your Work Friends
Research shows that social interactions are linked to employee happiness, productivity, and mental health. Ho Kwan Cheung, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Albany, says that work friendships are “what give people a sense of belonging in their job” (BBC, 2020). Organizations that encourage collaboration and foster peer support not only improve their employees’ everyday experience, but they add more value to their bottom line (Morneau Shepell, 2020).
In addition to increased employee happiness and engagement, positive workplace relationships facilitate “organizational learning, cooperation, effectiveness, and employee loyalty (Rosales, 2015). High-quality connections in the workplace also have the power to “energize people with vital resources to do their work well” (Rosales, 2015).
On the other hand, employees with poor social interaction may experience negative outcomes. A survey from Boston Consulting Group found that more than half of respondents who started working from home during the pandemic reported a drop of productivity in collaborative tasks (BBC, 2020). Of those who said they felt less connected to their coworkers since the transition to remote work, 80% also reported being less productive.
Isolation has also been linked to poor mental health. A study by Morneau Shepell showed that employees who reported excellent mental health were less likely to feel a sense of isolation at work (11%) and employees who reported extreme or very poor mental health also reported high isolation at work (47%).
What Can Remote Employees Do?
- Find “watercooler” moments. Make an effort to create little moments in your day to chat. This could be a few minutes chatting to a coworker while you wait for other members to join a video call, or it could be a simple “How was your night/weekend?” at the beginning of the day.
- Create separate chat rooms. Make a space where you can talk about your personal lives, share photos, make jokes, and check-in on everyone’s well-being.
- Engage in social interactions outside of work. Keep in touch with coworkers through social media or phone calls, if appropriate. Talk about things other than your job!
- Contact your emotional supports when you are going through a challenge. Ask for help – call a distress line, call your EAP, or talk to a healthcare professional if you are distressed or not feeling like yourself.
What Can Employers Do?
- Develop a strong psychological health and safety program.
- Check in regularly with employees. Look for signs of distress. Your employees may not know how to ask for help.
- Promote open door policies. Let your employees know you are accessible and encourage them to come to you with feedback or questions. Listen to your employees with empathy, attention, and respect.
- Encourage social interactions. Include icebreakers in your virtual meetings, arrange social events like virtual happy hours or coffee chats, and invite your team to participate in photo challenges.
- Encourage team collaboration and communication. You may choose to assign teamwork or involve your staff in decision-making opportunities to help them feel involved and engaged.
- Offer mental health resources. Provide employees virtual training on ways to improve mental health and reduce isolation. You can also request the assistance of an Occupational Therapist to help employees find tools and strategies to deal with loneliness and isolation.
How Can Gowan Consulting Help?
Occupational Therapists are the ideal mental health professionals for supporting your employees. Their knowledge of the workplace allows them to help modify jobs and environments and give employees to tools to develop personal strategies. They are not just talk therapists—they are activity and strategy-based and they empower employees to take ownership of their function and productivity. They practice work-focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which is an evidence-based approach to ensuring that employees can have better self-care and resiliency.
Gowan Consulting is a national organization with more than 150 Occupational Therapists across Canada. We provide Occupational Therapy coaching virtually and onsite. Ease of access and proactive onsite or virtual support ensures that employees can stay at or return to work.
More Tools for Employers
- Our virtual office ergonomic assessments are now ON SALE for a limited time! Now until April 30th, get $100 off – that’s only $300 for a virtual ergonomic assessment! Make a referral here to take full advantage of the deal.
- Check out our new Working from Home Series! We are offering live sessions as well as a webinar bundle deal to help you get a fresh start for 2021. Our webinars cover mental health, home ergonomics, tips for working during COVID-19, and more. Get the webinar bundle for yourself or for your whole organization! Our next live session is Mental Health, Resiliency, and Stress Management and it will be taking place on February 24th from 1:00 to 2:00pm EST. Get $20.00 off your next live session or the bundle when you sign up. For more information, you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Manager Mental Health Training is now running all year long! Get a full list of dates and more information on the sessions here.
- Want more training? Nancy Gowan will be a keynote speaker at Infonex’s 20th annual Managing Your Duty to Accommodate professional development event! This conference is specifically designed to guide HR, legal and disability management leaders discover best practices for the employer’s role in the accommodation process in today’s rapidly evolving workplace environment. The event takes place March 30-31. Find out more here.
Anxiety patterns in Canadians mirror progression of pandemic, CAMH, December 15, 2020, https://www.camh.ca/en/camh-news-and-stories/anxiety-patterns-in-canadians-mirror-progression-of-pandemic
Navigating 2021: 21 Charts for the Year Ahead, RBC Economics, December 8, 2020, https://thoughtleadership.rbc.com/navigating-2021-21-charts-for-the-year-ahead/
Rosales, Robert M., “Energizing Social Interactions at Work: An Exploration of Relationships That Generate Employee and Organizational Thriving” (2015). Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) Capstone Projects. 86. http://repository.upenn.edu/mapp_capstone/86
Morneau Shepell finds employees would accept lower pay for enhanced well-being support, Morneau Shepell, January 28, 2020, https://media.morneaushepell.com/English/news/news-details/2020/Morneau-Shepell-finds-employees-would-accept-lower-pay-for-enhanced-well-being-support/default.aspx
Why your in-office friendships still matter, Kate Morgan, BBC, September 30, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200925-why-your-in-office-friendships-still-matter
Building Company Culture From Home, Stoneside, 2020, https://www.stoneside.com/resources/articles/building-company-culture-from-home
Positive Relationships In The Workplace, Michele Hellebuyck, Mental Health America, https://www.mhanational.org/blog/positive-relationships-workplace
RBC: Majority Of Canadians Want To Work-From-Home, And It Will Change Cities, January 12, 2021, Better Dwelling, https://betterdwelling.com/rbc-majority-of-canadians-want-to-work-from-home-and-it-will-change-cities/
5 Culture Trends for 2021, 2020, O.C. Tanner, https://documentcloud.adobe.com/link/review?uri=urn%3Aaaid%3Ascds%3AUS%3A35f4d752-9d29-4bf5-9216-54aa3ee014d6#pageNum=2