Before COVID-19 began to spread, about 4.7 million people, or 3.4% of the U.S. population, worked remotely. With the current pandemic this number has easily doubled, if not tripled.

While remote working is a positive trend and can certainly limit the spread of germs, save costs, attract top talent, improve productivity and engagement and make a business more competitive, it can also feed a growing trend of human loneliness, amplified by the ease of remote consumerism, online education and other technology-facilitated transactions.

Humans evolved from tribes, and meaningful human contact remains at the core of our emotional and psychological well-being. However, as remote living and working accelerates, more and more people will find themselves isolated, with technology being their closest companion—households of one being at the highest risk.

“Coronavirus is accelerating working from home, a trend that was already happening in many businesses and organizations. According to our Modern Workplace 2019 report, 41% of employers now offer some form of remote working and we expect that figure to be even higher in our next report, due to be released in April,” explains Lynda Lowe, group marketing director at Condeco Software.

“New technology has enabled companies to offer employees this flexibility and that means that even in the midst of a global crisis businesses can carry on productively with limited impact in a secure and collaborative way. Threats to business come from many areas but those companies that are using technology to maximize their productivity already, including the ability to meet in a virtual meeting online or book desks, workspace or meeting spaces from a remote location, will find it easier to ride out disruption,” Lowe adds.

While the advance of technology is certainly a plus for businesses and individuals alike, it can also be a critical liability to our emotional and psychological well-being if it fails to support our most basic human needs. To address declining social well-being stemming from alarming increases in anxiety, depression and suicide, organizations, leaders and innovators must be intentional and mindful about fostering meaningful human connections in all they do and create. Below are five ways to begin.

Check-Ins

DaVita, the Fortune 200 kidney dialysis company where I worked, understands the importance of meaningful human connection in the workplace. Before the start of most meetings, the leader of the meeting asks a “check-in” question. In some cases, this may be a fun question like, “What is your favorite childhood memory?” or “What is your top life hack tip?” In other cases, meeting attendees may be asked to choose a picture of a weather condition or a potted flower in various conditions, including hanging over the side or out of its pot altogether, to illustrate how they are feeling at the moment.

Whatever the particular check-in question, the goal of the exercise is to start all meetings with a personal connection before diving into the business topic at hand. Not only can this action be fun and lighten the mood of the physical or virtual room, it gives co-workers a chance to connect and get to know one another on a personal level.

Safe Sharing

As celebrity suicides painfully highlight, loneliness can occur in a sea of millions. It turns out that having people around you or connected to you on social media is not necessarily the answer when it comes to feeling supported by others. In fact, if the human contact you have is not meaningful, it can have little or no value to your well-being. This includes eye contact and safe, non-judgmental conversations about how you are feeling at a particular time.

Leaders or organizations who dismiss the need for creating a safe place for employees to share personal issues at work could not be more wrong. Research by Bensinger, DuPont & Associates has proven that personal problems negatively affect the performance of nearly 50% of employees, causing absenteeism and concentration issues. Such issues flow directly to the bottom line of an organization.

The first step toward solving personal problems is often having someone to simply discuss issues within a non-threatening environment. Recognizing the importance of creating this safe place—for organizations, communities and the world—leaders and public figures are increasingly talking openly about their feelings, emotions and life challenges. This gesture of vulnerability is helping to build trust in organizations and communities by making others feel safe to share things that may be upsetting to them. This ability to share or release the pressure valve on a strained mind can sometimes be the difference between a healthy life and death.

It is important to create live or virtual forums where leaders and co-workers can openly listen to, support and share challenges with others. Creating this safe place to express oneself when needed gives those who spend part of their workdays stressing about their lives in silence a newfound focus, leading to higher productivity and engagement, better work quality and higher levels of customer care.

Video Meetings

Platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Skype, Zoom, HopIn and others make human connections, eye contact and the reading of nonverbal communications and body language possible for remote workers or events. In fact, studies show that something as simple as direct eye contact produces a chemical called phenylethylamine in the body that is a powerful stimulator of love and affection. Despite this, research has found that people look at each other only 30% to 60% of the time when interacting.

One recent example of how effective virtual conference platforms can be was illustrated on a panel I was on for a global event called Hacking HR. The event was over three days, had 11,000 attendees and was entirely virtual. Despite the nature of the event, attendees could see all presenters and panelists, and dialogue flowed freely on a user-friendly chat bar. It was a stellar event enjoyed by attendees around the globe from the comfort of their own homes or offices.

While some dislike the idea of having a camera on them, especially in their homes, most people will become more comfortable with this meeting style the more they do it. That said, additional support from an organization or leader can be helpful in improving a teammate’s experience. Such help should include:

  • Training employees to effectively participate or present on video and use web tools (e.g., internet speeds, computer settings, lighting, camera angle, sound quality, and web tool functions).
  • Allowing employees to come as they are to virtual meetings, whenever possible. One of the benefits of working from home is that you can work comfortably in perhaps a pair of shorts or sweats and a T-shirt. As long as clothing is appropriate and not distracting to others, don’t make employees dress up to sit in front of a computer.
  • Starting with a fun “check-in” to relax people—perhaps have meeting attendees share something of personal significance to them in their home office or home.

Virtual Watercooler Chats

If you have ever worked in a physical office, you know the benefit of the impromptu watercooler or coffee maker conversation. You often learn things, discover an organizational change that opens up career opportunities, form lasting relationships or even find your life partner. However, when you are working remotely, you don’t need to miss out on casual learning or relationship opportunities.

Innovative global leaders like Christina Dove at Mercer have figured out ways to maintain hallway conversations even where no hallways exist or there is a need to bridge oceans across the world. “One way I have personally adapted is having virtual ‘watercooler chats’ with my global team,” Dove shared.

Dove’s “watercooler chats” are times scheduled on a shared technology platform where remote team members can hop in and out of chats or video streams virtually to have casual conversations with co-workers. These informal virtual meetups are an effective way to help co-workers stay connected on a more personal and meaningful level. Sessions can be scheduled at certain times throughout each day or virtual platforms can be available anytime someone wants to take a break. The key to these sessions is that they remain free of structure or rules mirroring the casual hallway, coffee machine or watercooler chat.

Social Time

For all workers, but especially for those who are working remotely in individual contributor roles, it is important to get live social interaction throughout the workweek. This could be in the form of one-on-one video “check-ins” with a manager or other teammates, invites to work in the company’s offices or in a co-working space throughout the week, or scheduled social gatherings with co-workers, family or friends on a recurring basis.

Setting reminders on your phone or computer or scheduling regular calendar time for social interactions, exercise and proper meals can be extremely beneficial for remote workers to ensure they are leading lives that keep their minds, hearts and bodies healthy.

Organizations can also support social connection by instituting a formal “buddy program.” Such programs match co-workers so they can look out for one another. Whether the pair is a new hire and a tenured staff member or two long-term co-workers, having a buddy in the workplace can help co-workers stay connected and feel part of something larger than themselves. In addition, research has found that having a friend in the workplace helps employees be more engaged and perform better.

Through the use of technology, organizations may in the future find innovative ways to measure and ensure meaningful human interaction, learning more about how such connections correlate with workplace morale, well-being, health insurance claims and overall business performance.

With the cost of doing business rising and global competition increasing (not to mention unforeseeable events like the emergence of the novel coronavirus), the trend of remote working and living will only continue to hasten. This movement can remain an encouraging one if authentic leadership and cultures that foster meaningful human connections are embraced.


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