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Social Isolation in Remote Work
What does social isolation do to remote employees? How can employers combat its effects?

What Is Social Isolation in Remote Work?

Social isolation is defined as the absence of social connections and is often closely associated with loneliness. In remote work, isolation is ever-prevalent and can be overwhelming. According to Zippia, in 2022 50% of remote employees experienced loneliness at least once per week, 19% say isolation is their #1 problem at work, and 70% feel left out of their workplace. Social isolation can be experienced in the form of physical or mental isolation. Physical social isolation refers to a lack of contact with others due to material barriers such as communication obstacles, distance, or technological impediments. Mental social isolation refers to a lack of a connection with others such as feelings of not belonging, a lack of confidence, or not having an emotional connection with others.

What Are the Effects of Social Isolation in Remote Work?

Being alone can allow us to focus and discover ourselves on a deeper level; however, it can often cause agitation, distress, or anxiety. One of the most challenging effects of social isolation is burnout. A loss of energy or drive tends to occur when employees feel no connection to the organization. Typically, connection to an organization is developed through socialization and relationships with others, so when remote workers are isolated from others, it can be more challenging for them to develop a strong connection with the organization and its mission.

Strategies to Prevent Social Isolation in Remote Work

Social isolation in a remote environment can be challenging for employers to recognize. There are many strategies for not only reversing but preventing it in the first place. Employers can encourage employees to connect, find ways to break down communication barriers that hinder social connection, champion work/life balance, promote unplugging, create opportunities to spend time with employees, vitalize an on-camera precedent, hold events (whether in person or remote), and create perks to incentivize socialization. All of these strategies can be used individually or in conjunction to help remote employees avoid social isolation.

Encourage Employees to Connect

Employers can encourage employees to connect by inspiring dialogue and creating opportunities for employees to form bonds with each other. For example, employers can arrange time in weekly meetings to spotlight individual team members so that the rest of the group can get to know them. Another way employers can encourage employees to connect is to set a precedent of communicating one on one. When it becomes commonplace that when employees have a question for a team member, they hop into a Zoom room together to work it out rather than just discuss it over chat, employees are able to bond with each other in a more personal setting. The best way for employers to encourage social connections is to encourage non-work talk. While most employers believe that work time should strictly be devoted to work topics, there is a time and a place for non-work talk. It allows employees to get to know each other and form stronger connections that help battle social isolation.

Break Down Communication Barriers

One of the most challenging aspects of remote work is overcoming communication barriers. In a traditional in-office setting, team members more easily communicate with each other. If in a remote environment employees’ only method of communication is email, communication will be slow and tedious. Employers can ensure that employees have multiple avenues for quick communication to help employees bond with each other. Additionally, when employers strictly monitor all employee communication, employees become hesitant to talk about anything other than work.

Champion Work/Life Balance

It is often challenging for remote workers to separate their work life from their home life. However, it is critical for employees to have some form of separation between work and home because otherwise work can interfere with strengthening personal relationships and family responsibilities. When remote employees struggle to form work and/or personal relationships, they become even more isolated and burn out much faster. According to Bit.AI Blog, “Creating work-life boundaries is crucial for being able to unplug after work and enjoy well-earned personal time. Without this dividing line, [employees] find [themselves] being exhausted by work and eventually cut off from family/friends and miss out on leisure time.”

Promote Unplugging

In a traditional in-office work setting, there is a clear line between work and personal time. When employees leave the office, their work day is done. In a remote environment, it becomes more challenging to distinguish the difference between work and personal time. When that line becomes blurred, it can be challenging for remote employees to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Employers can help employees avoid burnout by encouraging unplugging. According to Small Business Bonfire, “Unplugging from work refers to being detached or far-removed from anything that has to do with work.” Unplugging includes turning off work devices (phones, computers, etc.) as well as not thinking about it. Employees can still be metaphorically “plugged in” to work when they fail to stop thinking about work outside of working hours. According to Zippia, “40% of remote workers say that struggling to unplug at the end of the workday is their biggest challenge.”

Spend Quality Time With Employees

Not only is it important for employees to form connections with their peers, but also with their leaders. When supervisors and leaders offer their time to get to know employees on a personal level in a remote environment, they fight social isolation. Quality time with employees may come in the form of one-on-one meetings, meetings meant for casual conversation, or simply chit chat while working on a task together.

On-Camera Precedent

One of the greatest barriers to remote socialization is the lack of being able to see and read others. It is more challenging to form a connection and bond with a voice and a picture than it is with a person on camera. Employers have the opportunity to further connect with their employees when they recognize the importance of being able to see each other on camera in virtual meetings as much as possible.

Hold Events

Whether held in-person or online, events are a great way to connect with employees and encourage them to form social bonds with each other. Events should be uniquely tailored to the organization and its needs. The best way to fight social isolation through the use of events is to hold them regularly. Regularly hosted opportunities for employees to see each other in a more casual environment opens doors for stronger relationships. Some organizations hold quarterly in-person gatherings for employees to spend some fun time together. Some offer weekly brown bag meetings for employees to eat lunch together over a video call and chat while they eat. Another option is to offer a monthly game hour for employees to compete and have fun together.

Create Perks That Incentivize Socialization

Although most employees require some form of socialization and opportunity to build connections with their peers, they are often unmotivated to go out and create those connections on their own. One method for incentivizing socialization is to create fun competitions and offer prizes. This encourages employees to come together and socialize during work time when they otherwise would have worked on their own. Some organizations offer competitions with their wellness programs, hold weekly meetings for employees to talk about their wellness goals, and offer contests with prizes for completing wellness tasks. Another idea for incentivizing socialization includes offering a co-working or coffee stipend for employees to do their work from co-working spaces or local cafes every once in a while.

How HR Can Talk About Social Isolation at Work With Remote Employees

Social isolation and loneliness can be a sensitive topic. However, the importance of raising awareness about the issue is often misunderstood. Not talking about social isolation at work can further add to the issue. It is critical for HR to have those difficult conversations and share with employees how they can battle loneliness in remote work. HR can begin the conversation and make it clear that there is support for those struggling with social isolation by first recognizing the effects of loneliness and then teaching leaders how to help employees form personal connections at work. The best thing that HR can do to combat this issue is to ask “Why?” Why are employees feeling isolated? Then HR can identify the root of the issue and fight it at the source.
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Raelynn Randall, MHR, MBA

Raelynn Randall, MHR, MBA

Rae has acquired HR experience in team leadership, research, training, recruiting, project management, and mentoring upcoming HR professionals. She is fascinated by workplace culture and the many implications it has on the world of business, especially HR. When possible, she seeks out opportunities to expand her knowledge and give back to her community.
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Other Related Terms
Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace
Employee Burnout
Employee Emotional Wellness
Employee Financial Wellbeing
Employee Mental Health
Employee Physical Health
Employee Social Wellness
Employee Spiritual Wellness
Employee Trust
Employee Wellbeing
Imposter Syndrome
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Mental Health Days
Occupational Stress
Stress Management
Wellness Committee
Wellness Incentives
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Workplace Wellness
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