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We really need to discuss feeling isolated at work

Feeling isolated at work

We probably need to have more frank discussions about feeling isolated at work.

Let’s frame this up to start. Seems that would be helpful. In the past five years, especially in North America, here’s what we’ve seen:

Meanwhile, globally we’ve seen the “I am engaged with my job and co-workers” figure fall to 15%. So 85 out of 100 people working don’t feel that way.

Think about this: for most people, much of their time in the middle 30-40 years of their life is spent in some connection with work. We have evidence that friends at work is a more powerful motivation than salary, and so is receiving gratitude from others at work.

The other wrinkle here: remote work is on the rise, as is automation. That means more people will be out of a job, and/or away from a base HQ with other co-workers, than ever before.

Do you see how feeling isolated at work is on the rise — and quickly? We should probably cover off on this for a second.

HBR tackles feeling isolated at work

In fact, it’s their new cover story. There are a lot of good segments to this article (it’s long), including:

Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity. But we haven’t focused nearly as much effort on strengthening connections between people as we have on curbing tobacco use or obesity. Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making. For our health and our work, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly.

I think we just found the first problem.

How would most organizations tackle feeling isolated at work?

** Raises hand **

“Yes, Ted?”

“Well, I would assume there would be a loneliness task force put together. It would likely be owned by HR. They would meet a lot, and gather some data — potentially not even the right data. A few times near key deadlines, some other fires would flare up. Because it’s HR, they’d have to fight those fires, cancel those meetings about loneliness, and delay that a few months. 17 months later, not much will have been done. Now if engagement scores are down, a consultant will come in. They will call more meetings, ask for more data, and periodically put out different types of fires. So now, about 30-36 months after someone first thought to tackle the loneliness issue, nothing has been done. I would also reason to guess turnover has increased during that period, which has hurt the bottom line, but no one has directly tracked that for some reason. How did I do?”

“That’s decently accurate.”

What would be a better way?

There would be one thing you’d need to understand above all else:

Despite what sales documents tell us, you cannot solve people issues with technology.

Technology in a work context is designed as a productivity tool. The way engineers (who make that tech) think about productivity is through “friction-less” experiences. “Friction-less” experiences involve less human connection. It’s almost the entire point.

Think about this: if you build a performance review system and want to sell it, you need to capture the “pain points” of those who might buy it. The real “pain point” is often “My recruiters need to spend less time talking to these moron candidates.” So that’s how it’s designed. The sales page might say “Full-to-full ecosystem designed for candidate experience that will boost your brand,” but what it means is “OK, you can communicate less, overall do less, and make the same amount of money.”

So feeling isolated at work is a huge problem, but solving it with tech is a bigger one. “Engagement platforms?” Take the coding might that designed all of them and start them to work on universal basic income. We’ll need that sooner than a new engagement platform.

But how can people help with feeling isolated at work?

Just a few off the top of my head:

  • Talk to your co-workers
  • Go to lunch
  • Plan shared activities
  • If you have direct reports, drop in on ’em
  • Make friends (don’t sleep with!) people in other silos
  • Have knowledge-sharing events to bring people together
  • Happy hours
  • Friday all hands on funny topics and not just returns/biz stuff
  • Try to be cognizant about what’s going on with the people around you
  • Be a human being

We solve this problem with us, not with software. 

The other side of the isolation coin

Let’s run down a few words quickly.

Sandy Hook.

Aurora.

Orlando.

Las Vegas.

You know what they all have in common, right?

OK, so put aside whether we should call them “terrorist” events or not. Big topic, but ultimately semantic.

Now put aside the gun control stuff. Huge topic, but never getting solved the way we think on it now.

What would motivate someone to kill 20+ people at once?

Easiest answer is “they’re crazy” or “they snapped.”

Both potentially true.

What if one of the reasons was how isolated they feel from the bonds of society?

If you watch most Newtown interviews, no one knew who Lanza was. Even people that sat in classes with him.

Does this condone Lanza?

No.

But it partially explains it.

What makes us human is connection. 

You lose the connection, you’re not human.

A sub-human kills 50 people with a gun from a 32nd-floor balcony. A human doesn’t.

Now, this is a tenuous application back to work at best, but we spend a lot of time there.

When the human connection is cut off and all we do is end up feeling isolated at work, productivity is gone.

So even if all we care about is money, money comes from productivity — so you need to reduce feeling isolated at work to find more of the money.

What else might you add on this whole idea of feeling isolated at work?

Ted Bauer

2 Comments

  1. The “How would most organizations tackle feeling isolated at work?” section is eerily close to a push we made at our workplace to increase employee engagement over the past year and a half.

    Also, to your point about the futility of designing a tech solution to solve people problems (great insight that these systems are usually flawed in concept—built on the premise that people are stupid and engineered to alleviate folks’ inability to simply talk to people), may I present Exhibit A: ZipRecruiter. It hurts me to hear podcast hosts I otherwise respect read their awful, awful copy on air.

  2. People often seem to confuse introverts with loners. The need for socialization varies considerably among people. Some crave fellowship, yet never really learned how to achieve it. Given the vast spectrum of needs for companionship, it is very difficult to gauge the need with any particular individual. And there are enough emotional sponges out there that too often we hesitate “to get involved.”
    I realize this is no answer to the issues, but it seems to me that everyone could do a little better at social outreach and perhaps break the cycle of those who go pathological or suicidal simply because they feel left out.

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