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​Overcoming Isolation and Loneliness During the Coronavirus Lockdown

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Remote working has quickly become our new normal. In this environment, business leaders must be aware of the impacts not just to their operations and bottom lines, but to their employees. As humans we are creatures of habit and generally prefer our routines. With our common practices being disrupted so completely, there will inevitably be an impact not only to productivity, but our personal well-being. Some will thrive in this new normal, but many will struggle to adapt.

While sitting here in self-quarantine along with the rest of the country I came across an interesting quote regarding the fine line between loneliness and isolation. At first blush, use of the two terms seem interchangeable, but there is an important distinction between the two. In essence, loneliness refers to an emotional state of being, while isolation is more structural in nature.

While loneliness can occur for many reasons, I think we can all agree that isolation would only make dealing with loneliness more challenging. For the thousands of organizations who have accelerated their adoption of telecommuting business models in recent weeks (including The IIA), leaders could benefit substantially by focusing on establishing a clear distinction between these two concepts so that we may develop solutions for each.

Let's start with isolation. When I say isolation refers to structure, there are three key components — connectivity, access, and control:

  • Connectivity – the ability to share thoughts and ideas with others as well as to listen to what others have to say. The need to continue to give and receive feedback.
  • Access – the ability to get to the information and resources needed to get their job done as effectively and efficiently as possible.
  • Control – the ability to still feel the freedom to work at their normal pace without being micro-managed because they are remote. In the office, we regularly get up to grab a coffee, use the restroom, chat with our colleagues, or simply stretch our legs. Employees should not fear being judged for getting up and missing that poorly timed chat message from their boss.

When these needs are not met, frustration will build and productivity will drop. The good news, however, is that these are management and technical challenges (rather than emotional) that can be solved with proper top-down foresight from leaders. Some quick questions internal audit might ask business leaders (and themselves) might include:

  • What are the telecommuting protocols in place in your organization?
  • Does the organization have technology in place to allow people to connect and interact easily?
  • Are there tools and processes in place that maintain open lines of communication between employees?
  • Is there an open feedback loop available that allows employees to voice when their needs are not met?
  • How is your organization's culture adapting to a remote environment? Is management clamping down out of fear of change or are they embracing change and finding new ways to manage effectively?

These questions and many others will linger far after the current state of affairs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2005 and 2015 the number of telecommuting employees increased 115%. Ready or not, telecommuting is here to stay, and if you haven't already adapted you will be left behind.

Once the technical aspects related to isolation are covered, then organizations can turn to addressing the emotional triggers that cause loneliness. Although the social atmosphere of an office structure can't be perfectly replicated, a little ingenuity by way of technology can go a long way. Since we began telecommuting, I have found my team is actually interacting with each other over our video communications more than we ever have in person. If I could share a little personal anecdote that has proved quite popular, we have been hosting "virtual happy hours" where everyone in my department is getting together to share quarantine stories and a few laughs in a virtual setting — while enjoying their favorite refreshing beverage. Regardless of how the issue is tackled (virtual happy hours might not be for everyone), it is critical that people working together feel connected in some way and that there is at least a modicum of normalcy in their work life.

Business leaders also should be fully prepared to reach out more than they normally would. Don't be afraid to tell people in these trying times how much they are appreciated, that they are not some cog in a greater machine, that their work has a real, tangible value to the organization that cannot be replaced. Send some positive emails, make some calls just to say hi and see if there's anything you can do to aid them, recognize good work in group chat functions, and never make someone feel bad because they missed your chat message. During this lockdown, I'm lucky enough to have my family nearby (whether they consider themselves as lucky being stuck with me is up for debate), but there are several people in our workforce who rely on office interactions as their primary source of human connection. As leaders, we have to make sure that void is filled any way we can.

When isolation and loneliness are left unchecked, it leads to fear — fear of not having a job to come back to, fear their hard work is pointless, fear of the general unknown as we wait to see what the coming months bring. We should consider it imperative within our organizations to not let things get to that point. Isolation and loneliness do not have to be issues if we address them head on. A little planning, communication, and, most importantly, empathy goes a long way. 

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