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Improving Human Connections To Combat Loneliness At Work: Three Ways To Get Started

The theme for Mental Health Awareness week  2022 is Loneliness. 

Homeworking for many has exacerbated issues of loneliness and the best organisations have learned how to connect well with a dispersed workforce to support that particular issue.  But loneliness is a far more complex topic, and to concentrate only on those who spend a significant portion of the working week alone would be to miss other less visible issues. 

It’s very possible to feel lonely in the middle of a crowded workplace.  Those times when you need someone to talk to but don’t feel able to approach a colleague or manager because you fear the response or lack of confidence.  Friday afternoon banter about weekend plans can unwittingly exclude those who will go home to care for a sick relative and crave connection outside of their current experience.  Loneliness can masquerade as the brave face on the shop floor – “keep calm and carry on folks”, as broad shoulders in the HR team taking on other people’s concerns or even as the entertainer in the canteen at lunch break.   We have become adept at hiding feelings and concerns so as to seem competent, reliable and employable.  Left unchecked loneliness can lead to anxiety, depression and ….. 

Di Gates runs collaboration consultancy Stick Theory and recently launched The Connection Story with partners including Talk Works, to help business leaders build and retain happy, high-performing hybrid teams. Di told us why now, more than ever, connection is important in our working life as organisations seek to address issues such as loneliness.  

As a communications consultant, I’ve spent 20+ years helping organisations grow their brands and build meaningful relationships with the people around them.

In this time, the overwhelming focus of time, energy and money has been on driving customer relationships and improving customer experience – as this tracks clearly to the bottom line. Employer branding and employee experience have often, unfortunately, been the poor relations.

But, in the last 12 months, this has changed drastically.

The collective impact of remote working, Brexit, the Great Resignation and the momentum of the four-day week movement have helped leaders realise that they need to connect more deeply with their employees if they wish to attract and retain good people to help them grow.   

In fact, a recent article in Harvard Business Review suggests that “another way to think of the Great Resignation is as the ‘Great Disconnection.’” It suggests, in line with my own experience, that employees are feeling more disconnected than ever – from their colleagues, their managers, and the work they do. This is bad for people and for profits. 

The same article states that employee disconnection is one of the main drivers of voluntary turnover in the US, with lonely employees costing companies up to $406 billion a year. And the same is true in the UK: the monetised impact of severe loneliness has been estimated as £9,900 per person per year, due to the impact on wellbeing, health and productivity.

So, with business leaders seeing both a business and a human case to combat the threat of loneliness and build better connections at work, where should leaders start? Here are three suggestions:

1. Make changes based on insights, not assumptions

Life and work have been turned upside down in the last two years and the impact of this is different for everyone. Before making any big changes, take time to run a thorough Discovery Phase – listening to the individual needs of your employees and understanding individual contexts. Loneliness and disconnection can have many root causes: an over-reliance on digital platforms, outdated management styles, ineffective team communications, or insufficient support for inductions and promotions. A mixture of discovery techniques can be used, from confidential surveys to user groups and workshops, but the important thing is to ensure your people feel safe enough to be honest, and that they can see how you use their feedback to make and track change. Co-created solutions will always be better than imposed sanctions. 

2. Use Journey Mapping to design your employee experience

In the worlds of customer experience and digital product development, Journey Mapping is a common way to ensure that every moment of your customers’ critical journeys is fully supported and that any pain points are identified and resolved. Journey Mapping can be used just as easily to help design and support employee experiences with the same level of care. 

First, consider what your key employee journeys are – e.g. recruitment and onboarding, joining a new project team, specific occasions like maternity leave, as well as their general day-to-day task delivery. Then, map out what their thoughts, feelings and actions are along these journeys, what company touchpoints track alongside these, and where there may be points of loneliness or other unwanted pain points. What solutions could you put in place at these points? How could you better interact and communicate with your people on a more human level when needed?

3. Make sure you are acting on your core values

Given two years of seismic change in the workplace, now is a good time to revisit your core mission and values as an organisation. Have these changed or are they still relevant? Even if they haven’t changed, it is likely that you need to introduce new policies and practices to bring these to life in a new way, to ensure your employees still feel a sense of connection with your values even when they are not in the physical workplace. If you strive to be innovative, for example, then employees will expect innovation in your hybrid working policies; if you value collaboration but still have a workplace designed for individual productivity, then employee expectations will not be met – again leading to a sense of disconnection from the organisation.

And so, as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, under the theme of loneliness, it’s worth considering how connected your people really feel to each other, to their work, and to your organisation. Start by listening and understanding individual needs and contexts, then design an employee experience that supports their journeys and identifies any moments of potential isolation and loneliness. And, finally, ensure your core values are brought to life in a way that your team can feel – through policies and practices that are relevant in the emerging world of hybrid working.

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