How to Prevent Loneliness at Work

To Prevent Loneliness at Work, Stop Copying What Hasn’t Worked

October 29, 2020

When COVID-19 sent most professionals home from work in the spring, almost no manager or leader needed to be told that isolation and loneliness loomed as serious risks to their people’s performance and well-being. Rather, most leaders reacted swiftly. One manager at a large technology company I was coaching made adjustments immediately: “I’ve already added daily 30-minute standup meetings and 15-minute 1-on-1 check-ins with all my team members. What else should I do?”

The initial idea was to add more meetings to the calendar because surely more interaction would mean less loneliness. And add meetings, managers did. One study found the number of meetings per person increased 13% and data from the calendar app Clockwise found that people were spending 5% more time in meetings.

As this initial strategy filled people’s already disrupted calendars, leaders and organizations began a second approach: try to replicate social outings using technology. One consulting firm hosted a Friday afternoon costume party via Zoom. German software maker SAP SE did a virtual barbeque, “complete with advice from a butcher, step-by-step instructions, and a recipe list.”

The problem with these approaches is that they attempt to replicate what hasn’t worked, assuming that what leaders and companies were doing before the pandemic kept loneliness at bay. But this is horribly wrong. The cover story in Harvard Business Review three years ago read, “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic.” In it, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy made an impassioned plea to “take action now to build connections that are the foundation of strong companies and strong communities.”

To move beyond replicating ineffective strategies, our team at Zarvana developed a comprehensive framework for understanding what a person needs to avoid feeling lonely, synthesizing research on psychological theories, including social exchange theory, prosociality, and perceived proximity. The VARS Framework for Preventing Workplace Loneliness says that employees must feel valued, accepted, reflected, and supported.

These four seem simple, but most efforts to avert loneliness fail because they are not designed with these elements in mind. Preventing loneliness requires intentional design of social experiences as described in what follows:

People Must Feel Valued:

For people to feel valued, they must be convinced that they are positively contributing to their organization. It may seem strange to combat loneliness by focusing on what employees give rather than what they receive, but this is how real connection happens. Sociologist Richard Emerson explains in his social exchange theory that real connections are dependent on a mutually dependent and mutually gratifying exchange. The greatest predictor of social loneliness is whether people have been “reassured of their worth,” says David Weiss, another sociologist. Several studies confirm this, showing that people who believe they are effective are less likely to feel isolated.

The good news is that it doesn’t take much for people to feel valued in their workplace. Murthy says that simply “helping a colleague is a mutually reaffirming experience and a simple way to feel meaningful connection.” Research out of the University of British Columbia confirmed this, finding that people who engaged in simple prosocial behaviors (e.g., waving, smiling) with people they didn’t know well reported feeling less lonely, less isolated, and happier.

The problem, though, is that most people aren’t recognized for these simple acts of kindness and most don’t know if they’re doing a good job. One study found that 74% of millennials feel “in the dark” about their performance. When team members aren’t being told how they are doing, they jump to conclusions based on task-specific feedback they receive. This leaves many feeling uncertain about their performance, and “uncertainty about others reduces one’s sense of proximity to them,” says researchers of the concept of perceived proximity.

To make your people feel valued, give feedback on their overall performance each week informally and formally each month. Also, create opportunities for team members to help each other and recognize them when they do.

People Must Feel Accepted:

Accepting others may seem simple, but acceptance has an important prerequisite. To feel accepted, people must first feel known. Relationships that don’t go beyond work leave significant portions of employees’ lives unknown, making acceptance difficult to achieve. This is why employees build stronger connections and more trust when they disclose personal information, such as a favorite television show or the birth of a child.

Murthy describes a practice his team came up with to get to know each other better, called Inside Scoop. Team members took turns sharing something about themselves through pictures for five minutes during weekly staff meetings. Murthy reports that “the impact was immediate.”

The challenge of getting to know your coworkers is that intimacy doesn’t happen naturally. When participating in large groups, people tend to associate with people they already know. When interacting during downtime, people still talk about work. Psychologists call this pattern the common information effect, the tendency for people with different expertise, interests, and experiences to gravitate to topics they have in common.

Many virtual barbeques and Zoom-based water cooler chats don’t lead to acceptance because they fail to create new or deeper connections. Leaders and managers must create structure, like the Inside Scoop, to push people out of their default behaviors so that they can get to know people they don’t know well and go beyond work.

People Must Feel Reflected:

When people are “reflected” in their workplace, they can see themselves in the people around them. This enables people to identify with their organization and feel like they belong, which is one of the main drivers of perceived proximity. Researcher Jeanne Wilson and her colleagues explain: “When people identify with each other, it increases their perception of proximity by creating a basis for common ground, lowering uncertainty about the other’s actions, and prompting positive attributions about the other.”

We know that reflection is important in the context of race and gender. Research shows that performance of individuals who are the only members of their social category in an otherwise homogenous group suffers. The need to feel reflected goes beyond racial and gender identities. Shared work experiences (e.g., pushing hard to meet a big deadline) and personal categorizations (e.g., parent of young kids) offer opportunities to feel reflected too.        

To increase collective identification within your team or organization, increase opportunities for and awareness of shared experiences, shared categorization, and shared meaning, which connect people’s pasts, present views of themselves, and aspirations for the future, respectively. To connect people’s pasts, create more space for collective reflection. Productivity and project management experts have long touted the value of reflection. David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology recommends a weekly review and scrum includes a sprint retrospective.

To help people find others in the same social categories, corporate affinity groups play an important role.

According to coaching company, BetterUp, the best ways to created shared meaning are to “frame the efforts in terms of their collective advancement of your company’s mission, rather than getting bogged down in individual deliverables as ends unto themselves” and to celebrate collective wins rather than individual wins.

People Must Feel Supported:

Feeling supported is the complement to feeling valued. In the same way that people need to feel they’re contributing, they also need to feel that they can get help when they need it. This hearkens back to social exchange theory, which defines meaningful connection as “mutually beneficial.” It also helps explain some of the power of prosocial behaviors. If you work in a culture where people wave, smile, and perform random acts of kindness, you become convinced that the people around you are the type of people that will help you when you need it.

To make people feel supported, managers and leaders need to maintain a level of accessibility so that their people feel confident they can get help when they need it. Many managers and leaders take this point too far, eroding their own ability to complete deep work. Instead of leaving your whole calendar vulnerable to interruptions, consider blocking time for office hours.

Feeling supported also comes from knowing that you can confide in someone and thereby, receive emotional support. This is why Gallup has included the question, “Do you have a best friend at work?” in its employee engagement research for 30 years. Unfortunately, only two out of every 10 U.S.-based employees strongly agree that they have a best friend at work, a percentage that has declined significantly in the last 25 years.

The hard part of forming friendships, especially best friendships, is that it takes time. Sociologist Lydia Denworth estimates that it generally takes 80 to 100 hours together for people to call each other friends and over 200 hours for two people to call themselves best friends.

How do organizations and leaders help people form these kinds of time-intensive friendships at work? They help people get to know each other beyond the work (as the previous two points describe), they model vulnerability, which speeds the formation of friendships, and they give people the time and incentives (e.g., money to spend on virtual coffee chats) to spend time with each other.

At a time when people are increasingly separated by physical distance, leaders and organizations alike can take comfort in Jeanne Wilson’s conclusion from her research on perceived proximity: “geographic distance is not destiny.” In fact, her research affirms that relationship quality is more closely linked to perceived proximity than physical proximity. Loneliness at work is preventable, as Gallup asserts, but it won’t happen if leaders replicate the insufficient approaches of the past. By intentionally applying the VARS Framework for Preventing Workplace Loneliness, leaders can reverse the global pandemic’s expected effect on the loneliness epidemic, shrinking an increasingly menacing problem at a time when it’s needed most.

Summary: How to Prevent Loneliness at Work

How do you deal with loneliness at work?

Make sure you feel valued, accepted, reflected, and supported.

Why don’t many people feel valued at work?

They don’t receive frequent, high-level feedback on their performance and they aren’t recognized for simple, but meaningful contributions to their office culture.

Why don’t many people feel accepted at work?

In order to feel accepted, you must first feel known. Many work relationships never go beyond work, leaving people feeling that others only know a small portion of their lives.

Why don’t many people feel reflected?

There aren’t sufficient structured activities to get to know the common interests people share with their coworkers.

Why don’t many people feel supported?

To feel supported, people need to have access to the resources they need to do their work and feel that they have a good friend at work. A small and declining portion of professionals tell Gallup they have a best friend at work.

Note: If you’ve been following our publications closely, you may have noticed that we published an article on social isolation at work: How to Overcome the Social Isolation of Remote Work and a corresponding infographic with a different framework for preventing loneliness. That article published in March 2020 focused on more detailed, practical considerations, but we felt the need for a higher-level, overarching framework that could be more generally applicable. So we did a lot more research to figure out what really matters and wrote this article to capture what we learned.