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Remote workers suffer from loneliness and isolationism as the pandemic in the U.S. drags on

During the coronavirus pandemic, online job interviews have become commonplace.

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For millions of Americans, bedrooms have become multi-functional offices, kitchen tables have become conference rooms and bookcases have become the go-to accessory to complete any Zoom backdrop. While socially distant, millions are digitally connected now more than ever before. But, not even the perfect Zoom scenery can replace serendipity of a water cooler conversation with a colleague. It’s an environment giving rise to loneliness and isolationism for many remote workers.

Humans have a basic need to connect. It’s no wonder that survey by researchers at Olivet Nazarene University found that 82% of respondents reported having at least one work friend. And just look at pop culture. Nearly all of NBC’s hit comedies in the past decade have revolved around antics of the workplace — 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and eternally binge-able The Office. 

There is research that has shown that employees who have friends at work are better performers, more engaged, and are overall happier with their jobs. On the opposite side of the spectrum, research from Gallup suggests that loneliness can affect both personal and professional well-being. 

Terri Patterson a Principal in Control Risks’ Crisis and Security Consulting practice, based in Washington, D.C. says this pandemic is adversely affecting the youngest members of the workforce, “Somewhat counter-intuitively, the young workers are reporting the most impact on their minds. Nearly 45%-50% have reported a decline in their mental health.” 

Patterson, a psychologist who focuses on the impact of mental health issues in the corporate environment and spent over two decades serving as a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation says that younger workers haven’t had the time to build up resilience. “Young adults haven’t worked through the same adversary as their older colleagues and therefore don’t that the same trial and error experience to figure out ways to cope.”

While younger workers are more likely to report symptoms of mental distress like anxiety and depression they are less likely to seem professional help according to Patterson, “Compared to their older colleagues younger workers are more likely to seek ‘peer-counseling’ than professional help.”

Patterson believes that a myriad of circumstances could be causing this delay in seeking help, but again highlights a lack of experience, ” Most people who are diagnosed with a major mental illness will first experience symptoms in early adulthood. Many young adults may think it is a one-off occurrence that will not happen again, so they don’t seek professional help. Older adults, however, have likely experienced these symptoms for years, and therefore realize they need professional help.”

“Young adults haven’t worked through the same adversary as their older colleagues and therefore don’t that the same trial and error experience to figure out ways to cope.”

Terri Patterson

Principal in Control Risks’ Crisis and Security Consulting practice

One of the ways employees can build some resilience is by creating structured schedules, according to Patterson. But not just around sleep and meals. “Be proactive and schedule time with friends and family whether it is professional or personal.” 

Breaking virtual barriers

A report from the Havard Business Review asked how newly hired remote employees at a global technology corporation made friends. The report was published in November of 2019, only a few months before news of Covid-19 first started to appear.

Researchers claimed that remote workers experienced virtual barriers. To overcome these barriers they had to create a cadence with their new colleagues. Cadence allows workers to predict how a person will react with they interact with them. It also provides insights into when it is best to interact with them. When workers don’t have cadence they find it difficult to get in contact and find it frustrating when they do interact. 

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The report advises that the manager’s set the stage for their employees. In one example from the study, a manager had employees share a ‘song of the week’. 

Patterson agrees that managers need to encourage collaboration even if it feels artificial, “It’s great to check in with employees but managers need to be engaged with their workers. It can be helpful to remind them of the mission at hand. Remind them that the work they are doing is having an effect on someone or thing.”

“I’ve heard about mental health wellness more in the past few months than in my entire career. The silver lining might be we may finally destigmatize mental health,” said Patterson. 

Addressing the mental health issue

Erika Zauner a wellness expert and CEO of Healthkick, a corporate wellness program that includes over 500 consumer health, fitness and wellness brands, agrees that corporate leaders need to create engagement with employees, “It’s on managers to create a plan. They need to create an environment where people can express themselves.”

Zauner admits that a one-size-fits-all approach will not provide as much as a personalized touch. Gone are corporate gyms and wellness centers. Healthkick has seen an increase in activities like virtual cooking, mediations and mindful gardening according to Zauner, “We’ve seen an increase in midday activities which suggests people are taking breaks, which is good.” 

Everyone is handling the pandemic uniquely but Zauner suggests sharing interests or hobbies with coworkers as it might lead to an opportunity to find a mutual interest or just someone to talk to. 

Professional development suffers from afar 

The uncertain duration of the pandemic has given some companies time to rethink what the purpose of the office should be. For real estate brokerage firm SquareFoot, the office had to become a resource and not a place people gather every day, said, Michael Colacino, President of SquareFoot. 

Headquartered in New York City, Colacino asked his 70 employees, (about half are millennials,) to complete a self-assessment designed as a hackathon. Hackathons can be thought of as a sprint-like event where members collaborate on a project. Participants were asked to give a rating on four categories including communication, amenities (things like conference rooms and printers), transportation to the office, and professional development.

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The results from the survey were weighed and feed into an algorithm that would allocate in-person office time to the workers that needed it the most. With their assigned allocated times’ workers can schedule when they would like to visit the office. 

SquareFoot’s offices have been legally open since July 18, when New York CIty allowed for offices to reopen, “People are not being forced back and all are screened before coming into the office. 

Colacino said that the hackathon revealed some interesting insights. The company found that the lack of in-person communication affected separate teams differently, and professional development was suffering. 

“There is an element to professional development that isn’t present remotely,” he notes. “It’s harder to ask what you might consider a ‘stupid question’ to a colleague; but how often have good ideas come from conversations like that?”

For instance, the dymanic team of brokers that show and sell real estate realized that face-to-face interaction allowed for them to exchange ideas and tips. Working remote has removed the idiosyncrasies of this team. On the other hand, the technology was less hamstrung by the remote, as their work requires less in-person communication according to Colacino. 

Colacino says the company has tried to keep its employees engaged, “We’ve done virtual book clubs and created space to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement. One of our engineers even did a beer brewing class.”

Having tried everything from virtual happy hours to book clubs to keep employees engaged SquareFoots hopes in-office work will help those who need it most, “August is usually slow so we won’t know how this is working until September at the earliest”, said Colacino. 

Using the aforementioned algorithm, employees have begun returning to the New York office but in a staggered schedule. Office capacity is down from 60 employees to only 27 employees, based on guidelines from New York state. Each worker gets an allocated amount of time each week based on their needs like communication and office amenities, “Our brokers were excited to get back in the office.” said Colacino. 

Calacino also worries that tension could arise from the staggered schedule. “Some people are worried about coming to the office, others want to come back but can’t yet. There might be some jealousy between those in the office and those still at home.”   

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.

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