Connect Your Workforce

Personal connections are the cure for the growing problem of employee isolation.

Connect Your Workforce

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The workplace is facing another epidemic. And this time around, there’s no vaccine available. And masks won’t help, either.

The disease is loneliness and it’s adversely impacting employee productivity and engagement while promoting worker turnover and illness. And it could get worse as greater numbers of employees work remotely, says Ryan Jenkins, a speaker who focuses on the future of work and other workplace issues.

At first blush, loneliness at work may sound improbable. How does an employee feel lonely when surrounded by people? Yet 72% of 2,000 workers surveyed as part of Jenkins’ research on the topic say they periodically feel lonely.

Maybe they’re the only member of a team with young children, or have no children while all their colleagues do. Perhaps their political views differ greatly from those colleagues hold. Or maybe they’re much younger than then the rest of their team members.

No matter what the circumstances, the workplace offers many opportunities to experience alienation, he says.

“Almost everyone feels some level of isolation or loneliness,” says Jenkins, the co-founder of and co-author of Connectable: How Leaders Can Move Teams from Isolated to All In. (His co-founder and co-author is Steve Van Cohen, a leadership consultant and executive coach.)

Adverse impacts

Jenkins started doing research about workplace loneliness after studying generational differences at organizations –— work that led him to write a book, The Generation Z Guide: The Complete Manual to Understand, Recruit and Lead the Next Generation. (People born after 1998 are considered part of the Generation Z cohort.)

“I discovered that Generation Z is the loneliest generation, with 73% of them experiencing it frequently,” he says. “It’s the first time there’s been an emerging generation experiencing more isolation and loneliness than the generations before them. I found that troubling — and that was before the pandemic.

“So I talked to corporate clients and found they really wanted to lean into this issue, … understand how loneliness and isolation is actually a thing in the workforce and how it’s impacting organizations.”

The numbers are troubling. Jenkins’ research revealed that lonely workers are seven times less likely to be engaged at work, five times more likely to miss work because of illness or stress and think about quitting their jobs twice as often as nonlonely employees.

Lonely employees are also more inclined to think their work is low-quality, even if it isn’t. That, in turn, reflects a lack of confidence that manifests itself in less collaboration and productivity.

Connection deficiencies

So how can people be lonely when they work with other people?

“It’s not the absence of people that causes loneliness, it’s the absence of a connection,” Jenkins explains.

If someone works in a crowded office but doesn’t have a strong connection with the people around them, they can feel lonely. In fact, this sense of loneliness only gets accentuated because people think they shouldn’t feel that way, but they do, which makes it even more alienating, he says.

Conversely, remote workers with a strong connection to their work, the meaning and purpose of their organization and team members and managers are less likely to feel lonely than office workers surrounded by people.

The conveniences provided by an ever-broadening array of technologies can increase workers’ isolation, personally and professionally. As these technologies — including social media — make life more convenient, they also decrease personal interactions with other people. For example, why talk to someone when it’s easier to just text them?

“We invariably choose convenience over connection — it’s just human nature,” Jenkins says. “We take the paths of least resistance; there’s no need for small talk anymore.

“But the ultimate cost is fewer connections. We intuitively know relationships matter, but we don’t appreciate that human connection is vital for our physical and emotional health. This concept of individualization is fraying our social fabric.

“By leaning into efficiency and convenience, what’s left hanging in the wind are those personal connections that we’d normally create in a workplace environment. That’s not to say that connections can’t be cultivated virtually — it just takes a lot more intentional effort.”

A growing dilemma

The trend toward remote work puts organizations between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Surveys show many Generation Z employees won’t work if they’re forced to go into an office, so organizations have to cater to this trend or risk losing out on top talent. Yet remote work can create even more loneliness, Jenkins notes.

“Relationships become very transactional when people work remotely. There are less interpersonal connections being made, like the small talk that occurs before a meeting begins.”

The big first step to combatting this problem is determining and/or admitting there’s a problem.

“There’s a famous line in the field of psychology that says if you can name it, you can tame it,” he says. “So the first step is destigmatizing loneliness. We have to recognize it’s not employee burnout. … We need to ring the bell.”

To determine if loneliness is an issue, managers can use an empirically evaluated team connection assessment tool Jenkins developed in conjunction with researchers at Harvard University, the University of Alabama and the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. It’s available at

Taking action

 If loneliness is an issue, organizations can adopt strategies to minimize it.

“Organizational leaders need to determine the points where they can put a stake in the ground and say human connections are essential,” he says. “If we’re left to our own devices, we’ll drift away, so developing connections has to be prioritized.”

As an example, Jenkins cites a company he worked with where employees have always worked remotely. To develop better personal connections, the company brings all employees together once a year for strategy and culture-building exercises.

Another company started a program called “The Inside Scoop.” Before weekly “all-hands” meetings, held either via video or in-person, one person is picked to share something personal and nonwork related, he explains.

“In one instance, a person who was known for being a very detail-oriented researcher told colleagues she was a marathon runner and had even qualified for the U.S. Olympic team. No one had any idea she was this extraordinary athlete. It created a triangulation point — a little space to see the human behind the job.”

Employee anniversaries also offer an opportunity for connections. And one company instituted a communal coffee break for all call-center employees, as opposed to everyone taking breaks at different times, he says.

“That yielded $15 million in productivity gains and a 10% increase in employee satisfaction. You can make subtle tweaks that prioritize connections.”

Optimistic outlook

While loneliness at work is a burgeoning issue, there’s a bright side, too.

“If loneliness is growing, that means its malleable, so it also can decrease,” Jenkins says. “I think the silver lining to the pandemic is that it pulled the curtain back on loneliness. It’s long overdue and we need to address it in order to develop strong teams, organizations and communities.

“Loneliness is a signal that we belong together. It’s not a problem to solve, but a tension to manage. We have to consistently cultivate new personal connections and nurture existing ones — utilize their restorative and rejuvenating powers.” 


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