In 2019—well before the pandemic—a study from the EY Belonging Barometer found that 40% of employees surveyed reported feeling isolated in the workplace. This sense of isolation, or not belonging, can lead to disengagement. A study from the Center for Talent Innovation found that employees who feel they belong are 3.5 times more likely to be productive, motivated and engaged.
As EY suggests, “A strong sense of belonging can lead to better collaboration, retention and business performance. When we feel we belong, we are more motivated and engaged. It significantly reduces stress levels and improves physical health, emotional well-being and performance.”
So how can leaders promote inclusion and help their employees feel less isolated? Is it too late to start? Even though an estimated 42% of Americans are now working from home full time, according to the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, managers are still learning how to communicate in this new reality, and there are still plenty of opportunities to improve employee morale and to reduce isolation in the “virtual workplace.”
According to career development manager Brie Weiler Reynolds, as quoted in a U.S. News & World Report article, “Communication is really the foundation of good remote work. It helps you stay on the same page as your teammates and supervisors, and with the added pressure of the unique situation we find ourselves in, communication will help keep teams productive and cohesive.”
Here are some of the top ways leaders can use communications to alleviate workplace isolation, engage their teams and foster inclusion during these challenging times.
Set (or Re-set) Expectations
Even if your team has been working from home for six months or more, it’s never too late to communicate your expectations. It’s important to outline and reiterate your expectations of them so as to reduce frustration and confusion.
Communicate your expectations in meetings—video and/or conference calls—but be sure to follow up with written communications such as email, for example, if you expect employees to follow new policies or processes.
Be Flexible – and Communicate Your Flexibility
It’s very common for each employee to work different hours based on the other demands on their time, such as children or other caregiver responsibilities, so it’s important to be flexible and to let employees know you’re flexible through communication. Some may want to get up and work a few hours before their kids wake up, for example, while others may be more productive in the evening.
“Encourage employees to make their hours work for them, as long as they are communicating it clearly,” says Rebecca Cafiero, a business and branding strategist.
Schedule Regular Huddles
Whether they are daily or weekly, holding regular virtual meetings with your team will help everyone understand progress made against goals; sync up on priorities going forward; and resolve issues and any barriers to meeting goals.
Having a consistent schedule for these meetings creates certainty, and in uncertain times like these, it’s more important than ever to keep everyone focused and on task to reduce isolation in the virtual workplace.
Regular meetings are also a good time to strengthen connections with your employees and co-workers, which is essential to team building, according to Jill Pioter, employee retention communications expert. “Make sure you’re taking time at the beginning of meetings to check in on people’s personal lives. When a team feels connected, they’ll be better collaborators.”
Communicate Proactively; Check in Frequently
These days, in the absence of seeing your team on a daily basis, internal communication takes on special importance. “It’s easy to take your normal communication levels for granted,” notes human resources strategist Courtney Underwood. “When you work from home, you must be proactive in keeping lines of communication open, so no one feels isolated or left in the dark.”
“To compensate,” Underwood suggests, “leaders must communicate early and often, leading with transparency to encourage accountability and engagement. Seemingly small gestures, like checking in with team members first thing in the morning, speak volumes.”
It’s not necessary to make grand gestures to show your team that you understand and care. You can seize any opportunity, no matter how small, to connect. Be present; be curious. Even a simple “How are you doing? How can I support you?” could go a long way.
In a 2019 Harvard Business Review article aptly titled “The Surprising Power of Simply Asking Coworkers How They’re Doing,” EY diversity and inclusiveness expert Karyn Twaronite says, “many people want more connection with those they work with. So how can companies connect more effectively with employees and help them feel like they belong within their workplace community?”
Twaronite found that employees “feel the greatest sense of belonging when their colleagues check in with them, both personally and professionally…. By reaching out and acknowledging their employees on a personal level, companies and leaders can significantly enhance the employee experience by making their people feel valued and connected.”
Encourage Employees to Interact with Each Other
Although we no longer gather around the water cooler or the coffee machine, employees miss the daily interactions that once were an important part of the workday.
As employers and managers, it’s not our role to make staff keep in touch with others outside the workplace. However, where there is a risk of loneliness, it helps to reiterate the importance of those connections and share ideas on how to make it work in these challenging times.
In a publication from Interact Software, “Reducing remote work isolation and loneliness,” experts recommend encouraging your team to find ways to connect, for example, through an intranet community for employees who have dependents at home and are looking to share experiences, ideas or resources to keep children entertained, distracted or engaged in schooling from home.
“A lighter version may be for fans of particular TV shows, a virtual book club, or a Fit@Home group to keep each other motivated and inspired to exercise in a new way. A ‘remote working’ Teams channel can provide a broader conversation for people to check in, give tips or simply share how impossible it is to work with a needy dog/noisy neighbor/aggressive typing spouse…. When staff understand they are not alone in their situation…., it reduces feelings of loneliness.”
Watch Your Tone
As we rely on video conferences, phone calls, emails and online chats to communicate in the virtual workplace, it’s more important than ever to realize that your facial expressions, body language, the tone of your voice and your written communications style all take on more meaning.
In video meetings, for example:
- Be sure you are looking into the camera
- Project a positive demeanor
- Be professional and be aware of your appearance – don’t chew gum on camera, play with your hair or eat during the meeting
- Above all, be present – don’t look down to check your phone or allow yourself to be otherwise distracted
When crafting email messages, according to Pioter, “You want people to feel respected and heard and your tone of voice could be hard to read in an email, so make sure you’re balancing a certain amount of warmth with clear, candid messaging.” Not sure how to adjust your tone? Sites like Grammarly.com can help assess it and provide suggestions for being more positive and encouraging.
Be Consistent; Be Accountable
Says Twaronite, “Be transparent and model consistent, inclusive behavior, even under pressure or during difficult conversations. Expect, reinforce and reward the accountability of others. For example, offer a conversation to team members when a difficult event occurs, and model inclusive behavior in your own interactions to set an example.”
Inclusion: A Continuous Path to Reduce Isolation in the Virtual Workplace
As Twaronite notes, the “journey towards true inclusion is never-ending. It is a continuous path that requires commitment from leadership, particularly as more people look to their work communities for validation, safety, fulfillment and happiness.” As a result, it’s possible to reduce isolation in the virtual workplace. Employees will be more engaged, leading to higher client retention and better financial outcomes.