Initially conceived as a short-term change or rare perk, working remotely has become a permanent fixture of our lives. With offices shuttered, we’ve made our kitchen tables, couches, and deck chairs into cubicles.
Working at a distance offers some benefits: less time commuting, flexible hours, and more time with loved ones. But it also runs the risk of causing a troubling emotion that not only makes us feel like shit, but also inhibits our work performance: loneliness.
Loneliness is defined by researchers as a complex set of feelings that occurs when social and emotional needs are not adequately met. It’s natural to feel lonely, especially now. It’s a tumultuous time that’s taxing on our mental health in a variety of ways. But the old mantra rings true: no man is an island and neither is any employee.
Sigal Barsade, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business, has been studying loneliness and other emotions at work for decades.
It turns out, loneliness can hijack work performance. That’s because loneliness sends our emotional barometers and social skills out of whack. If we’re lonely, we also lose out on the tacit knowledge derived from strong social ties at work.
“People usually view loneliness as a personal problem,” Barsade tells Inverse. “But actually, to the degree that organizations care about whether their employees are performing well, it's actually an organization and managerial problem, too.”
This week, Inverse explores how to stay connected, support colleagues, and the best ways to keep WFH loneliness at bay. And for managers, there are evidence-based strategies to create a work culture that prevents employee loneliness before it takes hold.
I’m Ali Pattillo and this is Strategy, a series packed with actionable tips to help you make the most out of your life, career, and finances.
Lonely at work— In 2018, Barsade and her colleague Hakan Ozcelik, a researcher at California State University, Sacramento, set out to determine the links between workplace loneliness and job performance.
The duo rounded up 672 employees and their 114 supervisors in two organizations. At the start of the study, both employees and supervisors completed surveys reporting their levels of workplace loneliness, various control variables, and the company’s emotional culture.
These surveys included prompts like: “I feel left out in this organization”; “I lack companionship at my work”; and “There is no one I can turn to in this organization.”
Six weeks later, supervisors rated employees’ performance and employees reported their personal level of commitment to the organization. Employees also responded to a coworker survey to rate each of the other members of their work team on their approachability.
In the study, published in the Academy of Management Journal, the researchers also controlled for private life loneliness relating to romantic, family, and social life that might sway the results.
After analyzing the data, researchers found that greater workplace loneliness was linked to lower job performance. The reasons why lonely workers appeared to be worse at their jobs came down to their approachability and perceived lack of commitment to their organizations.
When people are lonely, they overshare or undershare information, avoid reaching out for critical resources, and end up sending inadvertent external signals to others that sound like “leave me alone,” Barsade explains.
“The thing that makes loneliness so dangerous is that loneliness begets loneliness,” Barsade says. “Once you have decided that you are lonely in a particular context, then all sorts of processes kick in that conspire to keep you lonelier. You get much more socially vigilant — sensitive to social threats.”
You start to lose some social abilities, too, she adds. “In the situation in which people are lonely, people can become very self-focused. They become much less appreciative of when people do reach out.”
Why does WFH make us feel so lonely?
Working remotely can compound these negative feelings, making loneliness a more serious problem.
With the Covid-19 pandemic and working from home, people's worlds have become more limited, creating opportunities for “new loneliness,” Barsade explains. At a different time, if someone was lonely at work, they might have an active social life or supportive network to compensate.
For a lot of people, those options are currently shut down. Meanwhile, working remotely can also mean lonely people can “fall off the grid,” Barsade says.
Think about those coworkers you see every day at the office, or say hello and goodbye to. Now, those informal, incidental moments of communication may be missing, leaving that person who may be dealing with loneliness to slip through the cracks.
“As a boss, manager, peer, or colleague, you should really be monitoring this and paying much more attention than usual,” Barsade says. Barsade suggests regular, quick check-ins (ideally phone or video calls, not texts) that say “I see you, you matter to me, you matter to this company, you matter to this team.”
The most effective way to fight loneliness at work is to foster a strong, emotional culture of “companionate love,” Barsade says. It’s not romantic love; it's caring, compassion, affection, and tenderness.
“The degree to which employees showed those emotions to each other helps to soften the loneliness. It's almost like the tide raises all boats,” Barsade says. “The opposite is having a culture of anger, frustration, irritation, and irritability.”
On an individual basis, if you start feeling lonely, the researcher advises reaching out and showing care to other colleagues. That act — a phone call or virtual coffee — will make you and the other person feel more connected.
Ultimately, emotional contagion is real. We can catch each other’s emotions like viruses, Barsade says, so what you exude has influence. As we stare down an endless stretch of remote work, it will take a conscious effort to combat loneliness. These strategies are a good place to start.
Instant mood lifters:
Laugh— Comedy like Middleditch and Schwartz on Netflix or Amy Schumer’s HBO docuseries Expecting Amy can help you laugh and shake off the loneliness, even if it’s only temporary.
Break a sweat— Exercise can get you out of your head and into your body. It’s a habit with both physical and mental benefits.
Get outside— Spending time in natural spaces — the woods, a nearby creek, a beach — is known to reduce stress and anxiety and boost mental well-being.