Employee Loneliness in Remote Work Environments: What Leaders Can Do

Company leaders can better structure their work environment to improve communication among employees and mitigate workplace loneliness.

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Shared leadership can help foster social connection when your team is WFH

The COVID-19 pandemic has created social and economic shocks of a magnitude not felt in recent history. Millions of people have lost their jobs, small businesses have had to abruptly close their doors, and the boundaries between work and family have been steadily blurring. But as remote work environments steadily turn into the norm, one particularly intense social shock employees face is an increasing sense of loneliness.

Loneliness was a problem before the start of the pandemic. Surveys conducted prior to the current health crisis suggest that up to 61% of people feel lonely in their social lives, and 42% feel as if they don’t have a close friend at work. But with many having had to transition to virtual forms of work and social connection, employees may be at greatest risk of loneliness than ever.

Surveys conducted prior to the current health crisis suggest that up to 61% of people feel lonely in their social lives, and 42% feel as if they don’t have a close friend at work.

For managers, the potential for increased loneliness among their workforce should be a cause of great concern. Perhaps most importantly, workplace loneliness can have profound psychological and health-related consequences, including decreased well-being, increased depression, and even elevated risks for mortality.

In addition, a lack of social connection at work can result in lower performance, decreased commitment, higher turnover, and even hinder creativity. What’s more, loneliness can be a vicious cycle. Lonely people tend to have lower self-esteem, evaluate themselves more harshly, and feel a cycle of negative emotions — all of which can cause individuals to further socially withdraw at work and in their personal lives.

What can organizational leaders do?

In traditional work environments, one in which leaders and their employees frequently interact and communicate with one another face-to-face, leaders’ behavior can exert considerable influence on employees’ sense of social connection and belonging. Leaders can form close personal relationships with employees, adapt their leadership style to serve as a source of emotional support when needed, or simply make themselves available for when employees need someone to lend a friendly ear.

Perhaps most importantly, leaders’ avoidance of abrasive or interpersonally insensitive behaviors is particularly crucial for ensuring employees feel they have social value and are a part of the group.

Perhaps most importantly, leaders’ avoidance of abrasive or interpersonally insensitive behaviors is particularly crucial for ensuring employees feel they have social value and are a part of the group. Within my own research, for example, I’ve found that more than half of employees with narcissistic leaders — those leaders who are interpersonally cold and insensitive — feel alone and disconnected from others in the organization.

Leadership in virtual environments

How do such behaviors translate to remote work environments where much of leaders’ interactions with their employees are conducted virtually? Research suggests that how leaders interact interpersonally with their employees may matter somewhat less in virtual environments. This is because, for better or worse, the social cues leaders display when engaging interpersonally with employees aren’t as easily transmitted or, from the perspective of employees, detected or interpreted in a virtual context. This, of course, doesn’t mean that leadership style or personality doesn’t matter in virtual work settings. Rather, it means that mitigating workplace loneliness in such contexts likely requires more than just highly charismatic, empathic, or emotionally supportive leadership. It requires attentiveness to the social environment itself.

Shared leadership as a way to foster social connection virtually

Part of the reason employees working in remote contexts are at risk of loneliness is due to the diminished frequency and quality of social interactions that take place over virtual forms of communication. This means that organizations need to focus more than ever on structuring the social environment in ways that not only increase communication among employees, but increase the right type of communication needed for building social bonds. In particular, research suggests that employees who work in virtual environments feel a stronger sense of liking and connectedness to their team members when there is a high degree of informal communication between them.

Although there might be several ways to facilitate such forms of interpersonal interaction in remote work environments, one particularly useful way is to distribute leadership authority and responsibility across members of the workgroup. This is what’s known in the organizational literature as shared leadership.

Shared leadership is a form of within-team collaboration, one in which there exists mutual leadership influence between multiple members of the work unit. You can think of shared leadership as existing along a continuum. On one end, you have something akin to traditional, hierarchical leadership, where a team follows the leadership of a single individual. On the other end, you have a situation where most — if not all — team members provide leadership influence to and share leadership responsibilities with, one another.

Relative to more traditional forms of leadership, shared leadership may be a more effective way to build coworker relationships in virtual work environments and thus mitigate workplace loneliness. Within hierarchical forms of leadership, communication tends to be highly formal and unidirectional. And while such forms of communication can be useful — even (at times) necessary — it can also stifle the development of social connections within virtual teams.

Communication in shared leadership

Distributing leadership influence and authority across members of a team — on the other hand — can facilitate a more interactive and collaborative environment, as it necessitates employees to frequently communicate with one another. More importantly, when employees share leadership, they tend to communicate with each other in ways that are reciprocal and informal. And it is this type of communication that is crucial for forming the social bonds necessary to mitigate feelings of workplace loneliness.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the nature of work in profound ways, some of which can exacerbate employees’ feelings of workplace loneliness. To combat such effects, today’s organizations need to look for new ways to structure the work environment to increase collaboration and communication among employees. Although shared leadership is not without its drawbacks, it can be a useful tool for mitigating loneliness in what has become an increasingly virtual workplace.

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