Are Your Team Members Lonely at Work?

2 questions you should ask yourself about employee relationships

For most of us, we spend more time with our coworkers and employees than we do our closest friends and family, and these working relationships often make or break workplace culture, employee engagement and employee job satisfaction. If we don’t feel part of a thriving community at work, we're more likely to develop feelings of loneliness and isolation, which often leads to burnout.

Far too many managers assume that employee relationships will develop on their own, and that workplace culture will work itself out as long as they put the right people in the right roles. But the research suggests otherwise. To prevent isolation and loneliness at work, managers must be strategic and intentional about building connections and sending belonging cues to employees on a consistent basis.

In the Harvard Business Review, former Surgeon General of the United States Vivek Murthy argues that reducing isolation at work is crucial for business and for our health. He states:

“At work, loneliness reduces task performance, creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making.”

Before you assume that your team members don't feel isolated or lonely, consider Gallup's research on well-being, which discovered that only 30% of employees have a best friend at work. You might have thought the wording there was strange, because having "a best friend" might seem an unrealistic goal. But Gallup has reported that when people agree that they have a "best friend at work," it's a more powerful predictor of workplace outcomes than simply having a "friend" or even a "good friend."

Tom Rath and Jim Harter, both from the Gallup Organization, argue that employees need these deep connections to really thrive in the workplace. They point out that those who report having a best friend at work "are seven times as likely to be engaged in their jobs, are better at engaging customers, produce higher quality work, have higher well-being, and are less likely to get injured on the job. In sharp contrast, those without a best friend in the workplace have just a 1 in 12 chance of being engaged."

Even if you're thinking that it might not be realistic to foster best friendships at work, there is no question that exceptional leaders create workplace cultures where employees feel connected to and supported by one another. Our aim should be to foster positive co-worker relationships, look out for one another and build a workplace that is characterized by praise and recognition. Take some time today to think about ways you can build an engaged and connected team. I've got two questions to get you started.

1. Do your employees enjoy one another, laugh together or spend time together outside of working hours?

Take a moment to listen to the sounds of your workplace. Don't choose an isolated moment. Rather, pay attention throughout an entire day. Do you hear your team members engaging with one another, having fun and laughing, or sharing stories in a small group? Do they speak of one another with familiarity and warmth?

Or, do you hear silence? And no laughter?

I know someone who left a job because she was continually reprimanded for laughing with coworkers. She was highly productive in her role and always professional with and in front of clients. But her manager had created a workplace environment in which employees didn't feel free to enjoy themselves. He once told her, "When I hear you laughing, I know you aren't busy enough."

Sadly, this company lost an incredible employee because they didn't see the value in cultivating strong interpersonal relationships among team members , and they definitely didn't see the value in having fun at work.

Far too many employers view fun in the workplace as a threat to productivity and efficiency. That's a shame, because research consistently shows that strong interpersonal connections between coworkers result in stronger workplace culture and increased employee engagement.

For example, Annamarie Mann, an Employee Engagement and Well-Being Practice Manager at Gallup summarizes some of the research on the importance of interpersonal relationships in the workplace:

“We want work to feel worthwhile and having trusted confidants and supporters helps foster that feeling. We go to our work friends when we need to celebrate and commiserate about our personal and professional lives. In the absence of that outlet, work can seem lonely and isolating. It lacks attachments. We may like what we do, we may get to use our talents and strengths every day, but we're probably not feeling fully energized or motivated to put our whole selves into our roles.”

Simply stated, if you don't hear your employees engaging with one another, building healthy friendships with one another, or having fun (and laughing!) at work, you're workplace culture will suffer.

2. Have you created or arranged spaces and opportunities for employees to build connections with each other?

As I mentioned earlier, most managers assume that interpersonal connections will work themselves out. The most successful managers are strategic about creating opportunities that facilitate the deepening of trust and connection.

Consider your office space. Does it communicate that there is no space or time for conversation? Does it send the message that you as a manager are inaccessible? (Note: here's a blog we wrote about this very question!) Or, does it allow for people to work together meaningfully

Consider your workplace rhythms. Do you leave any space for getting to know new employees during the onboarding process? Do you create opportunities for employees to share personal news or learn personal information about one another?

If you're feeling discouraged, here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Lead out in this area. Don't walk straight to your office when you arrive to work. Go visit the offices of your team members and resist the temptation to jump straight into work-speak. When your team members see you enjoying interpersonal relationships in the office, they will feel more confident to do the same.

  • Eat lunch together as a team or set aside time in meetings to share important personal stories. Schedule team-building activities or ask managers to take their teams to see a movie on a Friday afternoon. Promote and attend social activities and group outings or volunteer together.

  • If you have employees who work remotely or travel on a consistent basis, brainstorm creative ways you can keep them engaged and connected to the life of your company. One company we work with began having non-work related video conferences on a regular basis with their remote employees just so that everyone had time to get to know one another.

Whether you're just beginning to ask these questions for the first time or just needed a reminder about the importance of preventing loneliness and isolation in the workplace, the good news is that there are simple things you can do today to make a real difference in the lives of your team members.

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