How to deal with work-from-home loneliness when you manage a remote team

 I manage a small team of three people, most of whom work from home most of the time. Our employer takes a flexible approach to return-to-office: We're encouraged to come in, but not required to. That's a wonderful thing because I love the freedom of working from home. It's also key because at the beginning of the pandemic, I moved far away from the company's headquarters, so I couldn't commute even if I wanted to. Several of my team members moved, too.

While I wouldn't trade working from home for anything, I spend a lot of my workday feeling pretty lonely. I have a weekly team and one-on-one meetings with colleagues, but apart from those and task-related messages, we don't interact much. I sometimes even go an entire workday without talking out loud with a single colleague. I live alone, and I'm naturally an introvert, so I'm surprised at how isolated and lonesome I feel. Is it weird to admit I miss small talk? I'm not sure how much my team members communicate with each other, but I imagine they have similar experiences. One has even told me as much.

Do you have any advice on what I can do to feel less lonely? And what should I do as a manager to help my team? (Please don't say a Zoom happy hour.)

As a fellow remote worker — who dearly loves all the benefits that working from home entails but also often finds herself missing other humans during the workday — I know exactly what you're going through. And while we both may be lonely, we're not alone in feeling this way. Loneliness is consistently rated by employees as one of the biggest struggles of working from home, according to Buffer, a social-media-tools company that publishes a report on the state of remote work each year.

It's not a minor problem, either. A study by the insurer Cigna estimated that loneliness costs American businesses more than $154 billion a year in lost productivity. On an individual level, loneliness can lead to health problems such as stress, anxiety, and depression.

So what can be done about it, apart from another god-awful Zoom happy hour? For ideas, I talked to Connie Hadley, an organizational psychologist at Boston University's Questrom School of Business, and Hakan Ozcelik, a professor of management at Sacramento State, each of whom has done extensive research on the topic.

The good news is there are plenty of simple things you can do to help you and your team form social bonds and mitigate your collective feelings of loneliness. The bad news is you have to manufacture them — and at least for a self-described introvert like you, that may make you feel uncomfortable.

But the experts urge you to push through your discomfort. You're in a leadership role, and you have a responsibility to take action. Your team's health, well-being, and productivity are at stake, as well as your own.

Your primary goal, according to Hadley, is to "create more interdependence and touchpoints" between team members by creating events that foster a sense of community. Working from home can feel same after a while — there's no water cooler chat or spontaneous team lunch to break up the workday — so as a manager, you need to play the role of the social architect.

Find ways to interrupt the monotony. You don't need to fly all your colleagues to an off-site resort (though if your company has the budget, why not?) but think of how you might sprinkle small, team-oriented activities into the workweek, such as lunch-and-learn workshops and kickoff celebrations for team projects.

These activities must not place undue burdens on people, however. "Schedule them during the workday. Push back deadlines and reduce workloads if needed, because this is important," Noonan said. "It's important for people to have opportunities to connect and get to know each other."

She recommended using conversation-starter games such as TableTopics or Actually Curious to help break the ice. These games ask fun, nonintrusive questions such as "Which urban legend did you believe?" "Who's the best boss you ever worked for?" and "Which decade do you wish you could've been alive for?" Each is designed to help people reveal a little of their humanity in the workplace. Sure, they're a bit cheesy, but they also help people uncover shared interests and maybe even become work friends.

Ozcelik suggested orchestrating playful, collaborative tasks such as a team game of chess or a team-based video contest. "You want something that's fun, involves a little creativity, and makes people have to interact with and help one another," he said.

The helping component is key. His research shows that giving and receiving help at work strengthens relationships and creates norms in which helping colleagues in times of need become an expected element of team culture. This has the side benefit of improving morale and productivity down the road.

"Having a meeting just to get a task done doesn't create an enjoyable or meaningful experience," he said. "But when you help someone or someone helps you, you increase the quality of your relationship and the degree to which you enjoy interacting with each other."

Simulating in-person work is another possible antidote to loneliness. Noonan suggested setting aside a couple of hours each week where team members do their own work over video together. It's not expressly social, but the communal aspect allows people to ask questions and spark conversations. When toddlers play independently alongside one another, it's called "parallel play" — this is the same idea, but for adults. Even just hearing other people tapping on their keyboards can be strangely energizing and make you feel less alone, she said.

Finally, one last idea from yours truly: Get out of your house. Living alone and working by yourself all day is isolating, and work may not be where you ultimately get your social and emotional needs met. Lean into the advantages of working from home by taking a midday exercise class at your local gym or working in your neighborhood coffee shop for a few hours every day. Being around other people — even ones you're not working with directly — can do wonders for your spirit.

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