When I imagined graduate school, I didn’t imagine the distance-work and the loneliness that would soon follow. I envisioned study groups at the homes of my classmates complete with wine and charcuterie boards, meeting my professors for coffee while discussing new theoretical research, and attending social science conferences with fellow honor society members. My classmates and I would share the blessings and the burdens of being Masters of Social Work students as we were all committed to the same purpose — to enhance human well-being and empower those who are vulnerable and oppressed through mental health.
However, my graduate school experience looks very different than what I daydreamed. I opted for a more flexible option than the in-person setting, an online program from Catholic University so that I could move across the world with my husband. While I was ecstatic that I would still be able to move my career forward through this program, I was bummed that I would be “repping” my Catholic University cardinal sweatshirt all by myself without another student nearby. As the program progressed in a remote environment, I soon felt isolated and lacked a sense of belonging. Interactions with classmates were only through formal discussion board posts that did not encourage organic conversation or collaboration and lectures were prerecorded or in the form of PowerPoints. There was zero facetime with classmates and professors; it was as if I was going through the curriculum alone. I became disengaged and only did the bare minimum to get decent grades rather than diving into the material with excitement and a thirst for growth. Something had to change.
Distance work can cause similar feelings of loneliness and detachment.
Who doesn’t want to skip the commute and take the first call of the day in pajamas from the couch? Working remotely affords so many of us an enhanced quality of life. Many consider distance work to be a perk of the job – being able to work where you are happiest whether that is in your home office or on a beach chair in Tulum. That sounds amazing, right? However, one of the challenges we often forget to consider is how isolating working outside the office can truly be. Isolation can lead to a sense of loneliness, even if you are a part of a large team.
The good news is these feelings aren’t inevitable. This week I interviewed Dr. Tom Guariello, psychologist and professor at New York’s School of Visual Arts Masters in Branding program, on the topic. I have developed some tips and tricks to help conquer feelings of loneliness and boost your sense of belonging.
Step 1: Talk about it
Stop the silence and speak up about how you feel.
In Buffer’s 2018 State of Remote Work Report, they learned 20% of distance workers felt that loneliness was one of their biggest struggles with working outside the office. What does this mean? You are not alone! Chances are some of your colleagues feel the same way and are waiting for someone to share that they, too, miss chatting by the coffee machine and the weekly dessert hour (nothing beats sweet treat Friday!). By voicing your challenges related to loneliness, you can actually build a stronger relationship with your coworkers. Your openness could lead to more discussion and subsequently make you feel connected after all.
But your colleagues aren’t the only ones you should talk to. My advice is to seek support from your boss as well. Their job is not only to ensure you are getting projects done on time but to also keep tabs on whether you feel happy with your work environment and culture. If you are craving more interaction with team members, host a weekly brainstorm over Zoom or provide edits over the phone rather than through email.
A good company cares about its workers and should welcome the opportunity to address whatever concerns you have around isolation.
Step 2: Connect with coworkers on a more personal level
One of the reasons you might be feeling lonely is because you find that working from home means all of your conversations with colleagues center around work. While being an employee at the same company is the initial connecting point, relationships are formed by learning more about the people themselves, not just the work they do. In order to regain that sense of community, you have to make a concerted effort to get to know your fellow distance workers on a deeper level. Do they have a family? What do they do for fun? Do you have anything in common? These are questions that were typically answered organically during face-to-face interactions in the break room.
His advice is to look for little opportunities for connectivity by figuring out where you intersect with others, even if your Venn diagrams only overlap 5%.
Use this small amount as the foundation or jump off point and build a positive relationship from there. Try inviting one distanced coworker to a 30-minute virtual coffee break or vent session via Google Hangout each week, or start off your Monday morning by sending a “How was your weekend?” message via your company’s chat platform. Dr. Guarriello even suggests asking coworkers, “What is the coolest thing that happened to you in the last 24 hours?” as a meeting ice breaker. Another option is to kill two birds with one stone:
Fruitful networking requires nurturing relationships, not simply making a request and forgetting about it. Try sending out 2 different invite requests, a regular 30 minute touch point and a happy hour invite to people you genuinely want to bond with in your professional network. People like to work with those they feel a connection to so getting to know their interests in addition to their resume is beneficial. Plus, who doesn’t like getting business done with a glass of vino in hand during these Linkedin meet-ups?
Step 3: Find meaning in your work
Dr. Guarriello shared that belonging is fostered through clarity of purpose. In other words, feeling passionate about your company’s vision and mission is key. Colleagues who share a mutual commitment to producing work that mirrors the company’s overarching goals have a stronger connection. Take some time to reflect on why your work is meaningful and how your contribution brings value to the team and company. Discuss your thoughts with your coworkers and brainstorm ways in which you can collaborate at a higher level to help each other live up to that commitment and common purpose.
Step 4: Stay engaged with friends and family outside of work
Lastly, socializing outside of the workplace is a must. Let’s face it, most of us have acquaintances at work, but our best friends may be from other parts of our lives. Distance work allows us the flexibility to meet up with neighborhood friends for lunch or FaceTime family members in different time zones during the day. So, make the most of it, and keep those relationships outside of work alive. Personally, I plan two periodic after-work outings and virtual chat sessions with friends or family members who I don’t often get to see each week.
Sick of connecting with loved ones over food and alcohol? Try starting a hobby together.
My grandmother and I started practicing our creative writing once a week by simply responding to a one-word prompt for 5 minutes and then sharing our prose. Not only are we bonding over an activity that stimulates our minds, but we aren’t ruining our fitness goals in the process!
P.S. Find the upside in solitude
While distance work loneliness does have its downsides, solitude can be advantageous— not just lonely. If you are lucky enough to have a quiet space to work in your house you might find that the seclusion increases your productivity. While it might have taken you 3 hours to write a memo before, not being interrupted by coworkers allows you to finish your work in only two. Another benefit of distance work is not being watched by superiors. If you are anything like me, I enjoy working in spurts and taking frequent breaks. In the office setting, I hated having to prove to others that I was getting my work done by being chained to my desk. And that can be lonely in a different way.
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Remote work has provided opportunities for people to engage who may otherwise not choose to do so in a face to face setting. Join Heather as she shares her story on how the remote environment has expanded the reach of teams driven by more communication rather than less.