Remote work is here to stay, as 48% of the workforce is expected to be remote or hybrid. Employers should be thoughtful about this transition to ensure its success—and that includes addressing remote isolation. Over one-third (35%) of remote workers say they struggle with isolation and loneliness.

Social isolation can lead to sleeplessness, reduced immune function, poor cardiovascular health and cognitive function, and higher anxiety, depression, and suicide rates. Each of these can have an adverse impact on your team members’ personal and professional lives, making this a crucial challenge to address. There are many things HR can do to combat social isolation and foster a sense of belonging in the remote work environment.

Cultivate opportunities for virtual connection

There are so many opportunities for casual conversation and connection when team members work in the same office space. You can chat with the person who sits next to you, run into someone in the kitchen, and meet up for a drink after work. But having a remote work environment doesn’t have to rob your team members of these opportunities for camaraderie and connection. There are a lot of great ways to enhance the virtual employee experience:

  • Instant messaging. An instant messaging app like Slack or Microsoft Teams can help your team members connect with each other on a personal and professional level. For example, they can send a direct message to discuss a project with a colleague or check in with their manager. They can also utilize channels to connect to others with similar interests, such as music, parenting, or skiing. 
  • Employee resource groups (ERGs). ERGs are voluntary groups that build community between employees with shared characteristics, interests, and issues. Hosting these virtually can help your distributed team members come together to support one another and send their collective feedback to company leaders so you can create a more inclusive remote work environment.
  • Team building. Host a monthly team building event like a virtual escape room or a Zoom happy hour so your team members can unwind and have some fun together. You might even send out a cocktail kit or Uber Eats gift card to recreate the in-person team building experience.
  • Buddy system. Starting a new role remotely can be isolating and confusing—especially for a team member who has never been in a remote work environment before. Assign each of your new hires a seasoned buddy at your company so they have a peer to help them learn the ropes and answer questions. 

Gather for in-person events

Many distributed teams regularly get together in-person to combat isolation, forge stronger connections, and have some fun. In fact, 82% of remote workers say their company supports in-person interactions through events, summits, meet-ups, etc. For example:

  • GitLab is a fully distributed company and offers their remote team members a Get Together Grant. The grant covers $50 for a meal, activity, or ground transportation if an employee wants to meet with a colleague in-person. They also have a Visiting Grant (currently paused) which covers $150 to assist with travel expenses if the colleague they’re meeting isn’t local.
  • Buffer held an annual team retreat prior to the COVID-19 pandemic to get all of their team members together for bonding. Now they’re exploring regional meetups and local gatherings due to unpredictable travel restrictions for their global team.
  • Basecamp gathers their entire team for a week at their Chicago headquarters twice a year and allows small groups to gather once a year at a destination of their choosing. 

Create a culture of recognition

Recognition can fall by the wayside when we don’t see colleagues and direct reports face-to-face—but it’s important to keep it up in a remote work environment. One in five (20%) employees say feeling underappreciated for their contributions is hindering their engagement at work. Feeling underappreciated can also lead to feelings of isolation, especially for remote employees.

Create a culture of recognition in which everyone—including company leaders, line managers, and individual contributors—proactively acknowledge one another’s achievements. Here are some ideas to get started:

  • Lead by example. Company leaders should make a point to acknowledge and recognize team members regularly—especially during team meetings and one-on-ones. This positive action can be contagious, encouraging others in your organization to recognize team members as well.
  • Use the right tools. The right tools can enable your workforce to recognize one another even when they don’t see each other regularly. The team at Sapling uses the HeyTaco app to praise colleagues on Slack so wins can be acknowledged and celebrated by everyone together.
  • When in doubt, celebrate. Show your team that no accomplishment is too small to be recognized. Celebrate employee milestones, like birthdays and anniversaries. Promote feedback a team member received from a customer. Share a Glassdoor review for an exceptional manager during your all-hands. And thank people for recognizing their peers so they know how appreciated it is.

Encourage socialization with people outside of work

Humans are inherently social and need to feel connection to others. Many miss the social aspect of coming into an office, even if they don’t miss the commute or the less flexible workday. But the remote work environment opens up more opportunities for your team members to connect with people outside of work:

  • Provide a coworking stipend. Offer your team members a stipend to use on a coworking space or reimbursement for refreshments purchased at a coffee shop. The change of scenery can help your team members feel less isolated than if they were working from home by themselves.
  • Offer networking reimbursement. Community-based networking groups can help your team members feel connected to people with similar interests while building strong business relationships. Reimburse your team members for joining groups like their local Chamber of Commerce, Toastmasters, or alumni association.
  • Support work-life balance. Reassure your team members that it’s ok to take advantage of their flexible working arrangements to make time for friends and family. For example, they could go out to lunch with their partner, volunteer at their kid’s school, or take a mental health day at the spa with a friend. To ensure fairness and maintain productivity, it doesn’t hurt to outline expectations in your remote work, volunteer, and paid time off policies. 

Final thoughts on combating isolation in a remote work environment

Every person and every team is different, and combating isolation may need to be different at each company as well. Run an Organizational Network Analysis survey to understand how employees collaborate, communicate, influence, share information, and make decisions with their colleagues. This can help you identify your most socially isolated team members so you can learn what they need to feel a stronger sense of belonging. Then work with your most influential team members to drive the actions that will combat isolation and continually improve your remote work environment. 

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Combatting Isolation in the Remote Work Environment