Loneliness and home working: How to look after yourselves and your colleagues.

Bethan Harris
Mar 19 · 12 min read

Workplace loneliness is already a huge issue for many and something we’ve been exploring for the last year at the Loneliness Lab. Being lonely at work can be bad for our mental health and our productivity, and a huge cost to employers. Take away the chance interactions of the office and the camaraderie of working side-by-side with our colleagues each day, and that situation can get a lot worse. As many offices close this week, much of the country will be working from home for extended periods, possibly for the first time.

Recent research by the Loneliness Lab, conducted by UCL Professor Nigel Oseland, shows that the most lonely workers are people who work from home and co-working spaces.

As a virtual team at Collectively and the Loneliness Lab, we are very used to working from home. We’ve learned the hard way that working virtually can be incredibly lonely. But it doesn’t have to be. Below are some of the coping strategies that have worked for us, and other freelancers, over the last few years.

Some important things to say first:

  • My focus here isn’t about tech tools and tips, although they can be really valuable . It’s about our relationship to work culture and ways of working. It’s about making time to care for our colleagues.
  • No two organisations, teams or groups of colleagues are the same. It’s important to make time as a team to explicitly design how you can support one another over the next few months, then continually check in and see what’s working and what needs to change. We will be running a virtual design sprint over the next few weeks to surface learnings to tackle virtual workplace loneliness. You can sign up to join us here.
  • I’m very aware that writing a blog about virtual working is an act of privilege in these difficult times, when only office-based work can easily be performed remotely. Our thoughts are with the amazing medical and front line workers, putting themselves and their families at risk, the millions of self- employed and gig economy workers whose work has ground to a halt in the last few days, and of course, those people in vulnerable conditions who’ve been asked to stay at home.
Loneliness Lab team zoom call: Bethan, Sophie, Heather and Rachel.

1. Make time to ‘check in’ during virtual calls and use video where possible.

Virtual meetings can be really different to face-to-face meetings. In person, there’s the inevitable chitchat as you walk to the meeting room, make a cup of tea, faff about with the whiteboard, all of this time you’re usually talking about things that have little to do with the agenda: the weather, how your day is going. In my experience, some of the most useful conversations actually happen in the margins of meetings; confiding in your colleague on the way in about how you feel about the meeting, or debriefing on difficult dynamics on the way back out. In contrast, virtual meetings can tend to be more clinical, getting down to business as soon as everyone is on the call and jumping off when the agenda is over.

What you can do:

  • Start and end each call with a “check-in”, inviting everyone to share how they’re feeling today. Encourage honesty and openness. If you are leading the call, model being vulnerable, it will encourage others to open up. If your team isn’t very forthcoming, it can be useful to use a tool like the ‘blob tree’, where everyone chooses a character that represents how they feel. Remember your check-in shouldn’t be constrained to the meeting content. Knowing your colleague is distracted because of some difficult family news can help you understand and accommodate their energy and input in the meeting.
  • Where possible, use video for your calls. Making eye contact makes a huge difference to the quality and depth of interaction and can often be more fun. As a team, we use Zoom. Google Hangouts, Skype, and Microsoft Teams are all great platforms, and most have free versions.

If you are an employer or leader: run a design session with your team. Ask them what they need to thrive over this period and surface ideas they have to support one another. Implement the ideas and review learnings at weekly intervals. Ideas from our team design session include: running Slack in the background as a virtual workspace, sharing Spotify playlists to cheer each other up, having virtual coffee breaks together to check in during the 3pm slump, and having a weekly (socially-distant) walk in the woods.

Conference calls tend to be a lot more functional and a lot less personal than face-to-face meetings. Make a considered effort to make space for authentic conversation and personal check-ins. Image credit: Barry Waite

2. We are all human - embrace it.

Who can forget the endearing scenes of a toddler running in on a Professor’s live interview with the BBC, and the shame and panic that ensued? As we all start working from home in confined spaces, washing machines will whirr, dogs will bark, couples will argue, kids and housemates will walk into phone calls. Rather than hide these and feel embarrassed, it’s a real opportunity to embrace the ‘real’ people behind the colleagues we work with.

Toddler walks in during BBC News video

Office environments and cultures are often toxic because work has, for decades, encouraged us to put on work personas along with our suits. Our world and workplaces would be a lot less lonely if people could really show up as their full selves. This is a great time to start.

What you can do:

  • Be kind and understanding. If there’s an interruption to a call, make sure everyone knows it’s okay. Show that things aren’t perfect in your household too and make sure they know they’re not the only one!
  • Take your team on a “tour”. It was great to hear from our Loneliness Lab partners Lendlease this week that one team have initiated ‘meet the family / home tours’ during their team meetings. Each day the team will ‘meet’ a different colleague. But do be mindful that some colleagues might live alone, or may not want to share their private space - what can you do to be sensitive and supportive to them?

If you are an employer or leader: model a positive culture by showing your team that you are human, too.

Snip from Twitter

3. Look after your collective wellbeing. Get out of the house, step away from the screen, and set boundaries.

It is absolutely imperative that we all follow government health guidelines during the Covid-19 outbreak about social distancing and isolation. It’s also important that we look after our wellbeing to boost our immunity and ensure we manage feelings of loneliness. Loneliness, mental health and physical health are all interconnected.

What you can do:

  • It’s really important to get outside at least once a day. A lovely idea is to do a daily ‘commute’. Get up and go for a walk before starting the working day, so that you add a boundary between work and home life. Walking can be an extension of your workplace too. Stanford University found that walking meetings increased creative outcomes by 60%. Take your phone out to the street, nearby park or garden and walk and talk. If you can’t leave, get fresh air from the windows.
Try to get some time outside in your local park, garden or street, where possible. Walking meetings on your phone are a great way to shift the energy of the day. If appropriate plan to walk with a friend, neighbour or colleague, maintaining social distance guidelines.
  • Take regular breaks, as you would in the office. You spend a lot of time away from your desk in the office walking between meeting rooms and making tea. Use this time at home to prepare healthy lunches, do some exercise and spend time with your housemates or family. For lunchtime yoga, check out Wild Wolf Yoga who are running virtual classes, it’s live and you’re supporting a small business.
  • Remember to end the working day. It’s easy to find yourself still sitting with your laptop at 8pm, or later. As a team we’ve agreed to a ritual of ‘checking in’ and ‘checking out’ on Slack so that colleagues know when we are no longer working — the virtual equivalent of putting on your coat and walking out the door!
  • Limit your screen time after work hours. When you are working from home you don’t get the natural screen breaks you would from face-to-face meetings and your commute.If you can, swap screens for books or exercise. This is a great reading list.

If you are an employer or leader: Promote healthy ways of working by logging on and off at sensible hours and encourage teams to check out too. If you choose to work late, “delay send” emails so it doesn’t become a cultural habit. Consider providing access to virtual work outs, yoga and meditation classes to your teams at lunchtime — platforms like MoveGB are supporting local fitness and yoga providers to stay open during the coronavirus by facilitating online classes. (This is also a great way to support struggling self-employed people and ensure vital community spaces stay open after the coronavirus crisis ends).

4. Set up peer support systems

When you are in the office, if a problem is weighing you down, the chances are you will chat to someone. This can often be informal and outside of line management relationships: sharing a problem with a work friend over lunch, or a chance conversation with someone while making tea. When you’re at home, problems can easily and quickly mount up.

What you can do:

  • Design a support system. Agree with close colleagues or work friends that you can phone each other without needing to schedule a meeting. Be intentional about actively listening to each other. Take it in turns to be the listener, and try to ask helpful questions of the other, so they can work through their problems out loud.
  • Set up virtual coffees. Plan to catch up with those that you would usually meet in the office, no agenda needed, just a chat! Inspired by the Loneliness Lab, communications consultancy, The Communications Store, has started a Zoom Tea Time at 3.30pm every day for anyone missing casual office interaction.
  • Run a virtual workspace in the background. Platforms like Slack or Microsoft Teams encourage instant messaging between colleagues, sharing coping strategies or cheering each other up with music playlists and memes. (Slack also does wonders for keeping email traffic down and, unlike Whatsapp, enables you to log off at the end of the day).
  • If you don’t have a formal organisation or team, it can be really helpful to make time to check in with other freelancers. At the Loneliness Lab we’re running a weekly ‘Communitea’ every Thursday at 3pm for people in our community to drop in online and share what they need. This could be a lovely way to reach out to other people working virtually in your street or building, perhaps going for a walk together or having lunch, although do check the latest government advice on social distancing.

If you are an employer or leader: make sure you check in with your team by phone or instant messaging as much as possible. Make time to really listen to how they are and encourage a culture of peer support. Remember, introverts and quieter colleagues can be at risk of falling through the cracks. Discuss with your team how you can be particularly supportive to anyone who could be vulnerable.

Inspired by the Loneliness Lab, PR agency TCS have set up informal digital tea time calls for their workforce every day during the coronavirus outbreak.

5. Design a healthy “home-office” and get dressed

When working from home it can be tempting to wake up, open your laptop on the sofa, or even in bed, and spend the day in your pyjamas. I’ve been there, and believe me you will feel awful after just one day.

What you can do:

  • Get up and get dressed as if you were going to the office, albeit a bit comfier.
  • Make sure you pack everything away at the end of the day so your work is out of sight and out of mind in the evenings.
  • Set up a good workspace, ideally at a table, and include things that make you feel good e.g. plants, nice lighting. Loneliness Lab colleague and Workplace Strategist, Rachel Edwards, makes some helpful suggestions:

“For me, it’s super important to avoid the monotony of being in the same space all day. As you would in a modern workspace, think about the tasks you’re doing and find a space best suited for them. Many of us may not have the opportunity to move very far (if we’re in a studio flat or house share, for example) but the main message here is to make sure you’re moving around throughout the day. Also, use this enforced change of scenery to breathe a bit more and ignite your inner creativity (like the saying people often get their best ideas in the shower). Think about the places you find it easiest to relax, restore and reflect — and keep them as sacred spaces in your home for doing only that. Poised People is a great resource for tips on setting up a good ergonomic space at home.”

If you are an employer or leader: Don’t assume your team has somewhere well-equipped to work from at home. Many staff may be living in house shares or in small rooms without space for a desk. To combat this, my brilliant friends at If Not Now Digital offered all of their team a desk to take home. Consider offering financial support to provide your employees with things like desks, better internet speeds and, if appropriate, access to local cafes or workspaces.

My colleague Sophie sharing her desk as part of the #WFHsetup — see Twitter for more inspiration.

6. Embrace the opportunity to slow down

Whilst this will be a really tough time, it’s also a huge opportunity to slow down. The always-on busy nature of modern life is a huge contribution to the mental health and loneliness crisis we are all facing. Our research through London is Lonely shows that for many people, especially younger generations, loneliness is just as much about feeling disconnected from ourselves, as it is being disconnected from other people. Life will inevitably be slower over the coming months, let’s take time to be mindful in it.

Things you can do:

  • Reclaim the 5+ hours of commuting time you’ve just got back. Do the life admin you’ve been putting off for months, or the photo albums you’ve been meaning to print. Dust off old hobbies, or start something new you’ve always wanted to do.
  • Connect with the people that matter to you. Phone people you’ve been too busy to connect with for a while.
  • Volunteer to help out with Covid-19. One of the best things you can do for loneliness and mental health is to volunteer. A simple act like batch cooking and swapping meals with neighbours can be a real positive boost to your day and will mean so much to them and you.

If you are an employer or leader: Lead by example, encourage mindfulness and slow down too. Notice how slowing down might actually “speed up” your workforce. Take these learnings back into your organisation when this is over. We could all do with being a little less busy and a bit more connected to the things that matter in life.

We’d love to hear what you are doing to tackle virtual workplace loneliness. You can also sign up for our virtual sprint on workplace loneliness here.

Thanks to the lovely people I work with at the Loneliness Lab who helped share tips and ideas for this article. You’re awesome!

— — — -

I’ll leave you with the words from a great piece on navigating the transition we are in by Ed Gillespie:

“Perhaps remote-working compels us to reimagine our practices of over-work and over-travel? What is being served by our hyper-mobility? Our harassed and harried pinging from place to place, wherever, whenever and however often we want, for whatever reason seems, well, in a twisted sense ‘reasonable’?”

Good luck!

Loneliness Lab

We are a collective of individuals and organisations on a…

Bethan Harris

Written by

I lead Collectively — we believe that to build a better world we need everyone involved. Co-founder of Loneliness Lab, #shevotes and We are Europe.

Loneliness Lab

We are a collective of individuals and organisations on a mission to design out loneliness in our cities. Together we are experimenting with ways to reshape the places, spaces and services in our cities with belonging in mind.

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