This life of quarantine that we’ve found ourselves in because of the threat of COVID-19 has caused many organizations to try new ways to function. With team members connected only by voice and pictures on a screen, our way of operating is suddenly radically different and we have no real precedents. This raises the question for many organizations: How can we build or maintain a sense of belonging while we’re physically separate?
The current situation presents a number of leadership challenges, and important among them is how to reach out and maintain a sense of connection. Many people are left in isolated circumstances and are experiencing a depth of loneliness they’re unused to. Loneliness has a profound impact on humans because we are, at the most fundamental level, social animals. In addition, when we’re in a state of loneliness, perceptions of social isolation can increase vigilance for threat, as well as heighten our sense of vulnerability.
Loneliness has an impact on our physical health as well. Research has linked loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, Alzheimer’s disease — and even death.
This is not to suggest that being alone equates to loneliness. Many people, especially introverts, enjoy their alone time and find it a great time to recharge. However, for those who suffer from loneliness, our current situation has potentially significant negative psychological, social, and physical effects.
Add to all of this the very real threats that people face to their physical and financial well-being, and the emotional toll of worrying about ourselves and the people we love.
Why is this a workplace issue?
Aside from the obvious expectation that employers should have some concern about their employees’ safety and well-being, the impact of all of this fear, frustration, and loneliness can be dramatic. The sense of isolation and stress can impact decision-making and productivity. It can leave people feeling even more afraid of an already uncertain future.
While some people are still going to work, and others may be returning soon, still others may remain in a virtual state for quite some time. And, some people’s home situations may be very complex. They may have children or others to care for. They may be stuck inside a small space with other people who also have to be working and find it more difficult to concentrate. Or, in all too many cases, they may be trapped inside of their house with a partner or spouse who is abusive or is abusing substances.
Organizational leaders can lead efforts in their companies to address these concerns and to maintain a sense of belonging while we remain separate. They can:
1. Find ways to reinforce the idea that we’re all “in this together.”
Strive to maintain regular communication and make sure employees know they’re a part of something bigger than themselves. This also means regularly checking in with team members to ask how they’re coping. This may not always be in a group format. Pay attention to employees who you know are by themselves. Isolation and loneliness can quickly lead to downward spirals. If you have a sense that somebody is especially stressed, reach out to the person, either as a peer or a leader. Provide organizational or other mental health resources to help.
One way to establish a greater sense of belonging is to give each participant a chance to share how they’re doing before every virtual staff meeting. Don’t skip yourself. This process allows people to be more authentic with each other. Sometimes it can be helpful to ask a trigger question to spark people’s sharing, such as “How would you rate your self of well-being right now on a scale of 1 to 10?”
2. Consciously work on organizational alignment.
Have transparent conversations with everybody in the organization. Make sure everyone understands the issues the organization is experiencing and what management is doing to try to alleviate them. If some people in your organization have to be out in the field while others are at home, be especially open in talking about that, acknowledging that some may be at greater risk, and having the whole team acknowledge these different statuses.
If you do have to take austerity measures, work whenever possible to create “shared risk” solutions. For example, equitably reduce pay across the board, rather than lay people off. In one large company, the CEO took a 30 percent pay cut while the top 200 leaders took a 20 percent pay cut. The money will support the lowest salaried members of the team.
3. Encourage well-being and mindfulness practices.
Promoting and facilitating practices that can alleviate stress is an important component for helping team members through this challenging time. For example, build breaks into your meetings to give everyone time to stretch, walk outside and take deep, centering breaths. Such momentary escapes from their screens are necessary for the mind and body. If possible, avoid long sessions in favor of several shorter ones.
Encourage staff to make use of literally hundreds of meditation or mindfulness resources and to use them regularly to calm the mind and quiet the fear centers of the brain. Some user-friendly meditation apps include Calm, Headspace, Aura, and Insight Timer.
Overall, it’s important to acknowledge the amount of uncertainty right now. Employees are looking for their company leader for stability. Providing regular updates and looking after the well-being of staff will help immensely in creating a sense of belonging and hope for the future.