Employee Connectedness: Fighting Isolation in Remote Work

Episode 4: Fighting Isolation in Remote Work

Several weeks into the covid-19 crisis, most businesses that can switch to remote work have done so. Fighting isolation and disconnect among employees is a major challenge with remote work, even without a global pandemic. Leaders need to focus on the human connections they have with their employees in order to accurately detect and resolve feelings of isolation within their teams.

In this episode of Employee ConnectednessUnitonomy founder Charley Miller discusses the challenges of employee isolation and disconnect in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis with UofL researcher Dr. Brad Shuck and OnPlane consultant Martin Low

In this discussion, they will address how to identify signs of isolation among remote workers, ensuring communication has impact as opposed to just volume, and how to address disconnect during an economic climate that is physically distant. As discussed in Episode 1, in a time of crisis like the current pandemic, individuals will remember how an organization made them feel. That emotional reaction is especially important when it comes to feelings of isolation during remote work.

Episode 4: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e37xpDX_q_0

Employee Connectedness is live-streamed every weekday at 10:15am EST on the Unitonomy YouTube channel. You can join there and ask questions in the chat. You can also find previous episodes posted there and on the Unitonomy blog.

Connected Employees

Full Transcript:

Employee Connectedness: Fighting Isolation in Remote Work

Charley Miller 1:09
Good morning, gentlemen. Monday, March 30 talking employee connectedness I’m Charley Miller with Unitonomy. I’m joined by Dr. Brad Shuck from the University of Louisville and Martin Low from OnPlane Consulting. Martin looks like he shaved this weekend. that’s a nice touch here.

Martin Low 1:29
A Spring Break tradition for us is that you shave, all the facial hair so that you’re ready for summer, and you’re in line and the best thing that I do is I shave portions of it, just to see if a new look will actually work out so I had this awesome like handlebar mustache, that was immediately vetoed by all other family members

Charley Miller 1:55
and Brad, it looks like you’ve got the nice grooming going here. You’re beating both Martin and I here in terms of the pandemic beard, which I know a lot of people are starting to grow out

Martin Low 2:05
and Charley I lost all your audio somehow.

Charley Miller 2:09
I had to unmute myself Sorry guys. I was saying to Brad, it looks like he’s beating us here in the pandemic beard game.

Brad Shuck 2:18
I’ve decided to not shave until we go back, which looks like it might be around June 1 So, by that time, I’m gonna look pretty, pretty wild.

Charley Miller 2:31
Alright so today’s topic we want to talk about the signs people should be looking toward or looking for when it comes to maybe someone feeling lonely, a colleague feeling lonely, someone you manage feeling lonely, or just maybe someone needing attention of some sort, they need some sort of connectedness and may not take the form of loneliness. I want to talk to you guys about it because you’re experts in all things employees and cultivating culture, and understanding the employee experience and how employees engage with each other in the business. So, Brad. I’m gonna throw this over to you to start today. Just what comes to mind when you think about, you know someone’s showing signs of needing connection.

Brad Shuck 3:19
Yes. So, this is something we’ve started to look into and actually I ran. I was furiously texting Charley on Friday last week because we got a new data set, and I was running through the psychometrics on the scales for the very first time which is exciting. We have a project’s been going on for a couple of months we get to finally kind of understand what’s going on. Connectedness and feeling like you’re a part of community is one of the variables that we kind of started to look at when it comes to what a leader might look for you might be surprised about what you may want to look for in terms of signs. Sometimes people can look withdrawn but sometimes that withdrawn look is they just, they’re over capacity right now.

And I think that’s something leaders need to be really really aware of. I’ve worked with a lot of leaders over the last week who their strategy is more communication. We need more and more and more and I’m not so sure the word more is the right word to be using here. Maybe intentional, purposeful, empathetic, or transparent maybe but the word more is probably not the way that I would kind of put context around the kind of communication that’s needed right now. So sometimes employees look like they’re distant remotely, that can be non-responsive. That can be not finishing up on a project or not meeting a deadline, when we, when we think about this from, like, a measurement standpoint.

I’ve worked with a lot of leaders over the last week whose strategy is more communication…I’m not so sure the word “more” is the right word to be using here. Maybe intentional, purposeful, empathetic, or transparent maybe, but the word “more” is probably not…the kind of communication that’s needed right now.

Dr. Brad Shuck

This is how we kind of think about the idea of connectedness and I’m gonna I’m gonna read some statements from the scale that we use to understand this and this is gonna give us kind of a flavor of what does somebody look like when they feel connected and then we have the opposite. When we think about isolation so maybe disconnected so I’m gonna start with connectedness first. So, people who feel very connected at work would would answer positively to things like: at work I feel like I’m a part of a community; I feel supported when I’m at work; at work I feel like I belong at work; I feel like I’m included in informal social activities; and I believe the people around me appreciate me and I think about those. Those are all very emotional things. So I feel like I belong. I feel like people appreciate me. I’m not only invited to the, to the mandatory things, but I’m also invited to the informal things remotely, that can look tricky. Right. It is making sure that people will feel included in projects that are going to impact them. But also, maybe being invited to meetings, just so that their voices are there. That’s the thing about inclusion: it’s not about who’s not in the room but it’s about whose voice is not in the room that should be in the room.

That’s the thing about inclusion: it’s not about who’s not in the room, but it’s about whose voice is not in the room that should be in the room.

Dr. Brad Shuck

Now, if we think about that in terms of isolation and disconnectedness kind of sounds like this. I feel ignored at work, people often overlook my work. I feel like I’m invisible. I feel lonely. I feel isolated from others when I’m at work very, very different than connectedness right? So “people appreciate me” versus “I feel ignored.” We find these to be really really powerful psychological triggers. Charley, what do you, what are you thinking?

Charley Miller 6:43
So I think one keyword you just nailed right there, that’s going to come up more and more related to the pandemic, covid-19: isolation. So many people, especially in the knowledge workspace, are now isolated because we have to be isolated, they’re getting used to this, to some degree, if you can ever really get used to not having the connection. Everyone’s jumping into video conferencing, kind of almost running environments like we’re in right now where hey we get to see each other’s face and laugh and have a moment that’s great that’s gonna really help people regain that sense of the office. But maybe a lot of people don’t have all these calls that you know. It’s funny, I’m hearing stories from two different sides: some people were saying “I’m in nothing but video conferences from nine to five right now. It’s crazy.” And there’s another group that’s the opposite where they feel like, because of their role, they’re not in a lot of meetings, they’re not getting a lot of face time, and now they’re suddenly this isolation thing is really starting to hurt. And that’s the kind of people I worry about. I was talking to a friend over the weekend. This is unrelated to pandemic but he was in a role for three years and a start up of about 12 people. He was the only designer on the team. And so, design work kind of went over to him, and he did that kind of by himself, and working remotely he started to feel very isolated after three years. He just left because, in his words he felt lonely. He had no one to really collaborate with who’s looked at this, he was kind of this island within the startup. And I realized, wow, I hope that doesn’t happen to a lot of people because of the social distancing we’re having to go through a world right now, related to the pandemic. Martin, what do you think?

Martin Low 8:25
You know it’s it’s interesting. One of the questions that always relates back to employee engagement. And to me employee engagement has that direct line of sight to the discretionary effort which is the amount of effort that I’ll put forth above and beyond what I need to do to not get fired. But one of the questions that always links back to that really closely is “I have a friend who work.” Right. So think about that, that simple question–even though as an employer it’s not your job to provide friendship to someone–that has a direct line of sight to how hard people are going to work, and whether or not they’re actually going to stick around.

One of the questions that always links back to that really closely is “I have a friend who work.”…that simple question…has a direct line of sight to how hard people are going to work, and whether or not they’re actually going to stick around.

Martin Low, OnPlane Consulting

And so we’ve just made this move to where now we have to be much more intentional and mindful about how we’re communicating, I don’t think, Brad, to your point that it’s around more, but I think it is around creating a space so what are you doing intentionally to make sure that you have a touchpoint with folks on your team on a regular basis. Because there are going to be people, especially when things start moving really fast it’s been moving really fast for everybody. There are going to be people that get kind of set to the side, not because you don’t care about them or not because they’re not important. But just because you get super busy on something over on one part of the business that maybe doesn’t directly impact them. And so even though your actions don’t mean that they’re not important, their perception of those actions, because they’re not included and now they’re kind of set by the wayside is now they’re not engaged, now their work’s not important, now they’re not involved, all of those things that you’re talking about. So, you know, to me, when I started getting this topic. I started thinking about like, Well how can you find out if someone said, If How can you find it if so, can you do those things. And I actually had to step back from that one step because if you don’t have that trust, and if you don’t have that relationship built, you may be the last person that they go to when they actually have a problem surfacing. Then it’s going to be a lot harder because you don’t have the face to face interaction that you used to have. You may not just bump into them at the office so, to me it starts with building time into your schedule on a regular cadence and regular frequency to have that connectedness time, and it’s just that simple. And then I think the other stuff kind of comes out of there later once you build the relationship.

Charley Miller 10:50
Okay so keyword there: “touchpoints.” Proactively reaching out to people and gauge how they’re feeling about things. That’s really important to be asking questions right now, Brad.

Brad Shuck 11:01
You know sometimes there’s like a plugin for your email or a plugin for Outlook that you would work like. I feel like there’s a new connectedness plugin that needs to be a part of the way that we’re communicating. I am, I was communicating with our Office of internal communications at the university, and I’m completely disconnected from the team. I, I’ve never met any of those people in person we had this idea that we wanted to float out there and at the end of the note. I just, I popped in there “Hey, thanks for all you guys are doing and communicating and helping us all kind of feel like we’re a part of the community.” And man, they wrote me back so fast! They were like “thank you so much for the encouragement, thank you for noticing the work that we’re doing.” And it’s, it’s that kind of a plugin that I feel like we’ve got to be more intentional as leaders and those touchpoints, and it’s almost reframing the way in which I’m, I’m communicating to help drive that connection in a more intentional and very purposeful way do those touchpoints that you were talking about.

Charley Miller 12:11
Every time we do one of these morning talks, I realized we always are talking about intentionality, And I think that’s is a really nice way of phrasing, and it’s not to mean the same thing you brought up earlier in the call Brad, which is, you need to communicate more because that’s more communication doesn’t necessarily mean more benefit, right? It’s, it’s when you do communicate being intentional and to the side of gauging sentiment and showing some empathy and building trust to Martin’s point. If you’re asking the right questions, especially if you’re doing a cadence where it feels like it’s happening in the right moments, everyone’s gonna feel better.

It’s one of these things that I try to explain to people when they understand the philosophy behind our products at Unitonomy. There’s always two birds with every stone for every feature that we have in the product, which is to say, yeah, our system asks questions to get answers to help communication, but just by asking the question, that helps. Right, it’s getting people to realize hey, I’m working with colleagues and manager that cares, like they actually are leaning into this to find out how I feel and even before I answer, I already feel better because someone wants to know how I feel. That’s really important I think and Martin, you’re a consultant that does this on the front lines would you concur of what I said.

Just by asking the question, that helps…people realize “I’m working with colleagues and manager that care [because] they actually are leaning into this to find out how I feel and even before I answer, I already feel better because someone wants to know how I feel.”

Charley Miller, Founder of Unitonomy

Martin Low 13:32
Totally. Totally. It starts with, you know, people are gonna fill in a lot of information on their own if you don’t give them the information for them to fill in, and they generally don’t fill it in with good information, right? So if it’s questionable about whether or not someone cares about you a lot of time, most people are gonna assume now that, because I haven’t heard from them, I don’t think they care that much. I think just by starting the conversation by setting up the time to do that and starting that conversation, and even, you know, going a step further than that which is don’t have trying to ask why and trying to get underneath, not so much that you missed a deadline or that something’s not getting done, but to try and understand why those two things are going to build so much trust for you so quickly. If you do it in a genuine way that a lot of this other stuff will then come later just naturally.

People are gonna fill in a lot of information on their own if you don’t give them the information for them to fill in, and they generally don’t fill it in with good information

Martin Low, OnPlane Consulting

Charley Miller 14:27
That’s great. So I think to wrap up today’s talk. Let’s just get some ideas of some of the core things that maybe look for and of course, looking is maybe the wrong word here, like it’s really hard to see when someone’s feeling isolated or lonely. So back to everything we’ve been talking about is kind of like what questions should we be asking when we talk about looking for someone feeling disconnected. And I’ll start here which is to say, I like to set aside a little time in my schedule on a Friday to have the touchpoint that Martin’s talking about with my team. I like to make sure that everyone’s feeling okay about things and that’s things about our company that we’re trying to build, but it’s also about things on the home front and right now because what’s going to pandemic. I think it’s important to make sure even we’re about to have a meeting, that’s about something very specific within the context of our company. And that first five minutes, it’s always gonna be about small talk and that video conference uses a little bit five minutes to make sure you’re picking up any cues coming from that person about issues and when we talk about isolation, I think it’s a good time to have your ears primed to be listening. Oh, spelling person feeling alone, do they need actually a little bit more connection here. That’s how I kind of go about it at this point. Brad over to you.

I like to set aside a little time in my schedule on a Friday to have the touchpoint… with my team. I like to make sure that everyone’s feeling okay about things and…about our company that we’re trying to build, but it’s also about things on the home front right now because what’s going to pandemic.

Charley Miller, Founder of Unitonomy

Brad Shuck 15:39
Yeah, so, Charley, I totally, I totally agree. Um, what I’m going to add to this is there’s a two to one benefit of being connected versus being isolated. Being, feeling isolated is terrible. Being connected is a game-changer. And the research is pretty, pretty clear on this. When we look at things like when people are answering the question “Do I feel ignored at work” versus “Do I feel appreciated at work” there’s a, there’s an almost 100% swing in the other direction. So the, the time investment that we’re making on those Fridays to connect back with our teams and our touchpoints or to make sure that people feel like they’re connected or even chime in on a meeting like hey Martin, “what do you think about this or anything you want to add to that,” those kinds of things are gonna benefit you two to one in the long run. It pays to pay attention to this.

Charley Miller 16:34
And, Martin. I have a specific question to you when you work with companies. I call it “the foosball question.” I used to go into all these offices, especially in New York and like the startups would always want to show off their cool foosball table or the ping pong table over here, as is to say look at our culture how fun it is. I would be okay with that if they said that in the right context, which is hey don’t look at how fun we are, they’re saying look we care about our employees connecting and we understand productivity is not the end all be all. We need our employees to feel good about this so this thing last people stay here. Then I would say all right thumbs up happy hours, whatever you need to do, that’s great that you’re building that piece of it. But don’t just tell me you guys are fun to be around–like that doesn’t sell it to me. Martin, what kind of advice do you give to companies when it comes to this, of course pre-pandemic when you could actually play foosball with people. And now, in this virtual world that we happen to live in how do people connect?

Martin Low 17:29
Yeah. I think it’s tough, um, you know we talked about this, like really early on, around, purpose, and you know to me so much of what we’re doing, comes back to just core fundamentals, and that muscle memory we talked about earlier, like how do you build up just those basic skill sets that, that have completely changed? To me, it goes back to purpose because purpose can connect your team. Right. So have you been clear about that–a lot of times most companies have not been really really clear about purpose and if they haven’t been clear about purpose, they haven’t been talking about it in their communications. Right now, so you know, the three of us are on this call, because we all have a shared purpose and that naturally drives our connections. I think that’s the way that you started in that increases the quality of your communication without having to say, Alright, you got to do 20 emails this week to everybody, to try and make sure that everybody’s having fun or any of this sort of stuff. It all starts with purpose, reminding everybody what your mission is, what the vision is, why you’re doing that. Because now I have a reason to get up in the morning: it’s the same thing that everybody else is doing. That helps me with that, that thought around that feeling about connectedness, even when I’m not virtually talking to people or answering questions about how am I doing or, you know, those sort of things.

Charley Miller 18:54
I think one way to conclude today is something I’ve learned in time which is a great way of connecting people is through humor. And as you work with a lot of people over time you develop inside jokes, right? It’s a real bonding mechanism. So what can you do when everyone’s remote right now to sort of birth inside jokes and some humor, especially in a really trying time. Kind of do some homework assignments that are fun like hey let’s all watch the same movie in the next week. And so we can have sort of a chat about it and see if through that light heartedness of that some of these inside jokes start to brew. It’s doing two things: yeah we’re feeling connected, but it’s also kind of getting our minds off the small conversations that I’m getting a lot over and over which just talking about health, the pandemic which is kind of just reinforcing that oppressive nature of what’s happening. So I think distractions are healthy to degree and since we don’t have sports, you know let’s turn to some of the art that we have and maybe brew up some conversations around that. Alright guys, thank you for the time. Awesome conversation once again, loving these, and I will see you all tomorrow.