My son and I were on a ski lift this week with a couple of young NYC men in financial services. As conversations invariably go these days, talk drifted to the coronavirus. Their big concern: mandatory remote work impacting their happiness.

While many of us relish the opportunity to work from home, these guys were dreading the corporate edict that would ban them from the office and invariably isolate them: “My work is already boring enough. Now I’m going to have to do it alone!”

Happier together

We’re social creatures, and humans thrive when we’re connected to others.  We’re happier when connected to others.  And we’re more productive and innovative when we are happy.

Not only that, but if you’ve read any of the happiness research that’s come out in the last decade, I’m sure you’ve come across a stat or two connecting social relationships to life expectancy. (Spoiler: lack of connection is worse than smoking.)

Isolation can impact your immune system and make you more susceptible to anxiety and depression. These are anxiety inducing times to be sure, and that makes quarantines a real one-two-punch to mental health – something every organization I talk to these days is trying to tackle.

Even if we’re talking temporary separation (personal 14-day quarantines or month-long office bans), forced time away can be a real challenge for certain team members.   

A study by Buffer found that loneliness was a struggle for 21% of remote employees. In another study, call center employees who had 15 minutes to socialize with coworkers showed a 20% increase in performance over peers who didn’t.   

Don’t get me wrong – I fully support and encourage remote work.  I work from home 100% of the time.  But not everyone is like me.  Not everyone will feel the same happiness of working from home that I do.  And that’s what we have to pay attention to right now – both for the sake of our employees and our organizations.

Isolation can’t get us down

Whether you’re facing an all-work quarantine or just have a few employees self-isolating at home, here’s what you can do to maintain team connection – thereby happiness – while you’re apart:

  • Make time for small talk. Don’t fall into the trap of “all business, no fun.” People are missing out on those natural watercooler conversations. Make extra time in your new quarantine -team-meetings so people have time to socialize and share.  
  • Go visual. Video conferencing helps people feel like they’re working together, even when everyone is logged in from home. You don’t have to go all visual all the time, but designate a few meetings when everyone clicks the video link on your conferencing software.   Feeling connected to co-workers during this high anxiety time can help ease stress related impacts.
  • Encourage virtual coffee breaks. Take a page from Help Scout and organize one-on-one coffee breaks among employees. Bonus points for organizing random meeting assignments. People tend to hang out with others on their own team, so use the quarantine as an excuse to launch some cross-team connection to help people network across the organization. 
  • Check in. If you’re a manager, it’s time to pick up the phone. Check in “just because” and see how people are faring during their isolation. These personal conversations can go a long way to letting employees know you care about their well-being.  Direct people to resources that can help them if they are struggling with the isolation – coaching, EAPs, employee resource groups, etc.
  • Find a tool for social conversations. Chat apps like Slack and Microsoft Teams can help people communicate and collaborate outside the office. Once again, make space for personal connection. Carve out a dedicated social channel where people can say good morning, share photos of their work-at-home space, and update each other on family well-being.

Coronavirus or not, get intentional about connection. Make time for it, organize video chats, and check in. Connection isn’t going to happen without a little extra effort. Let people know that social conversation is valuable to your team right now.  And as ironic as it sounds, use this stressful time to help employees feel happier and more engaged by fostering connection.  It’s time to stick together.