isolated

Before March 2020, no one had even heard of “social distancing.” Fast forward seven months, and it’s all anyone can talk about.

According to Statista, Google searches for “social distancing” increased 100-fold by mid-March, and I imagine searches will spike again now that many locales are reinstating COVID-19 restrictions due to significant rises in cases. Over the summer, there was a slight reprieve for many countries as cases dropped and companies allowed a limited number of employees to return to their physical offices. Now, offices are shutting back down, and employees must return to a 100 percent remote work model.

That means even the small interactions employees were able to enjoy in the office have been stripped away again. According to Doodle’s “Career Development in a Pandemic” study, the pandemic has led to increased isolation, loneliness, colder interactions, and damaged relationships. For example, 24 percent of the surveyed employees said the pandemic has made them feel more isolated and less engaged. Meanwhile, 16 percent said the pandemic has resulted in more impersonal interactions in the workplace, and 13 percent said it has caused communication silos to emerge.

When you look at these findings, one thing is clear: work relationships matter. Research has shown that when employees have friends at work, they are more engaged, happier in their jobs, and perform better. As Doodle’s findings suggest, cultivating these relationships is a lot harder than we realize, and the need to adhere to social-distancing rules is exacerbating the problem.

How can organizations prevent social distancing from leading to distanced employee relationships?

Embed Empathy and Positive Reinforcement Into Your Company’s Cultural DNA

Most employees have experienced feelings of self-doubt at one point or another in their careers, the fear that you’re not good enough or aren’t delivering work that matches the quality of that of your colleagues. Self-doubt can become debilitating, keeping employees from actively pursuing their goals, taking ownership of responsibilities, and achieving their full potential. As the pandemic piles on extra stress and uncertainty, these feelings of self-doubt have grown stronger in some employees’ minds.

When people are at their lowest, positive reinforcement can do wonders to help them get out of that funk. Being recognized for a job well done or demonstrating leadership qualities (regardless of title) can do wonders for employee confidence and self-esteem. Constant recognition can help self-doubting employees regain their confidence, take more ownership, and actualize their career goals.

Bring Water-Cooler Chats to Digital Channels

One of the things many employees have missed since the start of the pandemic is the ability to chat freely with coworkers about things unrelated to work. These water-cooler chats are often essential to bringing employees from different departments together and forging the types of relationships that turn into lifelong friendships. I have seen this from personal experience.

You may be asking: How exactly are we supposed to keep up these types of chats if we’re all sitting at home by ourselves all day? As much as some people have lamented meeting fatigue, technology is actually the answer, in my opinion. Let me clarify that I’m not talking about adding more virtual meetings to your calendar for the sake of it. That’s not at all what I have in mind.

One way to bring water-cooler chats into the digital space is to create dedicated channels on Slack where employees can share random stories, strike up conversations, post funny pictures that show how they’re feeling, invite people for virtual get-togethers or happy hours, and more. There are also apps like Donut that are wholly focused on connecting teams serendipitously for virtual coffee, happy hours, learning sessions, and more. This is something we are now using at Doodle to help our employees get to know each other.

Invite Executives to Share More Openly

In many organizations, the executive team is often walled off from the rest of the workforce. Information isn’t always shared openly, and when it is, it often trickles down slowly. Employees often feel trepidation at the thought of speaking to the executive team for fear of saying the wrong thing or being perceived in a particular way. Rarely do the two groups meet or even speak to each other.

This is not an ideal scenario in any workplace, especially amid the uncertainty of the pandemic. Remember what I said earlier: Work friendships actually improve employee job satisfaction, engagement, and performance. That applies to the executive team, too.

It’s okay for employees to build relationships with the executive team. In fact, it should be encouraged. Likewise, the executive team should spend one-to-one time with various employees across the organization to get to know them better, break down some of the barriers, and foster a greater sense of connection between the company’s values and the employees in the trenches.

Executives, share personal stories and anecdotes with employees during all-hands meetings. Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself if you make a mistake or are fumbling with technology. We’ve all been there, and responding positively will make you seem more human and relatable to your workforce. Just because someone is a member of the executive team doesn’t mean they can’t forge strong relationships with employees in lower-level positions.

Renato Profico is CEO of Doodle.

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