Are you lonely at work? Some people buzz around the office, high-fiving and laughing at inside jokes all day. But many of us don’t.
Sometimes, that’s a matter of preference. Introverts and creative types who thrive on working alone might like their relative isolation. But if you’d prefer to connect with others and are having trouble doing it, there are a few things you can try.
The Lonely Telecommuter
“Is this thing on?” You might find yourself lurking in Slack or waiting for the ping of your email program to prove you’re not the only one working today. If you’re working remotely, even just part of the time, you could feel a bit disconnected with your coworkers. But you can find ways to reach out and make some solid friendships that extend after working hours.
The challenge is trying to have those casual interactions that happen more easily when you work in an office, like laughing at a comic on the work bulletin board. It’s cheesy but fun — an important part of bonding with coworkers.
You can initiate these kinds of interactions by hanging in relaxed Slack channels, pinging a coworker (on occasion) for a private chat, or by trying to engage in a little chit-chat before phone meetings. Or your employer might get the ball rolling herself with some crafted collaborations.
“It is easy to become isolated when working remotely,” says Lisa Allocca, co-founder of Red Javelin Communications, in a recent Forbes article on employee engagement. “I reach out to individual team members regularly to solicit opinions on decisions I am making and to just chat about non-work-related things. I also assign collaborative tasks monthly, encouraging team members to work together so they stay connected.”
Employers can also help steer a room full of “live” coworkers into connecting with a solo remote worker by trying a few simple tricks. One might be to use video conferencing so that the remote worker (or team) is visible to the rest of the coworkers. Another option is to choose the remote worker to lead the team meeting.
“It’s so simple and brilliant at the same time,” notes Dan Schawbel, author of Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation, in Reuters. “It also makes sense to fly remote workers in once a year for an offsite or social event.”
Work Cliques and Mean Girls
Loneliness can also turn to feelings of isolation if we let it fester. It hurt in high school when the clique of jocks or prom queens excluded you from their lunch table conversations. It hurts now when your coworkers leave you out of their recap discussion of their favorite appointment television show. The workplace can breed positive friendships, but it can also breed less constructive groups, like cliques.
Why are cliques dangerous at work? Well, they can foster more than just bad feelings. They can inspire those within to act out to maintain their perceived power.
“Tight-knit groups are themselves a risk to organizations, as they can encourage employees to conspire to do the unconscionable,” writes Alex Fradera at Quartz. “And when these teams police their borders and maintain an in-crowd, they can also cause problems on their periphery. Rejected employees can cause problems for the rejectors, for their rivals, or for random bystanders—all of which is bound to be terrible for any company.”
Cliques might also foster office gossip that can be harmful for morale, and also could even lead to getting someone in trouble or possibly even fired. They also could encourage an “outsider” employee to look for work elsewhere, away from the clique drama. Even bosses could get sucked into a clique at work, which can lead to an even bigger host of potential problems in the office when it comes to favoritism or promotions.
Work Bullies and Office Jerks
Sad to say, adulthood is not without the perils of schoolyard bullying. It just comes in a different form: the office bully.
Has this ever happened to you?
- You try to share an idea in a meeting but someone talks over you as you begin to speak.
- In the break room, your lunch is frequently taken or partially eaten.
- Someone talks down to you about your appearance or abilities.
Any of these could be an example of workplace bullying and can lead you to feel very isolated and powerless in the office. It’s also very serious. More serious than just some “sore feelings” or so-called “overreactions.”
According to the Workplace Bullying Institute:
Being bullied at work most closely resembles the experience of being a battered spouse. The abuser inflicts pain when and where she or he chooses, keeping the target (victim) off balance knowing that violence can happen on a whim, but dangling the hope that safety is possible during a period of peace of unknown duration. The target is kept close to the abuser by the nature of the relationship between them — husband to wife or boss to subordinate or co-worker to co-worker.
While there aren’t any federal laws against workplace bullying, at least 29 states had introduced anti-workplace-bullying bills as of 2018. There are laws against discrimination and sexual harassment at the federal level. Many types of bullying could fall under these categories as well.
And while most good HR departments will have policies in place for reporting incidents like bullying or harassment in the office, it’s up to employees to “see something and say something.” And of course, it takes good management to respond to those reports to make the whole system work.
You’re in the Wrong Job
Sometimes, you’re just the square peg trying to fit in a round hole at a job. That feeling of isolation and loneliness, like everyone just doesn’t get you, might actually be an indicator that you should move on.
Feeling isolated in an office environment where collaboration is expected can lead to real breakdown when it comes to productivity. And while you might think you just need to let it go and get over your emotions at work, that lonely feeling could lead you to the door.
One study conducted by California State University and the Wharton School of Business even showed that our coworkers can tell when we’re feeling lonely and isolated at work. Instead of just leaving the lonely person to themselves, however, they should instead try to reach out and build bridges in order to make that team more productive. The study findings noted that “management should not treat work loneliness as a private problem that needs to be individually resolved by employees who experience this emotion; but rather should consider it as an organizational problem that needs to be addressed both for the employees’ sake and that of the organization.”
If nothing is done, then those connections that support our best collaboration are lost. If we’re all shoved into silos, then we don’t exchange ideas, share thoughts or get inspiration from each other. That’s a bummer of a workplace.
How to Bridge that Gap (if You Want)
There’s no rule that you have to be a social butterfly at work, but making those connections can help you in a lot of ways. Sometimes your job description includes words indicating that human-to-human interactions are required. These might include:
All of these require you to reach out to teammates. Your career might also rely on your ability to excel in soft skills like working well with others or communicating effectively with a team. If you feel lonely and isolated, it’s hard to develop these skills.
Improving these skills could mean growing to like your job more, as well as improving your performance. To get started, look for opportunities to connect:
- Instead of emailing, try talking in person to that coworker a few desks away
- Instead of working alone, ask if you can collaborate on a project or idea in its early stages
- Instead of avoiding gatherings because you’re unsure of them, become a joiner
- Instead of going it alone, seek a mentor or work friend who has new insights
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