As a student of psychology, I’m an avid people watcher. At work, most of us are tethered to our laptops, tablets, or smartphones—sending e-mails, instant messages, and texts by the truckloads.

I find it interesting how many of my co-workers will e-mail or instant message me instead of walking a short distance to ask me their question or tell me about their concerns in person. I also notice that I receive fewer phone calls even from external sources intent on selling me something. Instead, I receive additional e-mails.

Workplace Isolation

I recently read an intriguing blog post, “Fighting the ‘loneliness epidemic’ at work: Dan Schawbel creating real connection in the Age of Isolation” by Jory MacKay. He interviewed Dan Schawbel, who said: “Despite the illusion of 24/7 connection, in reality, most workers feel isolated from their colleagues, their organization and its leaders. What they crave most—and what research increasingly shows to be the hallmark of the highest-performing workplace cultures—is a sense of authentic connection with others.”

The premise of Schawbel’s work is: “The biggest issue most people are facing on a daily basis—no matter who they are, how much money they make, or how they identify—is isolation.”

Reliance on Technology vs. Creating Connections

While we believe that technology has enabled us to communicate with each other 24/7, it’s actually caused most workers to feel increasingly isolated. Personally, I prefer to get up from my desk and visit with my co-workers when I have something to discuss with them. I obtain so much more out of an in-person exchange than I ever would from an e-mail, instant message or text. I can see the other person’s body language, and I can easily ask follow-up questions to confirm understanding. It also helps to get to know your co-workers better and builds relationships. You can’t do that via e-mail. But instead of creating real connections that promote meaning and purpose, we rely on technology to foster relationships.

A Healthy and Productive Culture

MacKay cited: “Recently, a former US surgeon general claimed the country is facing a ‘loneliness epidemic.’ Half of Americans say they regularly feel lonely while 40% say they don’t have any meaningful relationships.”

The point he makes is that we spend so much of our time working that it’s critically important that we improve our relationships with our teams and create a culture of trust. At my organization we focus our energies on ensuring we have a healthy and productive culture. One way we do this is by surveying our employees. We ask:

“Is there a positive workplace culture here?”

“Do we exhibit the qualities it takes to be an Employer of Choice?”

“Do we treat you with dignity and respect?”

We facilitate focus groups to better understand the survey results, and then the leadership team develops action plans to help remedy any areas that need improvement.

The same former U.S. Surgeon General claims loneliness has the same health risks as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and on the flip side, Schawbel has found that the most productive and successful teams feel like a family. This concept of “family” is widely advocated at my organization by our CEO and others, which allows it to permeate throughout.

Workplace Social Engagement

There is a direct correlation between the social engagement of your workplace and the health, productivity, and retention of your employees. When it’s high, they will be excited to go to work every single day.

The Gallup organization’s engagement survey contains this statement: “I have a best friend at work.” While working with this survey at another organization, employees informed us that they struggled to understand the definition of “best friend” and to truthfully answer this question, far more than any of the other survey questions.

Schawbel recently completed a study of 2000 managers and found nearly 10% said they had no workplace friends while more than half said they have five or fewer. He adds, “We have to start acknowledging that technology is making us feel more disconnected and lonely. It’s tricked us into thinking we’re highly productive, that we have a lot of friends, and that we can multitask. Yet it’s really isolated us and weakened the relationships we should be trying to build.”

Connection in the Workplace is a Two-Way Street

There are plenty of things we can do to increase “in-person” connections in the workplace, and some are quite simple and easy. Consider inviting a co-worker to share a cup of coffee with you at the office or volunteer to drive a co-worker or two to an offsite meeting. Yet, it’s still hard to do. My organization offers “All Staff Meetings.” These mandatory meetings are held five times a year, and they’re as short as 90 minutes to as long as 6.5 hours. These have proven to be a great way to connect employees and create a culture of shared learning and transparency.

We should all look for opportunities to reach out and initiate in-person interactions. If the approach is positive, the other person will likely be receptive to connecting with you. Stop, think, and ask yourself, “Will the interaction I’d like to have with this person be better served by a phone call or an in-person meeting?” If so, forget about sending an e-mail, instant message or text.

Use technology as a tool—a means and not an end. It’s not a substitute for connecting with others and building genuine, authentic workplace relationships. To the extent that we do this, we will minimize workplace loneliness and isolation, and increase trust, engagement, productivity, organizational health and employee retention.

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