Social Distancing has been around longer than Corona. In many companies “keeping a distance” is part of the company culture. What social isolation does to people is now increasingly being highlighted by Covid-19 and it’s consequences. Finally, you might want to say! Because being cut off from other people can be just as harmful for the individual as for the organization as a whole. If you don’t feel a connection to your colleagues or to the company, you may be able to “check off” your to-do list reasonably well, but feel little motivation to contribute ideas and get creative in finding the best solutions that will benefit the organization. A Gallup study has shown, that employees who have a friend or close connection to other coworkers in the company, are 7 times more likely to be invested in the company, than people who feel lonely on the job.
But what does “lonely” mean in the work context? Is everyone that is assigned to a small, closed-off department and sits in an individual office processing excel spreadsheets automatically lonely? Of course not. Loneliness is a feeling that manifests itself very differently and under very different circumstances for many different people. In the work context it is often the result of a lack of permissions, possibilities, and channels for contact with others. And consequently a result of structures, that – consciously or not – lead to social isolation. One could say, that rigid hierarchies and department boundaries have, in many instances, lead to a company culture of social distancing.
How can companies change that?
Firstly: By really, really wanting to. And by being prepared to effectively change their current structures. This requires the willingness to give up control, because unlike lone fighters, a network with hundreds of nodes, intersections and synapses will quickly escape the control of a single person (or group of people).
Secondly: By not just offering the one big team building measure, but by creating opportunities for interaction for lots of different needs and personalities. Because how great the desire for exchange is and in which form it should take place, may vary greatly from person to person. People who are more introverted, need and enjoy phases of rest and solitude to recharge their batteries and to draw creativity from them. More extroverted people, on the other hand, have their best ideas in a lively discourse with others. Their energy level rises with the amount of interaction. Others might feel inhibitions that keep them from casually talking to coworkers or managers and weighing in on a certain topic. SAP, for instance, has a special mentoring program for people on the spectrum: a mentor supports his or her mentee in communicating their ideas in a team and to their superiors. The example of Nicolas Neumann, who came to SAP through the “Autism at work”- program and whose work was awarded the “Hasso Plattner Founder Award”, shows how wonderful and successful this program is. Innovation needs a multitude of perspectives and the cooperation of very diverse personalities. Get them out of their cubicles!
Thirdly: “Yes, but the colleagues always eat lunch together. And we have our after work drinks every Thursday”…- ok, good – but not good enough! Because, let’s be honest: Who eats lunch together? And who goes for drinks together? – Usually the people that already know each other well. To enable new connections, companies need new and, above all, open formats and occasions. Meaning: Basically everyone should be able to get in touch with everyone else in the company. Based on the respective need or the current requirements of the individual, each employee can search for expert advice, a professional exchange, a joint project, etc. Just 40 seconds of positive interaction already have a measurable positive effect on a person’s well-being. 40 seconds! Imagine what a simple lunch date, a mentoring session or a more long term format like job sharing could achieve! Even communities that are not exclusively about work topics are a wonderful way to get people out of their isolation. In one of our earlier blog articles about internal community building, we described how companies can establish these with the help of smart tools.
And finally: By starting to see digital technology not only as a cause of increasing isolation, but as part of the solution to end it. Technology has undoubtedly changed our social behavior: Facebook, Insta, Netflix etc. replace real social contacts, we prefer to chat rather than meet for a beer, we work from home instead of in the office with colleagues, etc. And clearly there is still a lot of room for improvement in terms of digital competence in the sense of a healthy, distraction-free and “socially responsible” use of technology. However, this does not justify ignoring the opportunities that digitization offers to create open and democratic structures in companies. Neither do employees have to be protected from themselves through control and limitations, nor is there a dangerous risk of too much openness and (digital) networking opportunities for people in companies.
Conclusion: Social Distancing has been consciously defining every day life of many people for the past 6 weeks. However, social isolation has been affecting people much longer – unconsciously and invisibly. Simply turning to digital tools without a clear goal in mind can reinforce this isolation. Preventing loneliness at work is initially always a cultural act, driven by the desire to get to know your own skills and those of the people around us, to strengthen them, to connect with a common goal and to reconnect on a professional and human level. The first step for organizations should be to ask themselves honestly what they are actually afraid of if they get rid of the old, isolation-promoting power structures – and what this fear has done to themselves over the years.
The position at the top of a pyramid is often one thing above all: pretty lonely.