Lonely but not alone

We’re more connected than ever. So why do we feel lonely?

Man sitting down looking at his phone with message notifications floating in the foreground

When Kyrstin Kauchak was hired remotely as a software engineer for a large U.S. tech company, she thought she’d scored her dream job. After growing up in a small town, Kauchak was excited to get to know her teammates across the globe. Since taking the role, however, she’s felt isolated and lonely. “At the end of my workday, I’m still sitting in my bedroom where I watch Netflix at night,” she says. “I start to think, is this all there is?”

Kauchak says the company rarely, if ever, holds team-building sessions for remote employees, and there aren’t any opportunities to get to know her team on her own. Although her virtual meetings are helpful and energizing from a professional standpoint, they often leave her craving a deeper relationship with the people on those calls.

“I appreciate all the help, but you’re not forming a deep, long-lasting connection,” she says. This loneliness is frustrating because she spends so much time in meetings and check-ins via Zoom and Slack. “I’m lonely, but I’m so connected to my team.”

She’s not the only one who feels that way. According to a recent ServiceNow and ThoughtLab survey of 1,000 global executives across five industries, isolation is one of the biggest concerns executives have for their employees during this era of hybrid and remote work. Executives trace workers’ persistent loneliness and stress to the same source as their sense of connection: the digital tools that power remote and hybrid work.

High-quality connections

Academic and medical research have found that loneliness has serious consequences for individuals and workplaces alike. Lonely employees are less motivated to perform at work and perform less well than their happier counterparts, according to 2018 research in the Academy of Management Journal. Such loneliness affects entire workplaces, which reportedly see higher turnover rates than less lonely offices, according to 2022 research in the Journal of Organizational Effectiveness.

Beyond simply impacting work life, the effect of loneliness on human health is well-documented in the medical literature, spanning increased likelihoods of heart disease, dementia, diabetes, immune system dysfunction, and early death, to say nothing of increased reports of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.

The most obvious solution, to bring everyone back to the office, doesn’t appeal to many remote and hybrid workers. When given the opportunity, nearly 9 out of 10 employees choose to work remotely, according to research from McKinsey. As a result, frustrated executives aren’t sure how to help, says Liuba Belkin, associate professor and director of the management program at Lehigh University’s College of Business. Belkin studies how workers’ emotions affect their performance in the workplace.

Having a rich social life outside of work is not enough to protect remote workers against loneliness, says Belkin. “Even people with families and significant others and friends feel a certain longing for better workplace interactions that foster high-quality connections,” she says.

Jane Dutton, professor emerita of business administration and psychology at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, coined the term “high-quality connections” in her 2003 book “Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work” to describe interactions marked by mutual positive regard, trust, and active engagement. People often know when they’re experiencing a high-quality connection because they feel “open, competent, and alive,” Dutton writes.

The boost people get from high-quality connections impacts everyone who participates in them, including healthier immune systems, better breathing and heart rates, reduced amounts of cortisol (the stress hormone) and greater amounts of oxytocin (the trust hormone), and much more, she says.

“If you think of an invisible thread connecting people, the capacity of that thread becomes more flexible and can carry more good stuff between people” when they make high-quality connections, she says. “It’s just sort of shocking, so simple but really powerful.”

Such high-quality connections lead to many positive organizational outcomes, including better performance, increased trust, stronger relationships between supervisors and employees, and less employee turnover, says Belkin.

But it’s difficult to encourage these types of relationships digitally. Research based on an aggregate dataset of Microsoft’s U.S. employees’ behavior during meetings in 2020 found that roughly 30% of participants multitasked during remote meetings. Yet even when subtle, multitasking makes people seem noticeably less present and alert, according to Belkin. “Your colleagues can feel it when you’re not paying attention to them,” she says. This poses a barrier to high-quality connections, which require conversationalists to convey presence, listen actively, and show genuine interest, according to Dutton’s work.

Apart but not alone

30%

Percentage of employees who multitasked during remote meetings, according to a Microsoft employee study

Ryan Bulcher, like Kauchak, is a Gen Zer who started working remotely last year. However, unlike her, the junior software engineer says he rarely feels lonely. Even though he works alone from his Cincinnati apartment, Bulcher says that he’s gotten to know teammates from Dubai and the Philippines with whom he shares a strong sense of identity and personal connection.

“I think this company is an outlier in how strong our culture is,” he says. Employees have the opportunity to work from home or in the office, but remote workers never feel like an afterthought because “remote work is fully integrated into the company.” The company holds both spontaneous and scheduled team-bonding sessions that include everyone, regardless of where they work. As a result, Bulcher says he doesn’t feel lonely.

Kauchak says she’d love to chat spontaneously with people on her team, but she doesn’t feel like there are many opportunities to do that in a remote setting. She feels connected, but not integrated.

The academics agree that in a physical workspace it’s easier to cultivate a strong culture because the environment is inherently unpredictable, says Belkin. “There’s a sense of fun,” she says, because people can bump into each other and break up their routine. According to Dutton and co-authors, such chance encounters make people feel closer to each other and to the workplace, leading to more high-quality connections.

Battling loneliness

Loneliness in the era of remote and hybrid work is “an epidemic,” Dutton says, a sentiment echoed by the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who has warned of a loneliness epidemic sweeping the country.

“Unless leaders design for meaningful connections, the default is to go transactional,” she says. “Technology can be part of the solution, but managers have to change their mindset about what being in connection requires. That is really the antidote to loneliness.”

Dutton’s recommendations for promoting high-quality connections start simply, insisting all distractions be turned off and making sure everyone has everything they need to focus on the meeting at hand. Other tips include starting a meeting with a moment of silence and sharing via chat one word that describes how participants are feeling. Ice-breakers can help, too: reporting on goals for the week, what participants are proud of, or what they need help on.

When given the opportunity, nearly 9 out of 10 employees choose to work remotely.

According to survey findings of 500 remote workers at the beginning of the pandemic, the happiest, least lonely remote teams regularly participated in social gatherings online, such as playing trivia games, hosting book clubs, sharing playlists, and more spontaneous get-togethers.

These opportunities, however, don’t happen unless a company intentionally creates them. To help companies do that, a new industry is growing to introduce spontaneity into the digital workplace. Apps like Spark Collaboration, Donut, and Lunchclub allow remote and hybrid workers to engage in video-chat roulettes and speed networking sessions. Online whiteboards like Miro, which are often used for collaboration, also provide canvases for games and ice-breakers.

Some companies are thinking creatively to encourage high-quality digital connections, says Belkin. She recently attended an academic conference where her colleagues were especially excited about companies organizing shared workouts where employees exercise simultaneously but remotely using treadmills or exercise bikes. When people share intense physical experiences like a workout, even while apart, this stimulates a similar bonding response as a handshake or hug, says Belkin.

However, employees don’t need to work out with coworkers to feel connected. Simply eliminating distractions and focusing on the person on the other end of a Zoom call is enough to mitigate loneliness. In fact, recent research shows that when people make small talk at the beginning of a virtual meeting, they’re more likely to have a productive session and less likely to feel lonely.

As Bulcher’s experience demonstrates, digital communication tools do not preclude high-quality connections—and in fact, these same tools can be used to foster them if used intentionally.

“The whole structure of my company creates this feeling that we’re all in it together,” says Bulcher. “I don’t imagine this is common, but I wish it was.”