In 2000, a leading social psychologist published a compelling book, Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American Community. Within this seminal work, Dr. Robert Putnam uses bowling as an illustrative example of how little Americans were socializing with one another since the arrival of technological advancements starting in the 1950s. He argues that while the number of people who bowl has increased, the number of people who do so with others in leagues was actively decreasing. Hence – more people are bowling, but doing it alone. This decline in human interaction, as argued by Putnam, was leading to loneliness, isolation and a potential lack of concern for others. Instead of reaching out to our neighbors, joining local communities and engaging in civic service, people were instead “individualizing” their time in front of electronic screens.
Fast forward to 2018, and while I don’t bowl alone (or at all for that matter), I am feeling the effects of working alone. More and more of our work can be done remotely – not just away from the office, but ultimately away from others. Many of my closest friends, including myself, no longer report to a physical location for work. Instead, we spend time alone in front of our computer screens to get our work done.
So, is it any surprise than that we are experiencing the same effects that Putnam described as those who bowled alone? In a recent nationwide survey that was conducted to over 20,000 adults, two out of five said that they “lacked companionship” and felt “isolated from others”. Working alone may certainly be a contributing factor to the loneliness phenomena many of us are experiencing in our work life. In fact, Harvard Business Review recently ran a cover story entitled, Work and Loneliness Epidemic, noting how the shift in our work arrangements are contributing to less social interaction on the job. Yet, remote work isn’t going away and is likely to keep growing according to recent Gallop reports. But neither is our desire to connect with others. In fact, our desire for social connection seems to be only growing in a technology fueled world. A revival may be coming.
Nearly six months ago, I wrote a blog post describing my intentions to redefine the way I was working remotely. I worked remotely for two and a half years and wasn’t connecting with others in the way I should. I set out with much intention in the New Year to no longer work alone. The change in my attitude towards work, my productivity and lifestyle has seen the positive return in my social investment. In addition, I found within my local community the revival of social connection that Putnam calls upon in his book. As I left my home office and entered into my local community, I experienced so many others who were also doing the same. Revival is happening, but we have to get out of our individual workspaces to find it.
Here are three lessons that I continue to use in my daily work life to bring the water cooler interactions back to my remote work.
Use technology as an enabler to in-person communication, not a replacement. How are you using technological platforms? Far too long, I was using it passively, as a way to mindlessly scroll and experience unwanted, but natural feelings of FOMO (fear of missing out) rather than as a tool to actively connect and facilitate in-person conversations. Social media platforms have opened up the doors for limitless connection if we use them as an enabler of in-person meet ups, not as a replacement. I now actively use social media and collaborative tools as a way to facilitate in-person connections. For example, Philadelphia, where I live, is home to leading universities and even a growing number of Human Resources oriented start-ups. Using LinkedIn and Twitter helps me find people who should be included in my work tribe and allows me to send invites to collaborate or connect over coffee.
Use remote work as a way to expand your network within your local community. One of the advantages of not going into the office every day is the chance to build a vibrant community of colleagues and friends outside of work. Too often traditional workplaces confine us to the 9-5 mentality that keeps us from connecting into our own local communities. Remote work allows you to connect into the very place you live – as long as we leave our “home offices”. I found visiting local coffee shops, connecting with local business owners, and joining local meet ups in your community helps connect you to a broader and more diverse set of colleagues.
Intentionally plan to work with others. I also found that meet ups just don’t happen on their own. And yet, recent research found that co-working with others led to greater satisfaction, less loneliness and an overall sense of thriving at work. It isn’t the space itself that matters, but the closeness to others that counts. Individuals are social creatures and relationships may be the single largest factor that determines our ability to find meaning and satisfaction in our work. When we work alone, we rob ourselves of this very innate need. Work is a social experience and we need to strive to co-create with each other in creative ways when we work remotely. Intentionally plan at least one meet up outside your home office a week to keep from working alone.
It’s not always easy to make connection a priority in your work day when you are managing a busy schedule remotely. But I’ve found that it does more than just keep loneliness at bay. It helps me thrive both personally and professionally. A revival of connection is here, and I can tell you from personal experience, it will change the way you work— for the better!