Illustration by Justin Tran
Illustration by Justin Tran

Work Culture

How remote workers are creatively battling social isolation

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Published on September 30, 2020

Illustration by Justin Tran

The uncertainty of the pandemic, coupled with the social isolation sheltering in place can bring, has created a mental health crisis the likes of which the 21st century has never seen before.

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More than one in three Americans reported having anxiety disorder symptoms, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. (In the same time period last year, it was one in 12, the New York Times reported.)  TIME Magazine reported on a May 2020 study that found a 700% jump in the number of Americans who “met the criteria that psychologists use to diagnose serious mental distress and illness.”

According to New scientist, an April 2020 U.K. survey published in The Lancet found that people had more “anxiety, depression and stress, and concerns about social isolation,” outweighing worries about having the virus.

For many non-essential workers, feelings of social isolation can be linked to being away from coworkers.

Social isolation and the office

There’s an irony to discovering just how vital our coworkers are to our emotional and mental well-being. Every syndicated office comedy and open-office rant revolves around the annoyances that come from dealing with the unique quirks of individuals you might not have sought out on your own. Pre-pandemic, remote work was seen as a refuge from those slings and arrows.

But months of working from home has confirmed just how important those bonds are. A Gensler Research Institute survey found that what respondents missed most about being in an office was the people, specifically meeting and socializing with colleagues, “impromptu face-to-face time,” and being a part of the office community.

We miss our coworkers so much, two Swedish agencies created The Sound of Colleagues, a customizable white noise playlist of common office sounds to replicate their coming and going. (This writer likes her Sound of Colleagues heavy on printer noise and keyboards, light on office dog and open window.) 

Simply put, people need people, says educator and corporate trainer Tieko Nejon Wilson. 

“We are social beings,” Wilson explains. “It’s a natural inclination to want to be connected. We have to make those connections in the places we spend the most of our awake time. [And] most of your awake time is at work with coworkers.”

Now that “at work” means “from home” for many, those opportunities for connection can feel harder to come by (and also dangerous). This can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation, which can take a toll on one's mental health.

A survey found that what respondents missed most about being in an office was the people, specifically meeting and socializing with colleagues.

Although remote work existed before the pandemic, the office was really the hub of social interaction and community. If a company didn’t go out of its way to make remote workers feel included, it usually didn’t affect the office’s morale. Now that everyone is remote, the need for fostering relationships based on mutual respect and commonalities instead of just proximity and paychecks is much more pressing.

“I’m seeing a lot of companies struggle,” Wilson says. “Now everyone is working backwards to create community for real—not ‘Oh, we have a great newsletter that goes out to our team’ or ‘We have retreats.’

“They’re now having to wrestle with [the realization that] that’s not really authentic,” she continues. “If you don’t put something in place, people aren’t talking anymore.”

After all, you can’t transfer a culture you never had over to Zoom and Slack.

Figuring out meaningful socializing during work from home

In some ways, the pandemic has been a pathway toward making necessary change happen faster. 

Socializing was the norm for cultural exchange nonprofit Cultural Vistas, which has offices in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Berlin. Each location had committees in charge of in-office events and team-building activities. (Part of what turned out to be the last day in the D.C. office was spent celebrating a colleague becoming an American citizen.)

But there wasn’t much intermingling between offices and teams, admits Laura Gross, director of administration, people and culture, via email. Siloed work and the budget-busting cost of putting staff up in some of the world’s most expensive cities without a business reason kept interactions largely team- and city-based.

“Before the pandemic there was always a hope to build a more consistent shared culture across offices, so without the normal barriers of the pre-COVID world, it has sort of organically resolved itself,” Gross says. “I’m still based in D.C., but I work more with our NY staff than ever before.”

Gross says “organically,” but there was actually a fair bit of intention behind removing those barriers to meaningful intra- and interoffice connections. 

Searching for normalcy in the early days of the pandemic, a small group used to eating together in the office created a daily Zoom meet up to continue their standing lunch date. (It’s since grown to include the entire staff.) Inspired, the D.C. and NY social teams decided to brainstorm other ways to keep all three offices engaged. They’ve landed on trivia nights and Coffee Roulette discussion breaks, among other events.

“We just experimented with a few different kinds of virtual activities, at different times of day, until we found a groove,” Gross explained. “We have tried to be creative in coming up with events that give people room to come together and talk about how hard different circumstances of this year have been. 

“While it’s great to have fun distractions,” she continued, “it’s also inauthentic to ignore all the struggle, frustration, and anxiety in the air, so we wanted to balance our events with more serious opportunities to support each other in difficult moments, too.”

Companies that haven’t nailed this down have an added incentive to figuring it out sooner rather than later. Necessity has made remote work a norm for the pandemic, but preference will see its continued use beyond shelter-in-place mandates. A July 2020 Morning Consult survey found that 75% of respondents said they would like to work remotely “at least 1-2 days a week once the pandemic is under control.” (The survey was based on the responses of 2,200 American adults.)

Now that everyone is remote, the need for fostering relationships based on mutual respect and commonalities instead of just proximity and paychecks is much more pressing.

It will take a concerted effort and strategy to make connection feel like more than just a perfunctory check in, and to keep people actively engaged with their work.

“I personally worked from home for 2.5 years for an organization where everybody else was in the office. My main complaint, and really the reason I quit that job, was social isolation,” Evan LePage, senior content manager at project management tool company Unito, wrote in an email. “This remote experience with Unito has been completely different.”

The company has implemented Donut-enabled getting-to-know-you meet ups, birthday gift deliveries captured on video, and in-person, socially distanced meetups.

“Many of the managers in our organization have been biking around town, meeting members of their team at their homes or in their neighborhoods,” LePage says. “We've had people do picnic 1-on-1s, walking brainstorms, backyard lunches, etc. Mixing in this in-person interaction has been a great change of pace and is much appreciated by the team. I still miss the office, but I don't feel as though I've lost connection with my colleagues.”

People are getting increasingly creative with how they’re maintaining and fostering connection with each other during the pandemic. 

Bob Ross Happy Hour

Virtual happy hours are a common way for teams to connect remotely. (So are open Zoom or Google Hangout rooms for lunch or coffee breaks.) Theoretically, colleagues can see each other’s faces, connect, and unwind. 

But more often than not, these meet ups can feel like being on a really bad date with all of your co-workers. Providing structure by making virtual happy hours active helps make things less awkward and more engaging.

Suzanne Pope, COO of Dallas, Texas-based apartment rental agency Whiterock Locators, has found a pleasant—dare I say “happy”?— way to switch things up for her team.

“We bought simple watercolor painting kits and small canvases for our employees, scheduled a virtual happy hour, and used Zoom to stream a Bob Ross painting video on YouTube,” Pope shared via email. “We all prepared our favorite drink and followed along with painting, chatting, and sipping.”

Painting “happy trees” under the spell of Bob Ross’s calming voice was a “success,” Pope said.

Cooking Classes

Another virtual happy hour option is taking part in a cooking class. (If learning a new cuisine wasn’t part of your Pandemic Activity Bingo, you probably weren’t doing a lot of adventurous eating or cooking.) Financial services company Wealth Continuum Group hired a chef to teach their team how to make three-course meals via Zoom for four weeks.

“It was a step-by-step, one-hour cooking lesson where we all came together by cooking something savory and something sweet each week,” Susana Tompkins explained via email. Along with being the company’s new business director, she was the person who came up with the idea.

Tompkins sent out recipes and shopping lists to attendees in advance so everyone could follow along with the chef via Zoom. (If you didn’t feel like cooking, you could still tune in with a glass of wine to watch and chat with your colleagues.) 

Some of the team’s favorite dishes include Malayasian chicken satay, coconut rice, and lemon-lime ricotta cookies. The classes were such a hit, they’ve brought the chef back for another round of recipes.

Exercise In General...

Exercise has been linked to improving mental health by “reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function.” Not every office will love the idea of weekly team workouts, but it made perfect sense for Habitual, a wellness company that helps people build healthy habits. One of its company perks is giving team members an hour every day to “do something that makes them mentally or physically healthier” says co-founder Napala Pratini.

“Everyone picks their activity at morning standups and is encouraged to take the time to follow through, even if the day is super busy,” Pratini added.

In the transition to working from home, Pratini noticed that most of her team wanted to use that hour for exercising. When she suggested turning that hour into a group workout session, it got a resounding “Yes!” Now anyone who wants to can log in for an hour-ish long sweat session using Google Meet and a tabata timer once a week. 

“Rather than following a class, we've made it a collaborative activity by having the workout be dictated by participants,” Pratini explained. “We do 3-minute circuits, with each team member choosing a song and two exercises to do in their three minutes.”

People are getting increasingly creative with how they’re maintaining and fostering connection with each other during the pandemic. 

Each team member gets to show their personality in the exercises and songs they choose. Getting that buy in from employees made all the difference, Pratini said. And so will be being flexible.

“Had it been a top-down initiative, I'm 99% sure it wouldn't have stuck,” she wrote. “As the team grows, I'm very aware that working out as a team won't be for everyone, and we'll likely break into smaller sub-groups based on people's activity of choice. For example, our design lead is already keen to start leading weekly meditation sessions.”

… And Yoga Specifically

Corporate yoga instructor Margaret Woodfield has gone from teaching in company conference rooms to guiding people into warrior pose via Zoom. She’s found the benefits of yoga to be especially appreciated these days when quieting the mind and calming the body feel like an imperative. 

“With the work/life boundaries blurred and stress levels at an all-time high, meditative techniques can help employees turn off their ‘work brain’ so that they can rest, spend time with their families and keep burnout at bay,” Woodfield explained via email.

“Furthermore, the physical benefits of yoga asanas (poses) help to offset some of the discomforts of working from the couch with a computer on your lap,” she continued. “By using mindful movement as the foundation of each class, students practice this meditative yoga style which has been proven to increase focus and productivity.”

Living Together

Looking to escape from their homes and the monotony of their pandemic routines, five co-workers decided to live together for a month, The New York Times reports

The group went in on a $12,000/month pet-friendly bed-and-breakfast they found on Airbnb. The five bedrooms (with private bathrooms) and ample outdoor space used for Wiffle ball, catch, and volleyball made their stay in Westbrook, Connecticut something like a work retreat with a side of summer camp. 

The colleagues found that the stay not only improved their mental health, but helped their professional lives, too. Being able to brainstorm and run ideas by colleagues in person (and over dinner) added some warmth that would’ve been lacking if it had been hashed out over Slack or Zoom.

Virtual Reality

If you’re not able to go in on an office home share, virtual reality is another way to go somewhere new with colleagues.

“There's something about VR specifically that really feels more like you're in the same room with people,” Max Weisel, founder of Normal VR, wrote in an email. (He should know—along with being in the virtual and augmented reality space, Normal VR is 100% remote and the team works in VR with each other every day.)

His team uses Half + Half, a multiplayer game it developed in partnership with Facebook and Oculus Studios, for meetings and socializing. Players occupy different serene, open-ended worlds as elongated hooded characters, and can interact with friends, colleagues, and strangers in colorful and serene worldscapes. (While everyone at Normal has VR headsets, the game can also be played using augmented reality apps on iOS and Android devices.)

“Using Half + Half for meetings is the same as Zoom or Hangouts,” Weisel explained. “We open it up, send an invite to whoever is joining, and then they show up in the same space within the title. From there, we usually pop into one of the open-ended rooms like Swim in order to float around as we talk.”

“It's a lot more informal and feels more like hanging out at the park than a virtual conference,” he continues. “It's done wonders for my own mental health.”

And really, anything that improves our mental health is worth doing during these “unprecedented times” and beyond. Workplace socializing is an extension of the collective agency seen in wearing masks and socially distancing; instead of keeping the virus at bay, it’s helping to ward off depression, anxiety, stress, and social isolation. 

As the pandemic stretches on and companies continue to work from home in some capacity, we’ve realized that what made an office work were the human connections being made more so than the physical space. Being intentional and creative about how we continue to support those relationships will make all the difference.