As the world experienced a one-in-a-lifetime pandemic, we all tried to find ways to adapt and to operate as good as possible. During this process, we had to learn how to work from home efficiently ; some of us used their newly found free time to learn new skills ; and all of us had to discover new ways to bond with our friends and families. Coping with these challenging times wasn’t easy and after a year, it is quite clear that it put a strain on our energy, both physically and mentally. To some, this strain became a discomfort, to others it became an issue, a problem or a ticking bomb.
Modern companies like Toughlex and XITASO made considerable efforts to support all of their employees: their structures, policies, tools and equipment helped to quickly create an environment where developing Software from home was technically trivial. Not every issue can be tackled with a technical solution though. Software engineering is more of a human business than one could really imagine, so we had to find creative and efficient ways to support people and their interactions against virtual and physical loneliness.
After a lot of trials and errors, we identified some best practises in the fight against loneliness at work, and we would like to share some of them. Feel free to get inspired by them and to try them out, but keep in mind, that they will in no way replace professional help in case of serious problems!
Is loneliness a real problem?
Science has a quite certain answer here:
Stress that comes from chronic loneliness is among the most unhealthy things we can experience as humans. In fact loneliness is twice as deadly as obesity and as deadly as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. This is not only a private issue, loneliness at work is important as well, because when people feel lonely at work, they are less approachable, less affectively committed to their organization, and ultimately, perform worse than their less lonely colleagues. Simply put, loneliness is a major health and productivity issue.
Another worrying fact: loneliness impacts a surprising share of the population. In the UK, 60% of 18 to 34 year olds say that they often feel lonely ,and in the US 46% of the entire population feel lonely regularly. Of course these studies were performed before the pandemic.
Unfortunately, there are reasons to believe that loneliness is even a greater problem for people who work from home. People who work from their mobile homes are usually called nomads, and according to research nomadic lifestyle comes at the cost of social isolation, distance from loved ones, and loneliness. Moreover Armbruster and Klotzbucher (2020) provide evidence that helpline contacts increased in Germany by around 20% in the week following the implementation of the lockdown reflecting heightened loneliness, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.
Generally whether you care about every living thing or whether you care only about numbers, it should be obvious for you that loneliness is no good. Be careful though: You could consider loneliness a bit like hunger or thirst but there is a paradox. Whereas when we’re hungry, we look for food, when we’re lonely, we don’t look for connection. On the contrary, we shy away from it.
That’s the reason why certain practices must be implemented so your employees stay healthy and happy.
Our Insights to fight remote Loneliness
In the last year, Toughlex and XITASO tried some ideas to fight loneliness at home. Some worked better than others, some are better for extroverts or introverts. Here are our top ideas, ranked by how easy they are to implement:
Whatever your organization’s style is, every employee should have a person they feel close to: Be it a team leader, a coach, a mentor or something similar. When working remotely, we all tend to fall in a kind of tunnel, where work is only cut by meetings, leaving little room for genuine direct interactions.
To fight loneliness, we noticed how essential one-on-one communication is.
Group calls or events are nice, but there is something special in an open discussion between two people that care about each other. After a year, it has become apparent how efficient the development of a mentor-mentee or employee-leader bond is. It helps to combat loneliness in different ways, one of which being a change in everyone’s routine.
For instance, you could implement one-on-ones as extended online lunches, 1–1.5h, where participants can explore deeper topics. These topics are usually a combination of personal and work-related factors that are critical for long-term team sustainability. Be careful though, daily business is not the main focus here, but rather the co-creation of a better future.
No need to be in the same room or in the same restaurant, any food delivery service can be used! Not having to cook or to clean will give a different atmosphere to the lunch, and it will help to break the monotony of remote working days.
Online Daily Coffee Breaks
This idea is probably the first that comes to mind addressing the loneliness issue: a formal opportunity for informal exchange. We tried to implement it and we have varying results — for some it works well, others stopped joining eventually. We debate what the reason could be: maybe that such an approach is not quite organic and probably there are people who don’t feel like overcoming this obstacle.
Anyway it is worth a shot as it is truly easy to implement and at least for some it will be a few fun minutes of the day. Simply schedule a repeating 15–30 min call in a shared calendar just after lunch and invite everyone to join.
To foster human interactions within a team, we experimented with a lot of things … but at the end, a lot of people lacked the feeling of someone being simply there. Our so-called Office Simulator helped us to, well, simulate being in the office with our team.
Here is how it works: It is simply a call running every day, all day long. Team members can dial in or out at any time in order to discuss something work related, or not. It’s up to them to use the simulator in a way that works for them.
What we observed is a lot of activity in the simulator. More interestingly, several team members with quieter personalities would sometimes stay in the call saying nothing ; just to be there, silent but together. Which is something truly fantastic, as crafting interactions with introverts can be a real challenge.
Shorten Your Meetings To Allow Small Talks
Small and corridor talks are an important way for information to circulate and for personal interaction. In the office, they usually took place before or after meetings or workshops, but since we moved online, one call seems to follow the other in an unending stream. In an attempt to cut this stream and build in breaks, we recommend to move down the base duration of a meeting (from 60 to 55 minutes, for instance).
Even then, it became quite obvious that we needed to strike a balance between keeping our meeting focused and allowing more personal interactions. Apparently, five minutes breaks between the meetings were not enough to cover all biological and human needs, as a lot of colleagues started to join meetings early to have some time to chat!
So we encourage this behaviour as it seems to be one of the smoothest real interactions replacement, and the best way to do that is to move down again the base duration of a meeting to 45 minutes and by making our reasoning transparent. It worked very well for us both and there is a great benefit to this method compared to online daily coffee breaks: these random meetings have a topic to fallback to — the meeting itself!
Every organization has a spam channel whether you know it or not 😁
It is a perfect place to foster interactions, to share contents, ideas or just cute puppy pictures …you can even use it to cultivate an internal memes ecosystem! Besides that, they have a huge advantage: they work asynchronous.
Of course, these channels are much more active when members feel familiar to each other already, therefore in bigger organizations we recommend to have a separate channel per department or per team, with no more than 20 people. It is super easy to implement and to take care of: simply get used to creating it along the main project channel.
Daily / Weekly Questions
This practice seems to pass the test of time. It is an opportunity for everyone to interact, beyond teams and projects boundaries.
Basically it works like this:
- Every team member asks a simple question in turns — every day or every week.
- Other team members answer the question. Answers often lead to discussions
It can be on any topic and should be easy and quick to answer, for example: “Do you prefer dogs or cats?”, “What is your view on this political matter?” or “What is your prefered fast food?” … so nothing work related. We observed that people not only answer the question but also share their thoughts, feelings, dreams, recommendations, insights in the comment section.
The fact that this is asynchronous communication is also extremely handy, everyone can participate despite how busy schedule one has. This exercise seems to be better suitable for introverts too, but make sure to encourage everyone to equally participate.
Note: https://www.quizbreaker.com/ is a bit similar to the practice mentioned above, additionally it has guessing rounds and leaderboard. In a few words — it is a gamified approach to know each other better.
All Hands Meeting
We noticed quite quickly that to combat loneliness was not only to multiply the interactions, but also to make the interactions more interesting, more impactful. To this end, the feeling of “we” is as important as the feeling of “me”.
That’s why we expanded our usage of all hands meeting — which means inviting every single employee to discuss the state of the company. For us, it happens every Friday morning. We are all together going through our different teams, projects and communities to keep everyone connected, up-to-date and more important, involved. Decisions are openly discussed and taken during an advice-process, where every single one can be heard.
You can also use such an all hands meeting to cover and discuss company vision, purpose, long-term goals, as well as financials, short-term goals and how it all finally connects to every team members’ work. It is quite easy and straight-forward how to perform a presentation online, the challenging part here is keeping the audience engaged. There is a simple trick we tried which seems to do the job — every ~10 minutes there is a poll that asks a simple question that was answered in recent slides.
Another example of this would be Q&A Sessions that we are doing with our CEOs. Everyone can post their questions beforehands and they will be answered during an event with all the company. Before the pandemic, it happened only twice a year but last year, we had eight different sessions.
You can try as hard as you can, but chats and small interactions cannot replace funny, competitive and exciting gaming experiences. This activity requires preparation and commitment, but as a result it can be extremely rewarding.
Keep in mind that these gaming nights can also be organised for not gamers: browser based games are good for people that are not used to playing, or simply don’t have state of the art hardware. The following games are some of our favorites : skribbl.io; Among us; All Bad Cards, Geotastic.
Other than that, games that have a nostalgic or sentimental value give great results: this is probably the reason why Counter Strike, Worms Armageddon and Age of Empires II are always popular! Try not becoming too serious or competitive though— having a good time is the focus here. Competing against AI opponents, instead of against each other, will trigger a mutual feeling of accomplishment (If you win, at least …).
These gaming nights can cover interactions from various angles such as cooperation, competition, situation jokes, random stories, learning or banter. Another advantage — it allows introverts to take part without leaving their comfort zone.
Team Building Events
Team buildings can happen online too! Probably every company has its own practice on how to run team buildings properly and it is possible that one practices are more easily transferable to online than others. Anyway it is worth trying as there are many options to choose from, here is what we already tried:
- Remote Escape rooms
The only difference from usual escape rooms is that instead of you and your colleagues being in the room yourself, you connect to a video call and there is a host who is in the room and acts on your behalf. It doesn’t sound too exciting but people seemed to like it.
- Online Puzzle game
This is a competitive team puzzle game designed for online use. Participants use the internet to solve miscellaneous problems, look for certain places on Google maps, record themselves doing challenges, etc. Super fun, cooperative and competitive at the same time.
- Role Playing games
They come in many different variations. The one we attended went like this: there was a host who told a story and we needed to act according to our roles. The activity included challenges, puzzles, bonding games. It wasn’t the most exciting activity, but contributed to build the team very well.
We had a quiz session run by a famous quiz host. Basically it sums up to this: the host presented a question and some possible answers. Each team had time to discuss and pick the answer they think was the best. But as there was a very limited amount of time to submit every answer to avoid cheating, interactions among group members were quite shallow. It is fun if you are into quizzes. If you would like to engage more people you can create a quiz creation website, like Kahoot, with questions related to your company. Then most interactions happen between the questions.
- Artist Performances
There are so many different options to pick from. We had a magician performance! This was the most professional online performance we have experienced: multiple cameras from different angles, beautiful decorations, astonishing tricks, hands-on experience learning magic and super fluent flow from the performer side. It was amazing! Afterwards the team stayed for a while and tried to debunk a few tricks, shared excitement.
Every activity has its own advantages and disadvantages, look for a right balance for your team and simply try them out.
Now, it is up to you!
As we’ve seen, loneliness is a major health issue that is getting worse with the current pandemic. The social interactions that are normally taking place at the workplace are not automatically getting replaced, and this might create a spiral in which everyone optimizes for efficiency and not for relatedness.
We, at Toughlex and XITASO, tried to patch the need for human interactions using different ideas and events. Some were more successful than others and some are best suited to specific needs in your teams and organizations. It’s up to you to try them out and see if they work for you, and how helpful they are.
All these ideas obviously do not replace real face to face interactions and will not solve serious cases of Loneliness or depression, but they can mitigate or slow the mental strain currently placed on all of us. They worked for us, let us know if they work for you.
Feedback? Comments? Questions? Feel free to contact us on LinkedIn!