Fighting the “loneliness epidemic” at work: Dan Schawbel on creating real connections in the Age of Isolation

By Jory MacKay

Dan Schawbel wants to save you from loneliness at work.

As a best-selling author, sought-after speaker, and research director at Future Workplace, Dan has spent his career helping young people navigate the choppy waters of corporate ladder climbing. His latest book, Back to Human: How Great Leaders create Connection in the Age of Isolation, however, tackles a less sexy, yet far more important topic: Workplace loneliness.

“Despite the illusion of 24/7 connection, in reality, most workers feel isolated from their colleagues, their organization and its leaders.”

“What they crave most—and what research increasingly shows to be the hallmark of the highest-performing workplace cultures—is a sense of authentic connection with others.”

In this interview, we spoke with Dan about the real threat of workplace isolation, the way technology increasingly keeps us apart, and how leaders of the future can shift their approach from managing workers to managing people.

Want to learn more about Dan Schawbel and his work? Check out his latest book, Back To Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation.

The “loneliness epidemic” and what it means in the modern workplace

Two years ago, Dan was interviewed for an upcoming Netflix documentary on the millennial generation. When asked about the biggest issues facing this massive group he went through the usual suspects: climate change, student debt, income inequality… and then something struck him:

“The biggest issue most people are facing on a daily basis—no matter who they are, how much money they make, or how they identify—is isolation.”

This might seem like a bold claim, but the statistics back it up.

Back to Human quote

Recently, a former US surgeon general claimed the country is facing a “loneliness epidemic.” Half of Americans say they regularly feel lonely while 40% say they don’t have any meaningful relationships.

In the UK, the government has recently installed a Minister for Loneliness and is now allowing doctors to prescribe “socialization.”

But why worry about people feeling lonely? Haven’t all of us gone through periods of being alone?

For one, the same former US general surgeon claims loneliness has the same health risks as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. While in the UK, workplace loneliness costs companies £2.5 billion a year.

On the flip side, Dan has found the most productive and successful teams feel like a family.

“If you have a more socially engaged workplace, it’s going to increase retention. It’s going to lower costs, it’s going to increase productivity, you’re going to be a healthier workplace that people are excited to go to every single day.”

“Retention, creativity, productivity, it hits about everything.”

How “connected” technology makes us feel increasingly isolated

As you can imagine, technology plays a major role in all of this.

Despite spending more and more of our workdays “connected” we feel more isolated than ever. Dan recently conducted a study of 2,000 managers and employees across 10 countries and found nearly  10% said they had no workplace friends while more than half said they had 5 or fewer.

Feeling loneliness in the workplace doesn’t just affect us socially. It hinders us from feeling purpose and meaning in the work we do. As Dan explains:

“In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, after safety, food, and shelter, we need love and relationships. Otherwise, we’ll never become self-actualized. So regardless of how much technology enters into society and how addicted we become to it, we still need those connections in order to be fulfilled.”

Back to Human quoteThis focus on fulfillment has been ignored in so many workplaces. Yet, studies say finding purpose and meaning at work keeps people happier, more motivated and loyal to their jobs, and even improves performance.

In fact, a recent study published in Harvard Business Review found that 9 out of 10 workers would take a pay cut in order to work on more meaningful work.

But instead of creating real connections that promote meaning and purpose, we rely on technology to foster relationships.

“What you’re seeing in the workplace is leaders relying on technology as a crutch to human interaction when I believe that they should be using technology as a bridge to that interaction.”

You’ve probably seen this happening yourself.

We spend more time on digital tools throughout the day, even during face-to-face interactions. People touch their phones 2,600 times a day and send approximately 5 texts during meetings—a clear sign they’re not engaged and present. Yet we treat these behaviors as normal.

Even worse, technology misuse and overuse like this makes us less productive and prone to burnout. One study Dan quotes in the book found that “half of employees do additional work from home after their standard workday is over.”

“We have to start acknowledging that technology is making us feel more disconnected and lonely.

“It’s tricked us into thinking we’re highly productive, that we have a lot of friends, and that we can multitask. Yet it’s really isolated us and weakened the relationships we should be trying to build.”

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7 ways to combat workplace loneliness and build better connections

So what can we do to help move away from isolation and come together in the workplace? In Back to Human, Dan outlines how modern managers can create real connections at work and help everyone find meaning and purpose.

Here are a few of his best pieces of advice:

1. Understand where your digital time is going

Technology certainly has its place in the office. But it’s easily misused and can get in the way of human connections. One of the first things Dan suggests is to take a long, hard look at your own technology patterns.

“I use tools like RescueTime to figure out where I’m guilty of misusing my technology and to gain self-awareness of where my time’s going and how it might be better spent.”

Anyone can do this. But knowledge alone isn’t enough. Once you have an understanding of your baseline, Dan says it’s time to take back control over your tech.

The book outlines a number of ways to do this, but one major suggestion is to turn off notifications and alerts and instead, be open and transparent about when you’re available. This might seem impossible given your position, but as Dan puts it:

“I run two companies and have written three books and I turn my alerts off. It’s all about choosing the right technology for the right task.”

2. Choose shorter meetings to promote more human contact

You might think that more meetings mean more human connection. However, that’s rarely the case. Instead, the average US worker spends more time in meetings than on email with that time costing an estimated $37 billion in losses according to the British Psychological Society.

Worse than that, long meetings kill morale and actually do less to promote human connections at work. As Dan explains:

“If you have a meeting that runs an hour that could’ve been half an hour, you shouldn’t be surprised people are looking at their phones.”

Instead, shorter, more purposeful meetings build connections, help people focus on their work, and encourages them to seek each other out afterward. When it comes to actually running meetings, Dan suggests letting your remote team members set the agenda. Rather than feeling isolated and like a passive participant, letting your remote team run the meeting shows trust and lets them be more honest and vocal.

3. Speaking of meetings, leave your tech at the door

Technology is always a distraction in meetings. And the easiest way to fix this is to simply ban phones and laptops from them. Behavioral economist Nir Eyal calls this a “digital hatrack.” Dan has a few specific recommendations on how to make this work:

“If people want to take notes, make sure they bring a pen and paper, rather than have their laptop with email and notifications in front of them. I also see a lot of leaders who have everyone put their phone in the middle of the boardroom table. That can be really effective.”

4. Walk across the office instead of sending an email

“The biggest thing that gets in the way of human connection in the workplace is email,” Dan says.

According to a study in the Harvard Business Review, one face-to-face interaction is more successful than 34 emails exchanged back and forth. But why? For one, emails lack context, body language, and tone. They breed misunderstanding instead of connection. A problem that Dan says could be solved by walking over and having a short conversation:

“We waste so much time not just on social networks and websites, but in trying to get people clear on what they need to do and have a mutual understanding.”

5. Create a culture of shared learning and transparency

Technology adoption is happening faster than ever. While the telephone took several decades to reach half of all households, a century later it took fewer than five years for cell phones to reach the same penetration.

In the workplace, this means skills and expertise becomes quickly outdated. In fact, according to Dan, the average relevancy of a new skill is just 5 years. This means we depend on each other to keep up with the speed of business.

“People are the new filters for information, resources, and education. In the workplace, everyone has strengths and weaknesses, but the team has certain skills and resources that everyone could benefit from. More connection comes from sharing these resources. If you’re supporting everyone else’s education, they’ll support you.”

Not only does this help keep your team up to date, but also helps the bottom line.

In America, there are currently 7.1 million unfilled jobs. Yet the unemployment rate is at its lowest level since 1969. What this means, to Dan, is that there’s a massive skills gap—one that could be solved by more connection.

“There’s a mismatch of talents. And in order to fill those gaps within a company so the company can grow, we have to educate ourselves and each other.”

“If you’re the leader and you’re sharing and being helpful on a regular basis, other people will follow that. They’ll see what you’re doing and it will create a culture where people are open to sharing because they know that sharing is rewarded.”

6. Encourage work-life integration (not balance)

During a podcast interview with the head of HR at EMC, Dan picked up a key piece of advice that would stick with him. Companies were expecting work to happen outside of work hours. And so they had to also expect that personal tasks would happen during them.

He went on to talk about this as “work-life integration”—the idea that technology has so blurred the lines between work and life that we need to be respectful of people’s needs and care more about the results than the optics.

“I interviewed Sir Richard Branson in San Francisco last year and asked him about this exact issue. What he told me was that if you have full flexibility outside of the office, you should have the same inside the office.

“People are working harder and longer hours than they did 20 years ago, and we need to focus on establishing a culture of trust that people will get the job done.”

7. Remember that in-person meetups cost less than replacing a team member

All this is well and good for teams that work together in an office, but what about remote teams (like RescueTime?)

In speaking around the country, Dan found that pretty much every company with remote workers faced issues of isolation. A third of the global workforce is remote. Yet, two-thirds of them are disengaged—an issue, Dan says, that leaders need to be acutely aware of:

“Yes, you get the freedom and flexibility to work when, where, and how you want. But the dark side [to remote work] is isolation from not getting enough human contact, which leads to loneliness, poor health, less engagement, and less commitment to the team and organizational success.”

Despite tools like video conferencing becoming easier and more affordable for teams, nothing beats real human connection.

For remote teams, Dan suggests a quarterly or annual meetup, bringing the whole team together in an exciting location. And while this might sound expensive, it pales in comparison to the alternative.

“The cost of replacing employees is upwards of $100,000 depending on their level and seniority. Flying everyone somewhere to connect—even if it costs $20,000—is worth it because replacing one or more people can be 10X that.”

Connection in the workplace is a two-way street

Despite all the benefits, it’s still hard to create workplace connections.

We spend more time in the office (or online), yet less of that time is with real people. We use technology as a buffer instead of using it to become closer. And the negative impact is painfully clear.

But this isn’t to say it’s all on leaders to promote connections in the workplace. It’s up to all of us:

“It’s about an individual’s willingness to reach out and connect with other people they work with. It’s about the effort they put in to pick up the phone instead of firing off another email.”

“So while leaders need to invest the time in supporting and connecting with people regardless of where they are. Everyone needs to be receptive to it on the other end too. Connection is a two-way street.”

Want to learn more about building stronger connections in the workplace? Check out Dan’s latest book, Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation. And let us know what you think about these ideas in the comments below or on Twitter.