Work can be a lonely place, even though it shouldn’t be. Some people are introverts or just don’t have the skills or confidence to connect with their colleagues. Many feel uncomfortable discussing their weak social ties at work, dismissing that problem as unimportant compared to other workplace issues like lack of respect and recognition, or even more serious problems like bullying, harassment, and discrimination. But loneliness is a serious issue, too. Not only has it been linked to negative health impacts, but Wharton School researchers have found that loneliness decreases employees’ performance and reduces their contribution to team efforts.
It’s up to managers to create work environments where every team member can build strong social connections rather than feel isolated, overlooked, or misunderstood. Here are a few emotionally intelligent steps every team leader–and most coworkers–can take in order to curb the loneliness that might be lurking in the corners of their workplaces.
1. Bond over food
Food is universal and crosses all human boundaries, and opportunities to connect over food in the workplace are endless. Office potlucks, where everyone brings something, can be great for conversation and team bonding. But it doesn’t always require managers to organize events themselves. Bring in any excess produce from your garden to share with your coworkers. If your kitchen office’s facilities permit it, ask a coworker to spend 40 minutes with you next week preparing a meal together. And if all you have time for is to run out for a quick coffee with someone on your team who’s been keeping to herself, that’s better than nothing.
2. Invite people to share their interests in the office
It’s not difficult to launch and sustain informal groups that let employees converge over shared interests during their lunch breaks, in the mornings, or after wrapping up for the day. Encourage team members to take the initiative in designing these meet-ups themselves, then help them secure space where they can meet. In good weather, invite your team to get outdoors for a walk during lunch, or organize a picnic in the park nearby. If you have the budget, bring in an expert to share an activity like yoga, watercolor painting, or cooking. These small opportunities let people connect on a more personal level than they would just by discussing work issues.
And if you don’t have the budget, offer your team members a chance to teach their colleagues about a skill or hobby they love. People who’ve been on a recent trip or adventure can share a presentation of their photos over lunch and invite anyone who’s interested to check it out. You can also host a brown-bag lunch where people from two different departments can chat informally and get to know each other. The whole point is simply to create moments where your team members can experience the diverse range of interests and skills that their colleagues possess outside the workplace.
3. Set screen-free time
During meetings, consider asking everyone to temporarily switch their devices off and pop them into a container (I like the fish bowl). They can pick them up at the end. This may sound extreme, but it typically encourages more face-to-face interaction without the constant distraction caused by devices.
4. Reserve some personal time in meetings
A good way to start meetings is to go around the room and ask everyone to share something they’re excited about. The only rule is that it must be something outside of work. This is an excellent way for people to get to know one another, especially when new hires have recently joined the team. It can also set up further conversation and connection by giving team members something to chat about after the meeting is over.
5. Host informal contests that require teamwork
Managers should also consider setting up small contests and competitions that let employees get to know each other better and provide opportunities to work together to find solutions. These initiatives don’t have to be tied to work projects, either–they just need to be fun and demand teamwork. Seeing people in a different light from who they are while tackling work projects can help break down social barriers and spark new friendships around the office.
6. Encourage outreach to anyone who may be struggling
When we notice a colleague who seems to be emotionally down, let them know that you noticed. Ask if there’s anything you can do to help. You don’t need to be a manager in order to do this, and if you are a manager, encourage your team members to offer support whenever they suspect someone could use it.
Some people fear that this is overstepping boundaries. But a colleague always has the right to politely decline your outreach, and most will appreciate you taking notice, even if they don’t choose to confide in you right now. The fact is that we all experience feelings of loneliness and isolation at some point in our careers, and knowing that our managers and coworkers care about us as people can go a long way.