You don't have to be alone to feel lonely. Workplaces are more connected and open than in the past. But workers are still feeling lonely and isolated on the job because of technology, remote work, and fewer human interactions.
Even in open-plan office spaces with little separation, workers can feel disconnected from their colleagues. Coworkers sitting around the same conference table or in daily meetings together can have no real relationship.
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"You could be working in the middle of a crowded work area, but if you aren't close with anyone, you feel lonely," said Hakan Ozcelik, a professor of management in the College of Business Administration at Sacramento State.
Technologies like email, texts, and messaging have added convenience and efficiency to workplace communications, but they've also limited personal connections. It's easier to Slack a coworker or fire off an email rather than walk across the office to talk to a colleague who could be in the middle of another task. But emails and messages are stale and strip out important human interactions.
"The exchange of emotion is a critical building block to friendship," noted Sigal Barsade, professor of management at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
While freelance work and flexible schedules that allow employees to work from home have become more common, they also limit co-worker interactions and engagement.
Remote workers are more likely to quit because of loneliness, according to Dan Schawbel, author of "Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation."
A drain on productivity
For companies, worker engagement is essential to productivity.
"Relationships and friendships at work are absolutely critical to happiness, engagement and productivity in the workplace," said Annie McKee, author of "How to Be Happy at Work."
Not feeling recognized and part of the team can also be isolating.
"When workers' talents and efforts go unnoticed, you can start feeling invisible, and that feels horrible," McKee added.
Employees who feel lonely are tied to lower job performance, according to a recent study by Ozcelik and Barsade.
The study also found that lonely employees were less committed to the company and seemed less approachable to their colleagues.
While it can be hard to identify, loneliness can spread easily. "We catch emotions from each other like viruses," said Barsade. "We don't realize it's happening; it becomes behavioral mimicry."
Lonely workers can get stuck in a negative cycle that's hard to climb out of. They tend to push away those trying to help, which can ultimately lead to a talent drain.
"They start performing less, and companies might be losing their best employees because they are lonely," said Ozcelik.
What managers can do
Pay attention to onboarding. Loneliness can be a common problem for new employees. They are faced with the tasks of navigating a new workflow and culture and also establishing new relationships.
"It is very natural to be initially lonely in a new situation," said Barsade.
Companies should strive to make onboarding more personal, with new hires getting proper introductions and support.
Show appreciation. Recognizing a person or team's hard work can help foster a sense of belonging.
And it doesn't have to be a grand gesture.
"We often don't take the time to do simple human things. A thank you, a quick note, email, smile and recognition of a job well done, if we don't get those pretty regularly, most people start feeling alone," said McKee.
Put remote workers front and center. Don't just have a remote worker video conference into an office meeting.
"Let them lead the meeting, that empowers them," said Schawbel. He added that managers should take the time to visit employees in other offices. "It's about making the time and investing in your workers."
Get outside. The office can be stifling to building bonds. Planning employee lunches or meetups, or hosting social events that are non-work-related can encourage more meaningful interactions.
"People build real friendships by not always talking about work. When you get outside the office you are more likely to open up," Schawable said.