Workplace loneliness: the challenge of connecting in a remote-working world podcast

Loneliness is recognised by governments across the world as a pervasive global challenge. In the new world of remote and hybrid working, loneliness is experienced by many of us during our working lives. The day-to-day camaraderie of the office is hard to replicate on screen, and efforts by employers to host socials online often feel contrived, yet another addition to a long to-do list.

In this episode, Ada T. Cenkci, Megan Downing and Karen Perham-Lippman share insights from their new book Overcoming Workplace Loneliness: Cultivating Belonging for a Remote Workforce (co-authored with Tuba Bircan). They offer practical solutions for both employers and employees, envisioning a world of work where employees can experience the encouragement and comradery of office connection from the comfort of their homes. 

Speaker profile(s)

Ada T. Cenkci, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Organisational Leadership in the Department of Political Science, Criminal Justice, and Organisational Leadership at Northern Kentucky University. She has taught leadership, diversity, and culture courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels at several institutions. Dr. Cenkci’s research interests center on workplace loneliness, belonging, and inclusive leadership. Her scholarly work has been published in peer-reviewed journals, such as the Management Research Review, Journal of Business Ethics, Journal of Educational Psychology, and Journal of Leadership Education.

Megan Downing, EdD, is an Associate Professor of Organisational Leadership in the Department of Political Science, Criminal Justice, and Organisational Leadership at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) where she teaches leadership courses in the College of Arts & Sciences and Honors College. Dr. Downing's research interests center on leadership education and development, service learning, online learning, workplace loneliness, belonging, and impostor phenomenon. Her scholarly work has been published by Emerald Publishing and in the International Journal of Organisation Theory and Behavior, Journal of Leadership Education, Journal of Nonprofit Education and Leadership, and Journal of College Student Retention. 

Karen Perham-Lippman, MS, CDP, CAGS, serves as a Senior Manager of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Otis Elevator Company. An award-winning DE&I leader, community leader, author, and as well as a public speaker, Karen has nearly fifteen years’ experience in global DEI, ESG, and CSR strategies. As a member of Forbes Human Resources Council her writing appears on Forbes. She has taught business, communications, and organisational leadership as an adjunct professor at both undergraduate and graduate levels for the past five years. She recently served two consecutive terms on Colorado’s Business Experiential Learning Commission by governor appointment. Her dedication to the community extends to numerous regional and global nonprofit boards, earning recognition for her leadership and service. Karen is a Certified Diversity Professional and holds a certification in designing equitable courses from the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE). She is a PhD candidate in organisational leadership at Eastern University and has been published with Ethics International Press, Emerald Publishing, Merits International Journal and SAGE Publishing.

Contibuting book author: Prof. Tuba Bircan. Prof Bircan works as an associate professor of sociology, at the Free University of Brussels (VUB), where she leads the AIMS Lab: AI, Migration & Society research group at BIRSPO. She is also a senior quantitative scientist at Kavli Research Centre for Ethics, Science and the Public at University of Cambridge and Wellcome Connecting Science. As an interdisciplinary computational social scientist, her research interests cover a wide range from public perception, diversity, migration, inequalities, social and public policies to new methodologies and use of Big Data and AI for studying socio-political challenges. She is a follower of open science and science for society. She is currently leading the H2020 funded Enhanced Migration Measures from a Multidimensional Perspective (HumMingBird) project and is the co-promoter of Climate-Induced Migration in Africa and Beyond: Big Data and Predictive Analytics (CLIMB) project. She sits on the editorial board of Nature Humanities and Social Sciences Communications and Plos One, as well as the ethical board of AI Excellence Centre of Flemish Employment Agency in Belgium. She has published mainly on the methodological aspects of migration studies, use of Big Data and AI in social sciences and inclusive policies and inequalities.

Read their new book Overcoming Workplace Loneliness: Cultivating Belonging for a Remote Workforce.

In this episode:

  • Background of the guests and their research
  • What is workplace loneliness and why is it such a big problem today?
  • What is meant by a sense of belonging at work and how can it help combat loneliness?
  • Does remote working contribute to loneliness?
  • What practical strategies can employers and employees use to address workplace loneliness

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Workplace loneliness: the challenge of connecting in a remote-working world 

Becky Taylor (BT): Hello, welcome to the Emerald Podcast Series. My name is Becky Taylor, and today I'm joined by three guests: Ada Cenkci, Megan Downing, and Karen Perham-Lippman, authors of a new book, Overcoming Workplace Loneliness. 

On this podcast we talk about the increasing prevalence of feelings of loneliness at work, and how their new research looks at the main causes of this, as well as some practical solutions to help improve our sense of wellbeing and belonging in our working lives.

Ada Cenkji is Associate Professor of Organisational Leadership at Northern Kentucky University. Her research centers on workplace loneliness, belonging, and inclusive leadership. Megan Downing is also Associate Professor of Organisational Leadership at Northern Kentucky University. Her research spans leadership education, online learning, service learning, workplace loneliness, belonging, and impostor syndrome. Karen Perham-Lippman serves as a senior manager of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Otis Elevator Company. She is an award winning Diversity, Equity and Inclusion leader as well as an author, teacher, course designer and public speaker. Karen is also a founding member of Senior Executives DEI Think Tank and has recently served two consecutive on Colorado’s Business Experiential Learning Commission by government appointment. 

It's fantastic to have the three of you here today. I'm going to jump in with a broad question: your book starts off by discussing the concept of loneliness itself and how it's such a critical global challenge today. Can you start by saying what you why you think it's such a big problem now and how it might affect both individuals and society as a whole?

Ada Cenkji (AC): First of all, loneliness happens when our desired level of quality of relationships and quantity of relationships doesn't match what is happening. So my loneliness experience, even if we work at the same place, may be different from yours because it's an individual experience. And unfortunately, it's a global issue affecting different countries around the world. It affects a variety of outcomes such as sleep, cognition, physical health, and several countries around the world are taking measures to prevent it. For example, in Japan, and in UK, there are minister level appointments to address loneliness. In America, if you look at the number of lonely people, it's estimated that it is 17% of the population. Therefore, last year, Surgeon General (of the US) Vivek Murthy, in his Advisory on Loneliness said that this should be taken as serious as other health issues. And loneliness unfortunately affects different areas of life. Since we spend so many waking hours at work, it also affects our work life. As far as we know, this is the first book written on workplace loneliness in remote contexts, including a very detailed literature review in terms of workplace loneliness. We also have a mixed method study that combines survey and interviews. So the book brings all together the literature review on workplace loneliness, and our mixed method study. And we hope that reviewers will enjoy reading it. 

Karen Perham-Lippman (KPL): One of the things that we feel particularly proud about in terms of this research project and our book is significantly that there isn't anything like it out there in terms of helping people, leaders, employers, businesses, and the humans inside or organisations to really understand workplace loneliness and sense of belonging beyond the researchers and the academics which we know, though they'll love as well. But we also know it can be impactful for humans in our organisations and business leaders. And one of the things that we know is that notably the COVID 19 pandemic exacerbated the issue of folks experiencing loneliness, but we'd like to point out that it existed before the pandemic. And that's why this is so important, because it does predate the pandemic, but it's still an issue inside of our workplaces today. But back to your question about businesses, why should we care right? Why should an organisation, why should a leader, a HR leader, a business leader, care? Because it matters when we're talking about the humans inside organisations. In fact, there's a recent report in 2022 by Ernst and Young, they did this belonging barometer survey, and they found that 82% of employees across diverse global sectors around the world have experienced loneliness. So think about that. That's 82 people out of every 100 people inside an organisation have experienced some sense of loneliness. So not only does that highlight how important it is for us to think about this as a universal concern, but there's also a significant economic impact. It's estimated that workplace loneliness costs employers over $154 billion annually. So we know it has a profound impact on employee performance productivity, we know that it can lead to employees feeling a decrease in their motivation, lower employee engagement, higher turnover rate absenteeism. In fact, we know that the risks according to the Surgeon General's report that Ada mentioned, Vivek Murthy, is report shows that it's equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And so that is obviously an impact on physical health. But we also know that there's psychological pain associated with that as well. So basically, it is it is a societal and an organisational issue. And we have a tendency to overlook or undervalue the seriousness of it in our workplaces. And that creates stigma.

BT: Thanks, Karen. That's so interesting, I think the importance of it on an individual level as well; that your research and other people's research like yourselves can impact people's happiness and sense of achievement and belonging in an organisation. Which leads me nicely on to my next question. In the book, you really explore the concept of belonging as a way of combating loneliness or something that's kind of a reflection, or an opposite, of loneliness in a more positive way. Can you explain a little bit about what you mean by the concept of belonging, and why it's so important to humans and to humans as they go about their working lives.

Megan Downing (MD): Belonging is a fundamental human need. In fact, our recognition of the need to belong goes back as far as the research of Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs back in the 40s. And in his research, he emphasised belonging’s importance in the process of human growth and development. And in fact, if you look at that hierarchy of needs, belonging ranks just third in the hierarchy, with only things like physiological needs, like food, clothing, and shelter, and safety ranking ahead because belonging is so important, it's, you know, way up there. Of course, other researchers have looked into belonging: Baumeister Leary looked into it in the 90s, doing a meta-analysis of all behavioral research and looking into that, and they recognise that, again, belonging is a universal need. And it motivates all of us to essentially, in their words, form and maintain lasting, positive significant interpersonal relationships. So, from their research, they noted that if belonging isn't met, people experience loneliness. And just like loneliness, it's a very individual experience, as Ada and Karen emphasised, so feelings of alienation, social isolation, essentially, as humans, we're just hardwired for a need for social contact. But it's also important to recognise that casual contact just isn't enough, you know, it's a start, but it isn’t enough. What we really need are frequent interactions with people: meaningful interactions, preferably positive ones, pleasant without conflict, that are stable, you know, interactions with people that demonstrate a real concern for us. So essentially, as human beings, we need an environment where we can be our authentic selves. And since we spend more than half of our waking hours on work-related activities, sometimes far more, it stands to reason that these interactions and these relationships that we have in the workplace have a profound impact on our wellbeing, and our sense of loneliness or sense of belonging, because they're so interconnected. Although belonging and loneliness, I don't want to confuse the two as they are very distinct constructs. And sometimes people use the terms interchangeably, but our social and our psychological wellbeing, and our subjective perception of connection to others, are all important concepts. And so those who are lonely often have this unmet need to belong. They're very related and kind of work on a continuum. They're connected, but distinct constructs and so if we can help fulfill and build that sense of belonging in the workplace, it can help people in a very broad scale, but also in their connection in the workplace and their performance there. 

BT: Yeah, fantastic. And I think that one of the quotes that was in the book that really struck me was by Brene Brown, who said that the greatest barrier to true belonging is fitting in or changing who we are to be accepted. And I think that is a really interesting question that you explore in the book, it's not just belonging, on a surface level, it's belonging and uniqueness as two concepts together. In the research that you did, do you think that was coming across as something that was valued?

MD: It very much depends on the organisation. I mean, we worked with two specific organisations that were very uniquely different industries, so that we could get perceptions of workers with different experiences. Even within large organisations, there are different departments, and the culture can vary, there's an organisational culture, but there might be a departmental culture as well. And then, of course, you have the leader behaviors, and different things like their ways of doing, their approach to leading their team, or even down all the way to the team level. So, we saw variations in both organisations, when it comes to this, where there was some recognitions in some places with great support, where people felt comfortable being their authentic selves, and still being valued and connected, and others where maybe it wasn't as strong. And these were within one organisation, you saw these variations. So, it's kind of hard to generalise, I think some do a very good job of it, others not as well, so it's a work in progress. But I think, as a society, in many ways that's changing.

BT:  I think a lot of organisations are obviously doing a lot more work around diversity and inclusion, and they're all really positive moves in the right direction. But I think it's probably worth noting still, that there's an importance for valuing uniqueness at the same time that you're trying to get people together. And it's probably a very hard balance to strike, isn't it, to make people feel like they're part of our mission, but at the same time allow their authentic voices to come through. My next question kind of pushes into what you were saying earlier about remote work, and I guess many of us are still grappling with the impacts of now is being moved to different ways of working, be that hybrid, fully remote or even returning to the office. What would you say are the key issues still facing employers and employees in this new world of work?

KPL: So one of the things that that came up in our research that we feel is really important to highlight, and you touched on that, is this concept of how we are so digitally connected and yet somehow disconnected. And so this remote work paradox is essentially that we are more connected than ever, and yet, we're still experiencing loneliness and disconnection. And this paradox highlights the real complexity of our human connections in our modern workplaces. This phenomenon arises from many different things; it could be from limited face to face interactions that can lead to feelings of isolation, it could be we're experiencing digital communication overload. However, employees who may commonly face marginalisation or microaggressions in their physical workplaces may find that the remote work is a respite from those experiences. And so it reduces their direct exposure to these negative experiences. And in the digital environment, employees can also be evaluated more on their work output, rather than their physical presence or any adherence to a dominant office culture.

BT: It's absolutely a tricky one. Even speaking from my own personal experience and to colleagues in my own organisation. I think many of us feel conflicted about you know, whether we would prefer to stay in a remote situation or not, because there's so many advantages that come from for many of us were working remotely that we experienced during the pandemic, like that sense of belonging within our families and our friendship groups was, well, not during the pandemic, but afterwards, was definitely heightened because you have more time you didn't have to travel to work, you were there for tea time with your children. And so all of those things have to be weighed up against the benefits that you absolutely get from being in person with your colleagues at work as long as it's a safe environment. And then there's, as you said in your book, there's obviously individual factors across the board that into this: personality styles, age and level of worker, the type of work that you're doing. It's all a big, complex web of issues to sort out. So that's why I think this research is so needed and so fascinating. Going on to my next question, I also really like the way that your book challenges the perception that workplace loneliness is solely an issue for us to tackle as individuals and instead the emphasis falls on what organisations and teams can do to combat loneliness. I think you spoke about this point earlier, that it is for employers to take note of. What do you think some of the team and organisational factors are that came out of your research that that have an impact on workplace loneliness? 

AC: Loneliness is a taboo issue, especially if you imagine if you are in a very achievement-oriented culture and organisation, you don't want to show weaknesses. That's why it's a taboo issue. But organisations need to address this because of everything we have talked about - the impact on companies. So when we looked at our interviews, we found factors such as company culture, and politics. For example, cliques in an organisation: imagine you just start a new job, there is a clique between some team members, you feel excluded, they don't want to hear your opinions, or you are having issues with a particular team member. The third one is direct manager behavior style: managers not creating a team environment, or managers ignoring the contributions of a team member. I remember one participant said - I'm paraphrasing of course – ‘whatever I do, my manager will not value it’. So if you are in such a situation, of course, you will feel lonely. The last one we noticed is undervaluing of employees, not feeling valued, like ‘my opinion doesn't matter’. If I give feedback, they're not gonna care for it, they don't care about me, they can lay me off in a second and get somebody else. So these are some things we heard in interviews. This is a significant thing organisations need to address: we value you, and show it with actions, not just saying it.

KPL: So we obviously know humans inside our organisations are unique individuals. And so in order to be best equipped to implement the strategies Ada is talking about, at this organisational and team level, we have to recognise unique experiences. So let's illustrate with two hypothetical employees: Employee A and Employee B. So I'll give you the example of Employee A: despite regularly interacting with many colleagues, they feel a lack of meaningful connection or support. So these superficial interactions are not fulfilling Employee A’s need for deeper, more meaningful relationships. And this leads to a feeling of being socially distressed; they're alone despite being connected. And in this situation, it's representative of high loneliness and low belonging, which we highlight as well in our research and in the book. There's an abundance of social interaction, but it lacks the quality and depth that fosters the true sense of belonging that Megan was talking about. Employee B, on the other hand, has only a few colleagues they interact with. But these interactions are rich, supportive and fulfilling: Employee B is experiencing a strong sense of belonging and minimal loneliness, even with fewer connections. So here, the high quality of their social interactions leads to low loneliness, and high belonging. And this demonstrates the importance of these meaningful connections over the sheer number of interactions. And so I bring that up, because essentially what we're saying is loneliness and belonging can coexist. And it's possible to experience one without the other. Our research explores these nuances, and it sheds light on how individuals navigate their need for belonging and how it impacts their experience of loneliness in the workplace. So all this to say, leaders and organisations can then be overall better equipped to design and implement strategies that will effectively help to reduce loneliness and foster belonging, but they have to consider the unique needs and experiences of their employees.

MD: One of the things that came up from our interviews was that mixed messaging, not a clear understanding of the strategy or some of the practices and policies and procedures that organisations had in place that just did didn't really facilitate belonging. And so in a world of remote work, and hybrid working in organisations, if they haven't yet really given that fine-tooth review of their practices and their policies and their messaging and such, they need to take a look at that, particularly as we move back to this mixed modality, where you have people sensually on the work campus, in the office, and others who are hybrid or remote, the organisational leaders need to make sure that there are no biases against those who are not on site every day, for example, to ensure that remote workers aren't overlooked when it comes to benefits and promotions that they might deserve. Because they're out of sight, out of mind and their contributions aren't fully recognised. Things like onboarding, I don't know if we've mentioned that yet, but that was something that came up quite frequently in our conversation with folk, whether they were a new employee or somebody moving from one team to another, as a manager, or leader, we may think, oh, they've been here for 25 years, they know how things work. They still need that mentoring, that onboarding, and it can't be a one and done thing. Onboarding needs to have scheduled follow ups and touch points to make sure to facilitate that connection, building that sense of belonging. And we need to with this in mind really helped develop our leaders to recognise their own behaviors and how it impacts that employee's sense of belonging or facilitates a sense of disconnection, make sure that we're open to employee ideas. I know one example Ada and I often refer to when people talk to us about our research is one individual who mentioned how his workplace would have these mass webinars, they were meant to be touchpoints. But you had three or four talking heads who were way up in the hierarchy of the organisation and they were doing all the talking and you were expected to be there. But you couldn't contribute. I mean, there wasn't an opportunity to ask questions, there wasn't an opportunity to contribute on the topic. They felt more than that people were talking at them, rather than engaging them in the process. So it wound up being not really a good use of their time.

BT: What kind of practical strategies do you think employers and organisations can do when faced with this challenge in order to help their workers experience a better sense of belonging and exacerbate loneliness?

AC: It depends on the context. I wish we had the magical recipe we give to organisations. But we instead we offer several strategies, and they can choose which ones to implement. As Karen said, we have a fourth author - Dr. Tuba Bircan, she did our data analysis. And one thing she constantly emphasised, and we expressed it in the book, it depends on the context. What organisations need to do, therefore, is to listen to their employees, and then offer solutions based on their context. We just talked about having a big townhall. It sounds like they are listening to employees, but that's not really listening. Or sometimes we see organisations getting feedback, and it piles up somewhere, but it's not implemented, and so ‘why do you waste my time collecting surveys?’ employers may think. So we offer various strategies and we suggest organisations try and see what works. Some teams may like one on one meetings, some teams may like townhalls, some things may like social online events. It depends on the person for example, I have a friend, he just wants to finish his work. He's an IT professional. He wants to finish work. And if he has to socialise, this can happen with his kids. He's like, why should I spend time with coworkers, I just want to get my favorite job done so I can play with my kids. This is his attitude. On the other hand, for example, I like socialising with people. There is also an issue of burnout. This was mentioned in our book, but in detail, Gallup conducted a study, and the results were published in 2023. It said that in America, three out of ten employees experience frequent or constant burnout at workplace. So if I'm this burned out, and on top of it, you come tell me I need to attend a social happy hour, and I'm behind in my work … Organisations need to address burnout before offering their social activities. And lastly, pre-pandemic times, mental health issues weren’t seen as issues. The one benefit of the pandemic was that they became less of a taboo and organisations offered bunch of ways to address that such as virtual yoga, stress management classes, etc. We suggest this support continues: mindfulness practices, mental health resources, making issues such as loneliness and other mental health related issues, not a taboo. As I said before, if you're in a competitive environment where everybody tries to look their best, and they don't show any weaknesses, employers may hesitate to talk about their wellbeing issues, and mental health issues. So overall, what I'm saying is organisations need to address it as much as a taboo to this day, it needs to be addressed.

KPL: So I wanted to give an example of an organisation who's thinking uniquely about the needs of their employees: an employee resource group at Salesforce. And during the pandemic in 2020, what happened is the evolution of this employee resource group, which I think is a testament to the power of really understanding and addressing the unique needs of your employees’ experiences, and thinking about it from an inclusion and belonging perspective. So employees began expressing the need to connect, share experiences and find resources around the topic of substance-use disorder and recovery. And one of the Salesforce leaders, the VP of Enterprise Service, who was also recovery, eventually ended up emailing about 50,000 colleagues within the organisation to come together, create and join a sober force Employee Resource Group. I'm not necessarily saying every employer needs to create a sober force per se. But what this example helps to illustrate is that there's critical importance in understanding and addressing the unique needs of the individuals in your organisation. So in this case, they were thinking about how can we tailor our measures to ensure that the solutions are purposeful, and impactful, rather than adopting this one size fits all approach. Like how many times have you been inside an organisation and thought, oh, here we go with this flash in the pan initiative. And we definitely don't want the strategies that are focused on creating a more meaningful work experience for humans to be flash in the pan. 

BT: I think it's kind of moving away from that thinking of human resources as cogs in a machine. You know, as you said, so much of our lives are spent at work. Okay, so that leads really nicely on to what I wanted to ask next, which was if organisations don't offer the kind of support or strategies that you were discussing, what can individuals, what can we do ourselves, to help improve our sense of belonging at work, 

MD: From an individual perspective, it can be a challenge, you might be hesitant, you don't want to demonstrate a sense of not knowing what you're supposed to do, because you've been hired for this position. So you're hesitant to demonstrate a lack of capabilities, right. But we have to step away from that, if we are not getting what we need, we recognise it. You know, what we saw in our study is that those who expressed that they were experiencing a sense of belonging at work, they emphasised the value of their teammates, their co-workers, those from other teams that they interacted with on a regular basis, those ERGs that we mentioned - I know that's organisational - the affinity groups and such, and mentors, those people that they interacted with on a regular basis. So my recommendation to individuals is that you have to make a concerted effort, if the organisation isn't providing what you need to help facilitate those relationships, we have to kind of step forward, then, we need to listen, be observant, find someone that we can connect with, that is the most important thing, someone that we can connect with. It can be essentially an unofficial mentor, or go to your boss, to your leader, whoever your report is, and ask for perhaps a weekly touch base or twice a month touch base or something, if that isn't already worked in to the practices. And then find some individuals at work, maybe that have some similar interests, if you can, if there are no official ERGs or affinity groups, that you can maybe begin that. Just working through your discomfort to try to begin forming those connections is really the best approach. Leadership is an interactive process with a follower, right. So as we try to answer this question about what strategies workers can employ, it all comes back to anything they do, it's an uphill battle for them if the leaders aren't prepared to listen and to engage and to value their employees. So recognise where you're lacking, communicate that, recognise that your leaders are not telepathic, they need to know. So you need to communicate to them. But then we can't help but flipping over to the leader’s responsibility that they have to listen, actively listen and be available and approachable. 

KPL: Exactly, and it will perpetuate that feeling of alienation that I brought up earlier before the onboarding process. If you're powerless because your leadership is not also engaged in addressing the issue, you're not going to be able to overcome your own workplace loneliness, I mean, we can't expect people to do that themselves. So then they're experiencing alienation, which can further increase the experience of workplace loneliness.

Thank you for listening to today's episode. You can find out more information about my guests on our website, as well as a link to their new book co-authored with Tuba Bircan. I would like to thank my guests, and the studio This is Distorted.

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