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The Wider Impact of Disconnection on Remote Workers

Podcast: Connection and Disconnection Beyond Work: The Wider Impact of Disconnection

We’ve teamed up with Virtual Not Distant to produce a podcast series looking at disconnection and connection within remote teams. 

In the third episode of our collaboration series: Connection and Disconnection in Remote Teams, I take a look at how disconnection affects our wider communities. 

Make sure you take a look at the first and second episodes before you dig into this one.  

To help us understand the impacts feelings of loneliness can have on us, we first wanted to discover the reason we feel lonely at all. Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad unpacked the biologically adaptive reasons humans feel loneliness and what we can do to respond effectively. 

“Humans are social creatures, we’re social animals,” she says. “And much like other kinds of social animals, we thrive in groups.”

Being a part of groups, families, or relationships help keep us safe — we can pool resources and also manage both risk and effort. 

“Its argued that loneliness is much like a biological drive like hunger or thirst. Hunger motivates us to seek out food, thirst water, and loneliness motivates us to seek out relationships,” Julianne says. 

“Some also have compared it to pain. Pain is unpleasant but highly motivating. Even though no one likes to experience pain, it nonetheless is incredibly important for survival.”

I found this description of loneliness fascinating. Particularly in the light of building up self-reflection practices which is something we spoke about in earlier episodes.

Without recognising these feelings within ourselves, we will be unable to respond adaptively and receive the benefits. 

Developer Brian Rhea points out that sometimes we even ignore the niggle pushing us to make connections because it’s inconvenient. 

“It’s definitely human nature to need it. I don’t necessarily know if its human nature to seek it out and find it, especially when we’re also at our nature very easily distracted that feel good short term but are bad for us in the long term,” he says. 

As an introvert, he often finds it more comfortable to push through and do it himself rather than reaching out for collaboration. 

“Sometimes meetings are more inconvenient, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them.”

Regardless of whether we’re introverted or naturally need less connection time than others, the key here is figuring out our threshold. We need to know when we’ve gone too far — and maybe have some strategies in place to help us when we do 

If we did this, would we perhaps begin to experience some benefits like deeper, more authentic relationships? Or collaborations that lead to more creative designs, business ideas and product developments?  

Julianne says there that is a correlation between feeling connected and an increase in our productivity — so maybe I’m not far off. 

‘There is some really interesting research that suggests that the more that co-workers talk, [the more productive they were],” she says. 

“The researchers suspected that it led to greater connection not only to each other but the job, the company and felt a greater sense of investment to what they were working on.”

Occupational psychologist Richard Mackinnon agrees. “These chats and interactions contribute to team building, effective, trust, psychological safety, [and] it means people are willing to do things more helpful to them when they need it.”

So, if we think about the flip side of this, we can start to see the potential impacts disconnection could have on team investment and productivity too.

“What it often leads is an unwillingness to reach out to someone for support, and that leads to people being overwhelmed from a workload perspective and then all the follow ons from that,” Richard says. 

“It has a very negative impact on mood, people do withdraw a little bit and going the extra mile can suffer. You can think, ‘why should I bother, these guys don’t look out for my back, why should I look out for them?'”

It’s not just workplaces that suffer either. When we work from our homes, the flow-on effects can begin to impact those we live with too.  

ShieldGEO co-founder Tim Burgess, sees this lowered barrier between work life and home life, having the potential to lead to something like emotional contagion.

“The emotions that you experience spread a little bit to everyone you interact with – if you’re in a bad mood, everyone you bump into gets a little bit of that bad mood to a degree,” he says. 

So if a company is wondering whether it’s worth it to invest in connection, Tim says, “if you go the other way and foster disconnection, that will spread back into your organisation. It’s not necessarily one casualty if that person suffers all the people around them will suffer.”

We can see that feeling disconnected isn’t just a small blip in our day but something that can have significant impacts on how we approach our work, how productive we are and how well our teams and organisations function. It can also impact our relationships outside of the workplace, mainly when we are working from home and have limited distinction between when work time ends and home time begins.

While this is certainly enough of a reason to address disconnection within our teams proactively, I want to pivot slightly and talk about some of the potentially more series implications that can come from feeling lonely. 

In the previous episode, I mentioned that Julianne had spent her career extensively, researching the correlation between the quantity and quality of our relationships and our physical health. Here, she shares some of her findings.

“What we found was that those who are more socially connected has a 50% increased odds of survival – we recognised that not everyone would be able to wrap their heads around what 50% means practically. We benchmarked it to risk factors we take seriously to our health. We found it was comparable to the effect that it has on our life span such as alcohol consumption, air pollution, obesity…and it was quite significant,” Julianne says. 

“What we found was lacking social connection would be predicting increase risk of premature mortality for all causes.”

According to figures published by the Office for National Statistics, in the UK, 2.4 million British residents suffer from chronic loneliness.

This vast number, combined with the findings Julianne spoke about put’s this issue at a national health crisis level in the UK (with similar estimations across the west). It really showcases just how important it is that we, as a society, learn how to deal effectively with experiences of disconnection in ourselves, our teams and our communities at large. 

Of course, with health impacts of this magnitude, we naturally are seeing some economic ones follow.

“There was a study sponsored by AARP, that looked at the economic costs of this. From older adults on Medicare, they found that it led to 6.7 billion dollars in annual Medicare costs among those who are socially isolated compared to those who are not.”

We can see that this issue is much larger than our little remote work community and is going to require effort from many levels to address. 

But while remote workers may be especially at risk of experiencing these feelings, I think we might also be uniquely positioned to address them. 

– Bree Caggiati, March 2020

Looking for the next episode? You can listen or read about Episode 4 here!

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