Belonging at Work

There have been a lot of articles recently about a growing epidemic, a disease that can’t be cured with a pill or an operation, loneliness. Evidence points to social media as a prominent cause. It was bad enough, ten years ago, to be flooded with images that you couldn’t hope to measure up to: impossibly thin models; ridiculously rich celebrities; challenging family situations neatly resolved in 30 minutes. Now we are overwhelmed with images of “people like us” who edit their lives until they are nothing like us: photos of perfect vacations; announcements about children’s achievements; advice columns that tell us that everything we do is wrong. And, instead of turning this stream on, by pressing a remote control button or picking up a magazine, we carry it in our pockets, take it with us everywhere, and reach for it like a security blanket, at the least discomfort. Instead of reflecting on the feeling, engaging with the people around us, we seek to escape into our hands.

Much has been written about the impact on children and teens – the unrealistic self-comparisons, the depression, the social rejection, making growing up even harder, which seems impossible as I look back on my own childhood. It’s gotten even harder than that? I feel for the kids.

Some has been written about the impact on the elderly. I see this with my own mother. She gets out of bed, makes a cup of tea, and – unless disrupted by a human presence – disappears into her phone, staying there until interrupted by my sister showing up just in time to take her to a doctor’s appointment or a Sherriff’s debate, and discovering that she hasn’t showered or gotten dressed, and is feeling a little tired and hungry. What is she doing on her phone? The same thing the rest of us are doing – looking at updates from friends and relatives on social media, reading endless articles about how awful and hopeless the world, and specifically the U.S. and, more specifically, the political situation is.

Less has been written about loneliness at work. In First Break All the Rules, the Gallup organization reports the results of thousands of surveys that they conducted about the qualities that make people happy and successful at work, which include feeling like you belong, that you have a friend at work, that your manager cares about you. Feeling connected, feeling a part of a community, makes you a more productive worker, a better business asset the company, and it makes you happier, too.

The alternative is loneliness.

The problem is exacerbated if you’re a colored person in a sea of white, a woman among men, or you have some other unchangeable personal characteristic that sets you apart from the majority of the people around you. Or perhaps you work in an isolated situation, an astronaut or park ranger, or someone who works from home. Or maybe change is surging around you and you feel unmoored, adrift and alone on a stormy sea. Layoffs, even when they happen in someone else’s department, in a different office, and “have no impact” on you can impact you, disrupt stable workflows, and cause isolation.

So what do you do? How do you combat this loneliness?

The answer is simple: look for ways to connect. Stop having lunch at your desk, ask a colleague out to lunch, or just have lunch in the lunchroom and chat with the people who come in to use the vending machines. If you work from home, have video-chat coffee breaks with colleagues, and take every opportunity to meet with them in person.

And don’t underestimate the power of groups. A few times in the past, I’ve suggested that women of color who worked with me — a young mother struggling with balancing the expectations of her family and her desire for a career; another young woman who was feeling isolated amongst people who didn’t look or think like her – that they get together with women in other departments who shared their struggles, talk about what they were feeling, and find out what their strategies were. Just ask them out to lunch, I said, see what happens. And they reported later that it had worked.

I’ve written before about how I applied this technique in my own life. Another round of job cuts, a reorganization performed, as usual, with complete insensitivity to the people who were most impacted. Suddenly we were all working for different bosses, separated from our work teams, had new job titles and responsibilities that weren’t what we had signed up for. And there was no operational alignment, so we were all being assigned to work on things, putting in extra effort (gotta prove myself to this new boss; if I keep busy, it doesn’t hurt as much), and discovering when it was too late that our supervisors had no idea that other supervisors had assigned the same tasks to their employees and our work was completely useless. After hearing the same thing from one too many of my colleagues in other departments, I said, we’re all feeling the same thing, let’s have lunch together and share information. I reserved a conference room for a “meeting”, donated a box of cookies, and a series of brown bag lunches was launched.

We got together every week or two, just for an hour, and talked about what we knew about what was going on at work – who was working on what projects, how to get what we needed in the new landscape, how we were figuring out how to navigate. The group developed its own norms – if you shared your feelings, we accepted you; wallowing in complaints, gripes or self-victimization, that wasn’t ok. The focus was on understanding the new structures and our place in them, not on fighting back or changing what others were doing.

The group lasted only a couple of months, and ended naturally, as we began to find solid ground in the new organizational structure. But the friendships I made in that group lasted years.

As change management practioners, we have an obligation to consider this when we design interventions that change work structures and can cause feelings of displacement and isolation. Strategies that address the whole employee, not just their job title, job description, org chart, are more successful because they help people transition from one state of being to another, making them more productive.

And less lonely.

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