Seize opportunities to create space for employees who may feel unseen, especially in remote work environments 

When I entered the field of public health 15 years ago, I learned the importance of social connectedness to our health and well-being. Back then, I couldn’t have predicted that it would play such a dominant role in our lives today, after a global pandemic forced on us more than two years of remote work, and where employers are still wrestling with how (or if) to successfully transition their employees back into offices. 

Social connectedness refers to the strength of a person’s relationships and their sense of belonging to a broader community of people. Having social connections improves our mental health and, in the context of the workplace, our work performance. So, not surprisingly, it is also a strong predictor of our physical health.  

Researchers have long studied the links between social interactions and health. Studies show that adults who are more socially connected are healthier and live longer than their more isolated peers. A lack of social connections can negatively affect everything from our blood sugar levels to our heart health and even reduces our odds of beating cancer. A recent Harvard study found that psychological distress, including loneliness, increases the risk of long Covid by up to 45%. 

This is why the “epidemic of loneliness,” which pre-dates but was exacerbated by the pandemic, has become a serious public health concern. 

But what happens when social isolation begins to impede on our professional health? And what can employers do to minimize negative impacts? 

As employers continue to consider if, when, and how to bring workers back into formal workplace settings, it will be wise to think not only about how to be flexible, but how to be equitable in the organization’s return-to-work approaches and policies, so that every employee thrives. 

Think about how to equip employees with more than just technical tools for success. The intangibles are just as important. The idea is to step out of the comfort zone and give visibility to people who might not necessarily be seen, so they can feel encouraged and bolstered. Figure out who lacks access – to information, opportunity, or recognition – and open it up. Navigating traditional access pathways can be more challenging for workers in a remote work environment. This reflection may require employers to shift the status quo or discard it altogether. But it’s an essential step to building an equitable and thriving workplace. 

Some employers have conducted assessments of the pros and cons of return to work – for the business and for employees. A big part of these assessments should attempt to understand employees’ work styles, home conditions, and home life circumstances  (e.g. sole child or elderly parent caregiver). By understanding the diverse contours of each employee’s life, employers are better equipped to create policies that fit their employees’ unique needs and circumstances. 

While there are certain benefits to work-from-home arrangements, for employers and employees, there is also lost opportunity. I work from home full-time, as do most of my colleagues at Big Health. Being a social creature, I miss the organic connections that occur in the workplace and that can’t be replicated via email and Zoom. The proverbial ‘watercooler moments’ that can lead to new friendships, exchange of ideas, and awareness of professional opportunities, can easily be missed in our virtual work environments. 

With no in-person interactions at all, employees who may already feel marginalized – Black and Brown people, women, people with physical or learning disabilities, or employees who are simply introverted – are at risk of further marginalization. Or being forgotten altogether. Without extra support in ways that promise to advance skills, opportunities, and ultimately, careers, their commitment to work could simply melt away – and this disadvantages everyone, employees and employers alike.   

So, how can employers ensure that “work from home” doesn’t also mean “out of sight, out of mind,” and unintentionally undermine professional success? Here are some ideas:

  • Prioritize face time with employees’ peers and leaders. Go beyond virtual happy hours and celebratory events to curate casual professional interactions that give all employees face time with peers and with leaders. At Big Health, we host a weekly “Hello Monday” – a 15-minute meet-and-greet with our CEO and other senior leaders to welcome new staff and kick off the week with casual breakout chats. This allows even brief engagement for people who might not work together day-to-day, and reinforces a sense of community. 
  • Orchestrate presentations for all levels of staff in front of leaders and recognize these opportunities in performance reviews. A recent hack-a-thon at Big Health was a phenomenal opportunity for many staff members to shine! After two days of team ideating and planning, our product and engineering teams presented their “big idea” solutions to an organizational problem. This type of activity fosters collaboration, company-wide visibility, and intellectual stretch among the staff, some who might otherwise be overlooked. 
  • People managers, co-author reports, newsletters or blogs with staff members so the voices of others have a chance to be heard. This is a way to collaborate and highlight perspectives from all levels of the organization.  
  • Identify high-potential, low-visibility employees they can sponsor, support and advocate for. (Choose people who are not already “networked in.”) Bring these outlier employees into meetings, introduce them to internal and external stakeholders, give them stretch assignments, and mentor them. 

The world of work will never be the same. While this reality has its challenges, it also has endless possibilities. While some workers may continue to “quiet quit,” demand more flexibility, or push against return-to-work office assignments, employers can act creatively to ensure they’re not unintentionally perpetuating inequities at work, and that they are demonstrating commitment to both organizational and employee success when they make decisions about bringing employees back to the office.

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