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Admin Admin | Jan 27, 2023

All alone with everyone: Combating loneliness in an always-on virtual world

When people reminisce about how the COVID-19 pandemic changed the nature of work, they tend to focus on the positive outcomes. These include the increased focus on employee wellness, the normalization of telecommuting, and the greater time freedom that comes with reporting from home.

However, these benefits are a double-edged sword. With the distinction between “work” and “life” spheres blurring, people had to contend with a new challenge. Instead of striving for work-life balance, workers had to figure out work-life integration, now that two formerly separate spheres have been thrown together like never before.

New challenges emerged from this new lifestyle, such that many remote and hybrid workers struggled to balance and distinguish between work and leisure time. One of the great ironies of this situation is that people were busier than ever- chatting with coworkers on Slack, joining virtual meetings, and answering emails into the wee hours of the night. Despite the ease of communication, people also felt a sense of loneliness that may be stronger than even before the pandemic happened.

Part of the problem is the nature of the communication itself. Digital channels like Slack encourage more frequent but shallower communication, in place of the deeper, more substantial conversations a worker would have face-to-face to build rapport with colleagues: there are incessant pings about mostly low value topics. People are understandably disconnected in this virtual world.

To address loneliness and disconnection in this virtual world, we’ve put together a list of tips that you can try to improve your online social experiences, be it in professional or casual settings.

Create systems for positive habits. With the New Year, people often make resolutions that are goal-oriented, such as losing weight or saving more. While goals are necessary, achieving them takes more than just setting targets. People need to create systems that enable them to seamlessly move toward their goals.

In a digital work setting, for example, people can set an alarm clock to remind them to take measures that promote their wellness. An alarm may prompt them to go for a walk, take a meditation break, or take a virtual coffee break with a colleague. The choice is yours to make — the key point is that workers should build systems that reinforce positive, wellness-promoting habits.

Disconnect to reconnect. There was a time when it was perfectly fine for a person to be offline. Many people are advocating that this offline time return. Some go so far as to set an entire day, such as Sunday, where they unplug from all their digital connections. While this may not be possible for everyone depending on the nature of their work, even one hour of offline time, such as the lunch hour, may be beneficial.

As counter-intuitive as it may sound, disconnecting is actually beneficial for a person’s work. When they take an extended break, they are able to refresh and return to a much healthier state of mind, which is ideal for any knowledge worker. Some people may elect to do deep work during this time that requires extensive focus, while others may simply rest and relax.

Self-organize meetups with your coworkers. Given that the pandemic is still very much a threat in certain countries (as we can see in the case of China), employers are understandably cautious when it comes to organizing face-to-face employee gatherings and meetups. But just because there are no top-down meetings with your colleagues, doesn’t mean you can’t meet them of your own accord!

Enterprising managers or employees can set up small, informal get-togethers between the people who regularly work together. It could be as simple as meeting for lunch or coffee, or even built around an activity, like bowling or hiking. No matter the event, the goal is for coworkers to develop the kind of rapport with one another that would be difficult to do online. Doing so will then make future remote interactions much more pleasant.

Get a virtual pet for desktop. Many millennials may remember the Tamagotchis that were popular in the late 1990s. These were handheld digital pets that people had to attend to, such as by feeding or playing with them. Why would a toy that gives people more responsibilities be so appealing?

It’s because taking care of something — even if it’s a virtual pet for desktop — improves a person’s sense of connection and well-being. This fact inspired the Metapals team to re-introduce the concept of a virtual pet for the browser-based era, enabling workers to download either a cat, dog or rabbit to care for over the course of their digital workday. Being responsible for a virtual pet on your desktop will improve a person’s well-being, sense of connection, happiness, and in turn, productivity.

In the end, workplace disconnection and loneliness is a serious problem for remote and hybrid organizations. There is no silver bullet for this issue — it will take a variety of strategies to dispel these feelings. It’s also about testing out different activities and seeing what works for each person. For example, you may prefer going out for coffee with a coworker in the morning and taking for a walk when prompted by an alarm later in the afternoon; your buddy Joe, on the other hand, may prefer indoors-y hobbies like watering his plants, or tending to his virtual pet on his desktop when feeding or playing time comes. No matter the options, what’s most important is understanding your mental state and when to disconnect or reconnect for your wellbeing.

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