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Author of Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation

Employees may desire the flexibility to work remotely because it often gives them the freedom to work when, where and how they want. But there’s a hidden dark side.

Working remotely can make you less engaged, more isolated and lonely, which can be a health risk.

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In a new study, in partnership with Virgin Pulse, we found that a third of the global work force always or very often works remotely, yet two thirds aren’t engaged in their job. An entire 100 per cent of remote workers feel isolated always or very often and nearly 60 per cent feel lonely as a result. Since workers spend one third of their lives working, this feeling of loneliness is bad for their health and can lead to unhappiness and lower organization commitment.

Former U.S. surgeon-general Vivek Murthy told me that, as beneficial as remote working is, it increases the risk of disconnection as opportunities to have face-to-face interactions are diminished. He said loneliness and weak social connections have been associated with a reduced lifespan – similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day, even greater than that associated with obesity.

Further research shows that those who are isolated and lonely have an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Remote work creates the isolation that leads to loneliness, which is a health risk. And you can’t be a productive and engaged worker if you feel alone and are missing the human contact that fulfills a basic human need.

It’s a leadership responsibility to create a better employee experience for remote workers.

One way managers can do that is to reach out to workers where they are and make sure there are multiple touch points in a given period.

Rosie Perez, lead financial officer, global products and U.S. marketing at American Express, who leads a team of colleagues around the world, makes a point to travel to the locations of her reports to facilitate in-person discussion and develop informal social relationships. When she’s not meeting in-person, she schedules video-based meetings, sends quick e-mails to show her appreciation for jobs well done and connects teammates to each other.

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By taking the time to meet in-person, she displays empathy and concern for workers based in other locations, so they feel like they are important and belong despite not being in the same physical office as her.

Even though you have fewer face-to-face interactions with remote workers, you should spend double the amount of time with them, as LinkedIn’s employee experience manager Nawal Fakhoury does. As someone who focuses on improving the employee experience, she treats her remote teammates as humans by celebrating special moments with them. For example, she’ll ensure remote employees are sent birthday packages, animated group e-mails recognizing anniversaries and accomplishments, and photos of team members in action at events. Ms. Nawal makes her teammates feel like they belong, regardless of where they live, and focuses on building the trust through genuine human interactions. By treating remote workers like any other worker, the team feels more connected and they are able to accomplish more together.

Another strategic way to create stronger remote-work connections is to have your remote workers actually facilitate team meetings. Jennifer Lopez, head of product development at Capital One Labs NYC, says that puts them in a position of leadership. Additionally, Ms. Lopez seeks out other opportunities to introduce her remote workers to others in the company that they would normally not interact with and then asks for feedback if they are getting enough exposure. By checking in with them to ensure their needs are being met, she makes them feel more engaged and more productive.

As the workplace continues to disperse with more employees working remotely, it’s important that leaders understand how to best manage them so they feel like they belong and can contribute. Leading remote teams is a skill that needs to be developed to have a strong corporate culture that allows all employees to have flexibility, but not at the cost of their health.

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