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Six steps to combat isolation for you and your teams

It has been an unsettling couple of weeks, had you noticed? And, while I am particularly grateful for the internet’s gift of connection, remote working has some specific challenges that many of us are being forced to confront. There are at least two key sides to the challenge of working remotely:

  • The logistical side – such as technology, platform, bandwidth, timezones etc, and
  • The psychological side – such as isolation, disconnection and uncertainty

I am going to address the psychological elements here as I believe they play a powerful role in people’s engagement. Logistical challenges also depend on the technology you are using – and there are plenty of tutorials out there already. With that in mind, I have included some logistical pointers at the end for running group sessions online to help you integrate the lessons below on whatever platform you are using.

Working from home
Home workspace creation

Exploring the psychological side of working in isolation is also critical because taking care of our mindset helps motivate us to address the added technical challenges of working remotely. Also, during times of physical upheaval – like working on improvised workstations in the living room (thanks Kris!) – the mental and emotional dimensions are less obvious at first.

We often stay in our jobs because “we like the people,” yet we rarely regard work as a social activity, but for most of us, it is. Many of us enjoy the work we do because of the people we interact with and, thanks to COVID-19 measures, this interaction has been entirely disrupted across the global work-force. With explicit directives to work from home, it is useful to understand three key psychological challenges people face when working remotely. They are:

  1. Isolation = disconnection from people (feeling alone and unsupported)
  2. Dissolution = disconnection from purpose, plans and activities (a lack of feeling connected to a bigger purpose and meaningful activity)
  3. Uncertainty – with its associated fear, sense of loss of direction, clarity rhythm and comfort leads to = internal disorientation

As you will experience them, these challenges cut across all parts of the business – from employees, managers and their leaders, right through the supply chain to the customer.

So what can you do to address these challenges? How can you add value in these challenging times? What are the things people will be grappling with over the coming weeks or even months? And what can you do to move people in the following ways, from:

  1. Isolation to Connection
  2. Dissolution to Engagement
  3. Uncertainty to Empowerment

6 steps for improving the remote work experience

Reaching out
What have you done to reach out?

Below I outline six steps to help cultivate connection and alleviate some of the psychological challenges of working remotely.

Step One – Reaching out

When reaching out and connecting to your peers, employees or teams you immediately begin to offer them some remedy for the key challenge of remote working – isolation. It’s important that you notice which of the above the people you are reaching out to are experiencing. Is it missing the social aspect? Are they confused about what to do? OR are they just plain stressed? You can then take steps to support them. Below are some suggestions as to what that might look like.

Step Two – Acknowledgement

The simplest way to address isolation is to let your audience (customer, stakeholder, peer) know you are available and that you care. Acknowledging their position and appreciating their efforts in accommodating their new “work-life balance” is a good start! If you haven’t done so already, get an email out right away. Mike Coupe, CEO of Sainsburys, did exactly this. He quickly emailed their customers to reassure them that there weren’t running out of food and “there will be enough for everyone.” Not only did he show understanding, but he also gave people a sense of how to contribute, and “not to stockpile!”

Step Three – Create Space

To increase connection in remote settings, you may want to give people a little more time than usual to say hello and share their views on the situation. This doesn’t have to be long, but a moment to hear a little more when you ask “How are you?” gives people a window to share a little bit of something about how they are dealing with isolation. Most people are having a dramatic change in their life’s circumstances and so giving people air-time to talk about it helps normalise the situation and assimilate the change (not to mention hearing some crazy stuff “Mum got up to with the kids!”). Basically, you need to build in a bit more time to listen when reaching out.

Step Four – Connect to things that matter

When dealing with dissolution and disengagement, it helps when people see their part in the bigger picture. Find out and share how what they do still matters, makes a difference and is important – providing people with opportunities for connection and purpose in times of upheaval is critical to helping people engage. (If you haven’t read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, you have just found something to do with your next free day…) You can do it too by helping those who are working remotely see how what they do fits into the bigger scheme of things. A word of caution, while it might appear helpful to say “Well, just do what you can…” this doesn’t help mitigate the sense of disconnection. If fact it may just amplify it – so look for how the little things can add up.

Step Five – Provide Clarity

Dealing with uncertainty can be challenging for anyone and giving clarity where possible can really help. Share what you know and what some of the likely options are. This can be tricky when a quick look on social media, or even the government’s own website, can reveal how conflicting information can be. Clarify your position as best you can and share that. Being clear on your view and re-iterating your message can help people feel a little more clear on their own response to the changes. The caveat here of course, is that in uncertain times, clarity may be hard to rely on, so don’t make stuff up! Be clear on what you can and help others find their clarity, even if it is to clarify they don’t know yet. Then what?

Step Six – Manage Your Mindsetpulling-hair-out-man-c

When faced with uncertainty, the thing you can always do is manage your own mindset. We do this all the time, sometimes less skilfully than others, but it is something you can get better at. Ask yourself, how many times have you “catastrophised” over the last week? Making up “worst-case” scenarios can often make people spiral out of control. This is useful when you are scenario-planning, but less so when you are trying to manage pressure. Check out your perspective? Has the catastrophe got to you or are you noticing what you can do? Focusing on what you can do is a great antidote in times of massive change. Below are a couple of final tips to help build your mental resilience:


Gratitude is known to make people happier and therefore more resilient. Recognise or find out about the small things that are going well right now. What are they? You can even try this challenge: Write out a list of 21 things you are grateful for (as big or as little as you like, but you need to do 21!) It’s very difficult to finish that exercise in the same frame of mind as you started it. Ask yourself, what little achievements have been made?  (And if you got to 21 things you are grateful for, that’s one right there!)

Do something different

Getting a new perspective sometimes requires changing what you are doing. This can be a simple as going for a walk when work has got too much, or actually trying out a new hobby or type of cuisine. Firing new neural pathways, something that happens whenever we embark on learning something new, even if badly, helps redirect the brains energy and can provide new ways of looking at current problems. And by the way, if you do get up to something out of the ordinary, I’d love to hear it in the comments below.

Do something consistently

Finally, it can also be useful to create some regularity in your life now that the daily commute is off-limits and we are all facing some degree of change. Here is an opportunity to implement many of the tried and tested resilience tools that help shake off the blues. These can include the discipline of regular exercise (Jo Wick is a big hit here), getting out for some fresh air (still government approved for now), stretching, eating healthily, not staying up too late watching the news… Having a laugh – these things are all good for us, whether we are isolated or not!

Those are some of the things I suggest you try to overcome the challenges of working alone. Sharing these with your associates will show that you are a true partner and help keep things on an even keel for when the winds blow more favourably in the future. And if you liked the article, please share it so that it can help others too.

Now to the practicalities:

Before letting you loose, it might be worth pointing out some of things to keep in mind when running a session on-line like a zoom, skype or webex:

  • Things ususally take longer, so build in some extra time to start. Tech and bandwidth issues often make arriving for some a little challenging, so give yourself some lead time before the start to make sure you and everyone can get on.
  • Communicating online is a little more mentally draining, so make sure the content is lean, relevant and interactive. If you can make a video, do that to cover some of the content separately.
  • Clearly state how the session will run as well as what will be covered and when. Set the call up with clear instructions and expectations on how it is going to work. Set-up guide-lines at the beginning for how people can interact (or not) in the session and what they can expect in return.
  • Appreciate many people aren’t used to speaking on-line and that questions take a little longer to answer than in face to face (we don’t have the same visual cues on-line as f2f). Ask people to raise their hand, either with the command, or physically if you can see everyone (only advisable on sessions of up to 8-10 people)
  • Use the chat function to write and receive questions. If you have questions you know you are going to ask, have them typed up in advance so you can paste them directly into the chat/message function.
  • Give everyone the space to contribute by having at least one go around where every one has a moment to speak, timed if need be.

If you would like to know more, I am going to be running a webinar this Tuesday 7th April at 9:30am (GMT) – Building resilience through understanding the diverse responses to COVID-19. Click here to register and join the conversation. In this session, we will address the above challenges of living and working remotely through the lens of COVID-19. By hearing different people’s stories and understand more about how other people are affected and what they are doing about it, this will help counter the disconnection in these times of isolation.

This will then help you to look at what these challenges are and explore how you can deal with them so that all your stakeholders remain engaged, connected and supported. Click HERE to register for the webinar this Tuesday.

About the author

An accredited coach, facilitator and presenter, Edward Nelson has been supporting leaders, managers and their teams for over 15 years. From sales transformation through to driving inclusion and fostering exceptional leadership, his experience has included working with some of the world’s biggest multi-nationals. During this time, he has helped their teams work together across time-zones, nationalities and functions. In this session, he will share some tips to handle the challenges of working remotely and invite discussion on how to apply these with your teams in today’s turbulent times.