A colleague of mine recently talked about the need for people to experience group interactions by saying, “Every now and then, we all need to breathe the same air.” With the emergence of COVID-19, social distancing—the safe distance between people that inhibits the spread of the novel coronavirus—certainly challenges that need. Other practices—e-learning, telecommuting, and virtual meetings—all mean the same thing, don’t be around other people. While these measures are crucial to ensuring the health and safety of the community, business leaders should keep in mind the unspoken danger of physical distancing; emotional distancing.
Human beings are singularly wired to be social connected. As much as that seems obvious, there is more to it than simply our preference for the company of others. When I say singularly wired, I mean that no other mammal on the planet is built to socially connect the way that humans do. In fact, scientists have discovered that being able to think and react as a group, rather than just a gathering of individuals, is the one advantage that has kept humans alive; given that we are easily the weakest animal on the planet. The discovery of our unique ability to connect with other human brains around us has led to a new field of neuroscience; social neuroscience. Rather than study the workings of individual brains, social neuroscience studies how our brains are wired to connect with other brains to create mutually beneficial outcomes (the study of positive mob mentality).
Depending on how much social interaction a person has built into their daily lives, short-term social distancing will not likely cause harm. It is absence makes the heart grow fonder in action. But, long-term social distancing results in one of the most harmful states the brain can experience; isolation. Isolation causes changes of sleep patterns, which can affect cognition and overall mental health. The lack of brain stimulation inhibits problem-solving skills, and it diminishes the ability to interact effectively in the workplace. And don’t be fooled into thinking that this only applies to extreme cases, such as solitary confinement. Even the recent focus that certain generations have had on hand-held devices instead of face-to-face interaction has seen a dramatic impact on communication skills.
It has long been known that the lose of a spouse has greater detrimental effects on men than on women. It was only recently understood that this is because women tend to have broader social networks upon which to rely when their spouse is no longer in the picture. Basically, after the loss of a spouse, women gather, while men sit alone. So, isolation among employees will not only affect their cognitive abilities, but damage their long-term health as well. The need for interaction is so strong that many workplaces are reporting heightened feelings of isolation even among employees who work side by side. I visited one such office, where employees stared at their computers all day. They were so disconnected that it seemed foolish to have them come into the office.
During this time of necessary social distancing, I urge business leaders to create as many opportunities for safe interaction as possible. Sure, many aspects of your operations can be maintained by individuals sitting at home, and you won’t likely experience the downsides of this right away. In time, however, the effects will be felt; and you might not think to trace the problem back to an isolated workplace. And it is important that the social interaction occurs with those close to the work being done. It is good that a staff member has social interaction with family or friends outside of work, but that interaction will not always translate to better performance at work. It is crucial that consistent social interaction be maintained between staff members.
Even if it feels like more work, have regular conference calls and group video meetings. It might feel like a time waster, but even a brief conference call check-in—without a set agenda attached to the conversation—can help combat the effects of isolation. After all, most face-to-face interactions don’t come with an agenda either. Always having a check list to get through can add even more stress to the interaction, erasing any benefit of the experience.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.