How does a sense of isolation affect performance?

Despite being surrounded by colleagues, employees can still feel lonely at work, writes Isabel Collins

With the ‘year of disruption’ now behind us, it appears one of 2016’s legacies is a new world order leaning to isolationism. As the political seismic shifts are sure to continue this year, what will the impact be on companies? And how does the experience of employees and companies reflect the turmoil around us?

Surprisingly, recent research from Belonging Space into the levels of belonging at work found that more than a third (38 per cent) of respondents reported experiencing loneliness in the workplace, while more than a quarter (27 per cent) said that although they did not feel a sense of belonging to their whole organisation, they did feel a greater affinity to their immediate team.

These figures suggest a fairly high level of disconnection between teams and the isolation of individuals in British workplaces. While it may be our tribal human nature to feel more comfortable in small groups, these readings imply a considerable level of separateness between parts of organisations and individual isolation from the whole.

So how does this aspect of culture affect the wider challenges that HR will face over the coming year?

  1. Talent management and mobility

As working patterns continue to evolve, encompassing increasingly complex blends of employment – from ‘gig’ employees, to outsourced and short-term project commissions – organisations need to keep moving talent around for the most appropriate match. Employees and employers will have to become even more flexible. Successful talent management will come from internal marketing of individuals’ skills, as much as HR’s sophisticated awareness of the talent in the business. But employees who are more isolated could easily be overlooked and businesses may miss identifying valuable expertise. Beware the more efficient self-promoters and pay careful attention to the quieter voices. The apparent outliers may actually have the insight and skills necessary for new developments.

  1. Wellbeing

Isolation or loneliness can be both the cause and a symptom of depression, which in turn can be an indicator of underlying wellbeing issues. Companies can mitigate the risk of mental ill-health by training managers to spot the symptoms of depression, and ensuring due process for the sensitive support of employees.

  1. High-performance culture

Our research suggests there is trend for close-knit belonging, retreating into specialised or localised groups, rather than cultivating a sense of belonging across the whole organisation. This can result in poor inter-disciplinary exchange, which is a major threat to performance. A high-performance culture – the stated goal for many companies – depends on strong connectivity between teams. Easy cross-discipline collaboration is the mark of success, with people and ideas moving smoothly between the various tribes within a business.

In all three of these areas, organisations need to make it clear to individuals how they fit into their immediate teams, divisions and the wider business, and the value their role brings. As many companies are increasingly concerned with encouraging team recognition, anything that drives collaboration across the business will result in benefits to overall performance.

It is interdependency rather than independence that creates resilience. But, as this research shows, it can be counterintuitive. It takes effort, as well as considered structure and communication between teams, for organisations to overcome individual and small-group isolation.



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