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When Remote Work Strains Connection

WFH doesn’t fuel social joy. We have to fill that gap.

August 2, 2023

Headshot for Lindsay Grippo

Lindsay Grippo

Associate Editor

It’s no surprise that when people feel connected, things just go better. Not only is there profound contentment to believing you belong somewhere, but we feel and function more successfully when we’re socially fulfilled. For me, this is especially true at work.

I’m a younger professional. (Think, “entered the workforce post-COVID-19 world shutdown” young.) My professional background consists almost entirely of WFH experiences — Codeword calls itself a “remote-first” agency, with employees all over the U.S. and a few offices that typically tend to be pretty empty. So it’s thanks to this palpable lack of in-person interaction that I’ve come to value feeling connected at work quite highly.

The office never had a chance to tether my generation together. That means we need to start fresh, discovering new ways to establish and tend to the bonds that improve all of our professional experiences to meet the innate human need to connect with one another.

The case for connection

In my experience, a strong sense of camaraderie at work helps cushion the discomfort of growing and learning. It quells the natural unease of simply being new at things. Bonding with teammates helps me understand their perspectives, trust their intentions, and digest their feedback. It builds a foundation of mutual respect that allows for effective communication and collaboration.

Quality professional bonds can even transcend our daily interactions to shape the course of our careers and lives, if we let them. I’ve seen so many people I admire circle back to meaningful past working relationships to seize job opportunities, expand their mindsets, or even just find delight in a lasting friendship.

More broadly, a sense of connection is also good for businesses’ bottom lines. Employees who feel they belong have a 50% lower turnover risk, 56% better overall job performance, and 75% reduction in sick days. (They’re 167% more likely to recommend their organization as a great place to work, too.) In short, it’s crucial for employees to feel part of something, especially when they’re familiarizing themselves with things from afar.


Graphs showing that when employees feel like they belong there is a 50% lower turnover risk, 56% performance boost, 75% reduction in sick days, 167% increase that they'll recommend the organization.

Remote work’s troublesome influence

WFH creates barriers to connection. Not only is there physical distance between us and our colleagues, but pings, emails, and video calls change the very nature of our interactions, fostering more miscommunication and stress than in-person contact. For young adults already struggling with heightened anxiety levels, these conditions prove ripe for distress.

I graduated from undergrad in 2020, meaning I’ve never known the five-day-a-week office commute and may never have to. I work from the comfort of my bedroom, in the peace of my own apartment, surrounded by decor I’ve picked out and music I choose to listen to.

But for all of these perks, remote work makes substantive interaction more challenging. I don’t congregate with passionate professionals in my field on a regular basis. I’m not as pushed — whether creatively or personally — like I might be in a bustling office. What’s more, the leisure of working from home means events like a happy hour can feel closer to extracurricular effort than communal respite after a long day’s work.

Simply put, something’s missing with WFH. It borders on alienating. And it’s not just me: in research from The CMO survey, over one third of marketing leaders report that remote work has weakened culture at their organization, and 45% say younger employees struggle to integrate within their companies in remote work settings.

Reconciling our need for connection with a remote environment

Before, connection felt like a byproduct of people’s jobs. Now, it’s an endangered resource we need to cultivate and protect. There are plenty of ways organizations can build a foundational sense of community to support all employees — especially newer ones — in feeling more connected within a remote environment.

How to fuel a connected workforce: 1. field and address employee needs. 2. Host thoughtful virtual events. 3. innovate ways to bolster culture. 4. Encourage and model transparency.
Field & address employee needs

It’s wonderful to feel like members of leadership listen to you. It’s even better when they meaningfully act on what you share. Collecting feedback and keeping communication lines open — then using these insights to inform policies that actually resonate with people’s needs — can go a long way in supporting how employees fuel their own sense of connection. That’s because it helps organizations establish a tailored approach to work, one that best serves their unique staff and business goals. I’m grateful for all the opportunities I have to share my thoughts at Codeword, like manager 1:1s and the “Anonymous Ask Anyone Almost Anything” segment of our All Hands calls. With this privacy, I’m even freer to be honest, genuine, and inquisitive in a way that might otherwise intimidate me as a junior team member. Creating chances for all employees to comfortably share their experience is crucial to fostering constructive, ground-up change.

Host thoughtful virtual events

If we’re honest, virtual events really aren’t a satisfying replacement for in-person gatherings. But they do provide valuable opportunities to bring people together across distance. When they center employees’ interests, bandwidth, and circumstances, these occasions can be genuinely fun, too. I’ve loved getting the chance to interact with people I usually wouldn’t collaborate with during things like company-wide trivia or virtual creative workshops. But virtual events do compete with employees’ ability to do independent, focused work. If I’m uninterested in the theme or it calls for too much time, I’m more likely to opt out than I might be in-person, where I’d need to physically answer to an eager host. Well-planned virtual events that are mindful of their audience, however, successfully facilitate socialization and leave me feeling motivated, creative, and energized in the long run.

Innovate ways to bolster culture

In my experience, some of the simplest approaches to fostering connection have the biggest impact. These always seem to be the most creative, too. Codeword dedicates certain chat spaces for leisure conversation, for example, casually uniting people with shared interests as if we’re surrounding a virtual water cooler. (My favorites are “The Reading Room,” where Codewordians share industry-relevant articles, and “Codeword Beauty Insiders,” because, well, who wouldn’t want skincare tips from gorgeous people?) My immediate team opens our check-ins with a regular — occasionally silly — icebreaker, inquiring more of each other than our standard day-to-day interactions. The result? I feel like I know and genuinely like each of them better. These fresh yet small steps weave socialization into the fabric of our virtual world, reminding us of the humanity in what we do along the way.

Encourage & model transparency

Establishing workplace relationships is intimidating. In a remote environment, it can be plain awkward. I feel least insecure about my ability to create quality bonds at work when I observe my higher ups being as vulnerable as I am in the circumstances we share. I can try to extend myself grace in situations outside of my control — whether it’s unstable WiFi or a curious pet’s cameo on an important video call. But with fewer years of experience, I’ll almost always feel like I’m failing or fraudulent without proof that my peers are human too. Leaning into the strangeness of virtual work helps build unity by reinforcing the small comfort that we’re all in this together, wherever we actually are.

Remote work might challenge our ability to connect, but we face an unprecedented opportunity to redefine how we infuse social joy into our professional lives. Our need to interact, build relationships, and belong is a beautifully human trait, and when this need is supported at a fundamental level, both people and businesses can thrive.

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