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Connectable, book review: How to fix isolation in the hybrid workplace

If you can get past the apparent technophobia, this is a comprehensive look at what loneliness at work means and how better management can help.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

Connectable: How Leaders Can Move Teams from Isolated to All In • By Ryan Jenkins and Steve Van Cohen • McGraw Hill Education • 256 pages • ISBN 9781264277506 • $28 / £21.99 

McGraw Hill Education

If you've lived through the stress and isolation of working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, only to return to the office and still feel disconnected, you may not feel you need anecdotes and statistics about how lonely other people get.  

But there's a lot of value in being reminded that you're not the only one who has had to learn how to build social bonds in a new way, and in a traumatic time. And if you're a manager, you should care about whether your team feels lonely -- if only because collaboration, engagement, productivity and employee loyalty suffer along with them. 

Authors Steven Van Cohen and Ryan Jenkins report that 72% of workers around the world feel lonely at least once a month, while 94% of leaders think their staff are getting lonelier while they're working remotely. It's not being remote that's the problem, Connectable quickly points out: "Remote workers who feel connected to their work and team will experience less loneliness than someone who works in the office surrounded by people but lacks quality connections". Being connectable is also not about being online: it's about being "ready and willing to be connected". 

Also: Hybrid workers don't want to return to the office. But soon, they might have to

Workplace loneliness is about feeling that you don't have a good connection to your colleagues, your leaders, the organization you work for or the work you do, not whether there are other people in the same room. Isolation can be welcome solitude or unwelcome loneliness, depending on whether you feel you have the trust, closeness and affection you need. 

The generalizations that blame ATMs, Siri, Netflix, self-service checkout at the supermarket and YouTube instructional videos for depriving us of social connections don't feel particularly helpful. Nor does a phrase like "the sinister role technology plays in eroding the human connection" to describe "looking at your phone instead of paying attention to the TV show you're watching with your wife". However, the authors occasionally remember that and note that loneliness at work has a long history. 

Similarly, pointing out the disconnect between Gen Z workers who want frequent feedback and face-to-face conversations with their managers, and the managers who've been told Gen Z wants to do everything in instant messages, could actually help both managers and their lonely staff. 

Belonging requires psychological safety, as well as feeling that what you do matters. One short but very important section in Connectable points out the difference between being lonely because you're in a new town with a different culture and you just haven't made connections and what the authors call 'differential' loneliness, where you don't have the same opportunities, respect or experiences as colleagues, and 'intentional' loneliness, caused by discrimination, harassment or deliberate exclusion. Oddly, they also seem to see social connections at work as always a good thing, with no mention of how to handle unwanted approaches or outright creepiness. 

Connectable is an odd mix of useful insight and hoary pop psychology. "Busyness, distractions, hostility, immaturity, ignorance, efficiency, fear, selfishness, and remote work can all contribute to the distance between people," the authors note and go on to suggest that, "too much time communicating through a screen… cannot replace the bond-building and belonging-boosting effects of in-person exposure". That seems profoundly out of tune with the clear message from employees that they expect flexible, hybrid working to be part of their future -- and even recommendations from the book itself, like "add an emoji to your next message" or "look at the photos on your phone from a month or a year ago until you find one with a friend in and send it to them". 

The second half of the book offers tips for leaders on how to notice and change the things that isolate people on their teams. Given how little training many managers get in actually managing, the section on how to recognize loneliness, and the techniques to help people make and sustain connections, is valuable.  

Seeing this called "the proprietary four-step Less Loneliness Framework" reminds you that the authors run a company that works with organizations like Salesforce and Coca-Cola to offer 'worker wellness' consulting. But if you can ignore the knee-jerk prejudice against technology (or understand it as a poorly phrased criticism of how technology can be misused), you'll find a range of ways to help employees and colleagues feel more connected -- in the office or remotely.


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