I have been working remotely for the last ten years. As many remote workers, and employers, have found there are countless benefits to remote work. Remote work policies allow organizations to find and hire great talent anywhere. It lets people structure their days in ways that work for them. Long commutes that burn fossil fuels are gone– alleluia!  

But, remote work is not perfect. The benefits can get lost if we don’t acknowledge the costs. Costs that can include–if not proactively addressed– employees that feel disconnected and lonely.  There is a unique sense of isolation that creeps in over time when people don’t have regular opportunities to interact with colleagues beyond a screen. A loneliness that erodes productivity, well-being, and organizational commitment.

employee engagement survey

We surveyed 600 learners. This is what they said.

The Cost of Disconnection 

In Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation, Dan Schawbel writes: “Technology has created the illusion that workers are connected, when in reality they feel isolated, lonely, disengaged and less committed to their organizations…” Ernst & Young’s 2022 Belonging Barometer 2.0 Report proves this out. 80% of employees surveyed experienced loneliness at work, including folks that go into the office. 

This is particularly noteworthy given the concerted effort by many companies requiring employees to return to the office (RTO). One of the fundamental beliefs underlying RTO mandates is that employees are not as engaged, and therefore productive, if they are not physically in an office. But the truth is, the office isn’t a panacea. In fact, office work can even exacerbate feelings of isolation and exclusion. Pushing people back into an office doesn’t solve the problem– because it’s not about the physical space, it’s about feeling like you matter. 

Extensive workplace studies, discussed in-depth by the Harvard Business Review here, show that when employees feel disconnected (at best) and fearful (at worst):

  • Productivity falls. 
  • Absenteeism increases. Lonely employees are 5x as likely to miss work.
  • Teams suffer due to strained relationships and loss of trust.

On the other hand, when employees feel engaged and supported, they can drive 10% higher customer loyalty; 23% higher profitability; and 14% higher productivity.

In-person learning is an untapped antidote

I have dedicated my career to architecting meaningful learning experiences, and have witnessed first-hand the transformative power of in-person learning.  I firmly believe that it can unlock unexplored horizons for people.  When done well, in-person learning:

  • Sustains & reinforces culture. As a dedicated opportunity for people to immerse in your culture–through both tacit and explicit interactions. These interactions help people understand what’s expected, internalize norms and values, and acknowledge their place in the organization.
  • Facilitates meaningful connections. As far as in-person events go, things like lunches, parties, and working sessions are useful. But learning plays a unique role, in that it engages people from across your organization in exploring something new together. The process of exploration generates connection.
  • Drives a sense of commitment. Growth is energizing– it cultivates a renewed sense of appreciation for one's work and colleagues.  PLUS! A clear commitment to your employees’ growth signals that you are invested in them. And they, in turn, become more invested in the organization.

What does in-person learning offer that virtual learning cannot?

You may be thinking at this point, ”Sure. Learning is important, but how come we can’t achieve all this online? Why do people need to be together to learn?” 

Here’s why. According to a 2020 Cigna study, the “frequency of one’s in-person interactions is a key indicator on how lonely they are.” It isn’t enough to offer interaction of any kind (e.g., Zoom happy hours). It is a combination of the quality–based on how meaningful it is–coupled with being in-person that provides the real antidote to loneliness. 

In-person learning generates:

  • Engagement – Just imagine the energy of a room full of people leaning in to listen. The shared, intangible, spark as ideas percolate. How many virtual trainings have you run where half the cameras are off?
  • Interaction (with people & ideas) - Ability to dig into topics, real-time, with others. Debating an idea. Actual hands-on experience with the concepts (e.g., role play). And then, reflecting on what you learned in and outside the classroom with peers.  This is the part we lose when everything is online. Kismet cannot be manufactured. 
  • Attention – you are not likely to be distracted by your 18 open browser tabs when you’re sitting in front of a presenter. I mean, you could, but that would be embarrassing for you.

Good in-person learning puts the learner front-and-center – designed with their growth in mind. First and foremost, you must be clear about the expectations for your time– since time-together is our most precious commodity when working remotely.   

Provide ample opportunity for employees to discuss, explore and digest the content. This means harnessing the power of community; empowering the learners to guide each other.  

At one of my previous companies, we would remind our facilitators to be “guides on the sides, not sages on stages''. I’m not sure who said it first, but it’s a mantra I use to this day.  People learn best when they reach their own a-ha moments. And sometimes the best a-ha moments come later, over dinner, with fellow attendees. 

Finally, don’t be afraid of having fun. There is a lot of research these days on the benefits of play for human cognition, as well as its ability to increase resilience. But also, it reminds us that we’re human. Laughing with others closes the distance and strengthens our bonds.

People are a company’s biggest competitive advantage

Organizations thrive when people thrive. If you want people to flourish, bring them together to learn.

The secret to success is providing a flexible work culture that is super-charged through collaborative in-person learning experiences. Engaged employees drive innovation, productivity, and ultimately profit. They perpetuate your values and your culture.  

Requiring people to be in the office isn’t the solution, because it doesn’t actually solve the disconnection problem– and in some cases, can make it worse. By building thoughtful, engaging point-in-time experiences – with learning at the heart– you can circumvent any distance. 

These experiences sustain and enhance our working lives, and help employees build the connections vital for success in remote or hybrid workplaces.