Jess Baker is a business psychologist and leadership coach

Over the past year, many people have enjoyed having the opportunity to work remotely. It’s one of the reasons why a high number of organisations are allowing their workforce to divide up the week by working some days in the office and some from home.

Yet there are certain aspects of office life that are missed – the unplanned and seemingly unimportant social moments, like an impromptu chat with a colleague while queuing for coffee.

It’s not simply about the quality of time spent connecting with others; our wellbeing is also impacted by how we feel when we spend time alone

While organisations have invested in a range of communication tools and platforms to help employees be more productive, nothing has been able to replace those spontaneous fleeting conversations.

Good interactions

What I’m referring to is that brief moment of connection. Just like passing a friendly neighbour in the street and taking a minute to ask each other how you are, moments like this can be meaningful and uplifting.

The Austrian-American psychotherapist, Alfred Adler, used the term gemeinschaftsgefühl (community feeling) to express that as individuals we benefit from having a strong sense of belonging in the community.

More recently, the field of positive psychology has highlighted five specific pillars of wellbeing. It won’t surprise you to hear that fostering and maintaining healthy relationships is one of them; another is the concept of the social biome: the web of daily social interactions, even the short or seemingly insignificant ones.

Research shows that we each have our own social biome, the health of which is determined by the number and quality of friendships we have. The health of our social biome is considered the best single predictor for our psychological and physical wellbeing. But, more interestingly, it’s not simply about the quality of time spent connecting with others; our wellbeing is also impacted by how we feel when we spend time alone.

Make the connection

So how can we improve our social connectedness – at work and in our personal lives – while we continue to work remotely, for some or all of the time?

Begin by gathering data on your current situation to help you measure the health of your social biome. Over the next few days, notice your work and social interactions using these reflection prompts:

  • Who would you like to spend more time speaking to or being with? You could take the initiative and contact them more frequently. Send a quick ‘I saw this and thought of you’ message, or tell them you’d like to find out how they are and book in a longer call.
  • Who would you like to spend less time speaking to? You could suggest reducing the length of the call when scheduling it; if it’s work-related, ask them to email questions in advance. Where possible, thank them and decline the invitation.
  • Make a conscious choice about when (the time of day  when you have more energy for this interaction), where (walking outside, in a quiet meeting room or bustling café) and how you interact (suggest a call instead of a face-to-face meeting, or an audio call rather than video).
  • Who can you have meaningful interactions with? For example, who asks you how you are, and listens to your answer? You need to be able to share your honest opinion without fear of being judged or criticised.

While all of the above prompts can be related to both professional and personal relationships, here are some additional considerations for working relationships, especially if you’re leading a team or a project:

  • What are the communication needs of each person in your team? For example, some people appreciate an informal chat about family or pets before talking about project tasks.
  • What is the best time for all of the team to dial into a call? You need people to be both relaxed and alert in order to be their most productive; while 9am on a Monday morning might make logical sense to kickstart the week, you may work with parents who are stuck in traffic after dropping off the children at school.
  • Set the right level of energy at the beginning of meetings. Facilitating an ice-breaker quick quiz or cheesy ‘tell us something unusual about yourself’ round could provide a bit of light relief as well as acting as an interesting way to get to know each other better, which helps to build trust.
Alone time

To give yourself the best chance of having a healthy social biome, consider how you currently spend your free time, and ask yourself what you can put in place that will enable you to make the most of it.

Structure your downtime to prevent you from wasting it by, for example, wandering the vast expanse of social media that is packed with carefully curated images of other people’s ‘perfect lives’; this can negatively impact on your own wellbeing.

Ensure that you engage in activities that you really enjoy – that feed your soul, burn off adrenaline, help you to unwind or cause you to laugh. Create a list of these activities and plan your free time in advance.

Consider how you can improve your own social connectivity, and encourage others to do the same; you should notice an improvement in your wellbeing as a result.