The rise of remote work has led to a loss of workplace social connections that is negatively affecting employees, a new report suggests.

The Conference Board of Canada report published Wednesday shows employers are concerned about workplace isolation as flexible work arrangements become more prevalent. 

“We know that a lot more employees are working from home so they're not getting those opportunities to connect with each other like they used to in-person,” said Leah Ringwald, associate director of human capital at the Conference Board of Canada. 

While the in-person working model cultivated professional relationships as a byproduct of sharing the same space, it is becoming harder for employers to restore social connections in the post-pandemic era. 

"A lot of organizations are relying on run-of-the-mill practices," Ringwald, who is the author of the study, said in an interview. The study is based on multiple surveys conducted between 2022 and 2023 to capture a shift in Canadian workplaces.

The two most popular responses to foster social connections among remote workers were regular check-ins and in-person social events, the study said.

For those in hybrid setups, 84 per cent of respondents said they use overlapping in-person workdays so that even those rarely in the office can be together at times.

But there were challenges, Ringwald said. For example, back-to-back virtual meetings culture can limit social connections among employees.

The report identified busy schedules, including heavy workloads and excessive meetings, as the biggest barrier to striking social connections among employees. Workers who feel lonely are more likely to be dissatisfied with their jobs and to experience burnout and mental health issues as well as lower productivity.

Workplace isolation eventually leads to increased risks of absenteeism, "presenteeism" — working even when unwell, and employee turnover, the report said.

"There's this realization that employees have different needs for relatedness and belonging," said Ringwald, adding that loneliness is not a consequence of a lack of social connection but a mismatch between what people need and what they're getting from others.

"We're finding that Canadian employers don't know how to determine the amount of effort they should be devoting to building social connections," Ringwald said. 

Though check-ins and social events may help, she noted that workplaces aren't as familiar with the idea of aligning social connection initiatives with individual employee preferences based on age or roles for meaningful workplace relationships.

The report showed many organizations don't have the appropriate metrics to see if the efforts to foster connections are helping. It said more than half of the respondents did not track mental health indicators related to initiatives formed for fostering social connections.

More than half of the organizations also relied on existing surveys which may not capture an overall picture, while two-fifths of the data was from exit interviews.

Collaborations with employees when designing initiatives for social connections and promoting work-life balance can help tackle isolation, the report suggested.

Ringwald said many companies are starting to ensure employees have time outside of work to engage in meaningful personal relationships, therefore, having an optimal work-life balance. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 22, 2024.