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Rebuilding Connection in a Disconnected World

To combat feelings of loneliness, take small steps.

Key points

  • Our communal experience of social isolation has had individual impacts, ranging from clinical loneliness to changed communication styles.
  • Rebuilding connection requires identifying what’s within your locus of control and taking small steps toward change.
  • Creating connection can mean taking a step away from your devices and your desk.
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Last week the U.S. Surgeon General outlined his proposal for a national framework to combat loneliness. Loneliness, he argued, is pervasive, indiscriminate, and has broad individual and social repercussions. It can lead to a host of other issues, including depression, heart disease, diabetes, and more.

Of course, loneliness and feeling lonely are not the same thing. Even though we all endured the COVID pandemic, for example, the effects of the resulting social isolation have been individual. In fact, a recent study found that while loneliness did increase during the height of the pandemic, the effect sizes were rather small (Ernst, et al, 2022). And it’s assumed that those impacts will diminish for most over time, if they have not already.

Perhaps. In my experience, once you’ve made your world smaller, it can be challenging to expand it again. Several years of living in a COVID bubble, in whatever ways you might have defined it, have diminished many people's ability to engage with others in productive ways. Hybrid and fully remote work have limited workplace connections, changed communication styles, and impacted effective knowledge transfer and collaboration (Yang, et al, 2022).

Diminished connection at work has been shown to increase levels of anxiety, stress, and burnout. At the same time, organizations with highly connected employees have greater productivity, well-being, and retention. Our increased reliance on and use of technology in the move to remote work, as the Surgeon General notes, is not only leading to division and fractured relationships, it's also robbing us of our ability to be present with one another in important and meaningful ways.

The Surgeon General’s goals are lofty: strengthening social infrastructure, renegotiating our relationship with technology, and rebuilding individual connection. If successful, it could have real impacts on our country. But what does it mean for us as individuals? How do you do the work of rebuilding individual connection in ways that feel relevant to you and not so large as to be unsuccessful?

First, figure out what is in your locus of control. For example, you may not have the ability to strengthen critical social infrastructure across vast systems. But perhaps you can identify a way to remove one barrier to connection within your workplace or on your team. Wanting to change the world is a laudable aspiration. Recognizing what’s within your ability to change, and taking intentional action to do so, is no less impactful.

Second, think in small steps. These challenges are big ones, and it can feel daunting to make forward progress on them. You’re not going to rebuild or change an entire system this week. But you can reach out to one person. You can do one thing to improve your own relationships. If each of us takes responsibility to take small steps, it will add up to big change, over time. Keep reading for three more small, actionable steps you can start to implement today.

3 Small Steps to Rebuild Connection

  1. Ask one person for a coffee chat this week. Creating connection starts with a conversation, and that happens one person and one conversation at a time. Whether it’s an actual coffee chat or not, think about it as that amount of time: no more than 30 minutes. And remember, not every conversation has to have an outcome. Not every conversation is going to advance your career. Think about what it was like just to sit with someone, having a cup of coffee, and talking. The goal is to take one step toward building a relationship, which means getting to know people, as people, and letting them get to know you. It's just one conversation. And when you’ve done that, think about who you’re going to reach out to next.
  2. Check on someone you haven’t heard from in a while. We often tell people who are struggling to “reach out to someone” or that “we’re here for you if you need it.” While those are lovely sentiments, it puts real pressure on someone who is feeling disconnected to do the work of building connection. If there is someone you are concerned about, check on them. If there is someone you haven’t heard from in a while, do some intentional outreach. The good news is that you don’t have to spend a lot of time on this. Sometimes sending a text message or an email letting someone know you’re thinking about them is all it takes to make a difference.
  3. Build in time to step away. Sometimes, rebuilding connection means reconnecting with ourselves or with the outside world. We know that long stretches of time spent sitting at a desk, in front of a computer, is terrible for our health. As life and work expectations ramp up, it can be tempting to just power through, to work through lunch, to get through the next item on the task list. But what if you built in a 15-minute walk outside in the middle of your day? What if you adopted a Pomodoro strategy or other technique that encourages deep work in short increments with intentional breaks? What if, instead of scheduling that Zoom meeting, you suggest a phone call or to meet up for a walking meeting? A recent study found that just a five-minute walk after 30 minutes of sitting can have incredible health benefits. So take that walk around the block or to the other end of the office and back. You literally might save your life.

Our disconnection didn’t happen in a day, and getting reconnected won’t, either. But if we each commit to taking one small step, sending one text, asking for one conversation, step by step we can create real, meaningful change, for ourselves, for our organizations, and for our communities.


Ernst, M., Niederer, D., Werner, A. M., Czaja, S. J., Mikton, C., Ong, A. D., Rosen, T., Brähler, E., & Beutel, M. E. (2022). Loneliness before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: A systematic review with meta-analysis. American Psychologist, 77(5), 660–677.

Yang, L., Holtz, D., Jaffe, S. Suri, S., Sinha, S., Weston, J., Joyce, C., Shah, N, Sherman, K., Hecht, B., Teevan, J. The effects of remote work on collaboration among information workers. Nature Human Behavior 6, 43–54 (2022).

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