Suffering in Silence: What To Do When You Feel Isolated at Work
I’ll never forget my first few weeks on the job at my current company. Not only was my department (IT) physically isolated from the rest of our bustling corporate offices, but from a cultural standpoint, we weren’t exactly known for our social interaction. The constant silence among my team started to gnaw at me, and even though I was surrounded by others, I felt incredibly alone. Sure, some of my co-workers probably preferred this type of environment—but I knew that if my workdays continued that way, I would slowly go insane.
Unfortunately, office isolation isn’t always something you can discover during your interview. And even if you like what you do, dealing with super-introverted teammates (or even tight-knit office cliques) can make your job pretty miserable, especially if you're more extroverted than they are, or you’re the type who counts on the office banter to keep you engaged during the day.
Don’t despair though—even if you’re closer to the guy who cleans your office than to your own teammates, there’s still hope. Here are some things I did that saved me.
1. Make an Effort and Start Speaking Up
How quiet was my department? So quiet that it took me a year to realize one woman telecommuted every Wednesday. So quiet that even simple courtesies and small talk like “good morning” and “have a good night” didn’t seem to exist. So quiet that I started feeling sorry for myself and constantly wondered why no one was talking to me.
But I realized that, while I was observing my office environment, I wasn’t making much of an effort to change it. It became evident that if things were going to get better, I had to make the first move. So, even though it seemed awkward at the time, I started saying “good morning” to everyone. And guess what? They eventually started doing the same.
2. Start Gathering
While it’s sometimes necessary to hole up at your desk all day, try to step away when you can spare the time. Instead of sending an email to the person next to you, get up and talk to him. Need to discuss a project with someone? Schedule a meeting in her office instead of doing it over the phone.
And if you’re the manager, make sure you hold periodic meetings so that everyone can share ideas. I did—and it turned out that my direct reports really appreciated these team meetings. Though they didn’t love socializing, they did enjoy being in the loop about company news.
The same advice goes for gatherings outside of the office, too. Don’t sit back and wait for that happy hour invite; organize one yourself.
3. Start Joining
Does your company sponsor a volleyball team? What about lunchtime learning sessions? Find something that interests you, and then let your teammates know you’re participating. Hey, they may have been interested as well, but just didn’t want to join by themselves.
I joined a running interest group at work and did “Friday Fun Runs” with some of my teammates. Not only did we spend time together on the runs (what better way to bond with someone than to suffer through record heat and humidity, right?), but we also then had something to talk about when we returned to the office.
4. Get to Know Someone Who’s Been Around Awhile
I tend to be introverted, so I’m naturally drawn to people who are more outgoing than I am. So here’s another strategy: Try to find that social person who’s been with the company for a while. It doesn’t have to be someone in your department—people in sales work particularly well. Not only will this person introduce you to others, but she may be able to offer insight into your teammates, too.
One of my colleagues (yes, she used to work in sales) was a great resource for me. Not only was she bubbly and talkative, but she could explain small nuances in people’s personalities. And once I understood these people better, I was more likely to get to know them.
If you’re having trouble finding a buddy like this at work, you can always start with LinkedIn as an icebreaker. Once you’re connected to your teammates online, you’ll have instant conversation starters about their background, previous jobs, college, and mutual connections.
5. Keep Your Sense of Humor
Years before my gig in the IT department, my first job out of college was with a group of women who had all worked together for 20+ years. Talk about walking into a tight-knit group! (And it didn’t help that they all enjoyed listening to country radio.) It was a whole different kind of isolation.
I didn’t have much in common with these women outside of the office, but I still worked with them on a daily basis. Lucky for me, I grew up in a family with a great sense of humor and quick wit—so I used those techniques to win those women over. I sang along to those country songs and made up my own lyrics, much to the laughter of my co-workers. It didn’t take long before they could joke with me and include me in their conversations.
As they say, laughter is the best medicine. So try a little humor—it just might work.
If you’re feeling isolated at work, no matter to what degree, it’s important to stay persistent. If you’ve tried your best and found that others don’t immediately reciprocate your efforts, don’t get discouraged and don’t take things too personally—some social habits and office cultures take time to change. But if you’re consistent and sincere with your efforts, you’re sure to make a difference.
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