No matter where you work or live, the impact of the COVID pandemic on the way we work has been significant. We have all had the unique experience of dealing with unexpected change to our routines, and the loss of familiar faces in our day-to-day lives. As social beings, the rituals we used to have before COVID have gone out the window, and that level of change alone can impact mental wellbeing.

Add to that many are isolated from regular contact with work mates, friends and family – it’s easy to see that people are struggling with loneliness.

For me, it’s been an interesting 18 months, where at times I’ve felt lonely and at other times all I’ve wanted is time alone.

On one hand, the usual hustle and bustle of life stopped and in some ways it felt like my world got very small – contained in the four walls of my house. That breeds loneliness in missing the company of friends at dinner, having a noisy house full of family celebrations, and also the social contact of walking down the corridor in the office and feeling a sense of connection with a broad range of people as you say hello.

On the other hand, as much as I love them, I found myself with my family from morning ‘til night each day, without those times where everyone is out doing their own thing. I’ve discovered that while I like being around people and get a lot of energy from that, an occasional moment of peace and solitude is also nice!

For some, the workplace is more than just work

While there are things I love about working from home – like being home for dinner each night, being part of little conversations with my kids throughout the day, and being able to keep to a better exercise routine – I equally miss the noise and energy of the office. The conversations that just happen because you are in the same place, and the energy that makes days fly.

I think it is important to say that what we have experienced in the last 18 months is lockdown working in a pandemic, not hybrid working – which would be a world where there is a blended experience and choice. I have seen friends and colleagues challenged in many different ways, and what is clear is that everyone has been impacted – and for many, that has meant moments of loneliness.

This loneliness occurs for some because the workplace was more than just work – it also represented friends and a sense of belonging. Or it could be the loneliness that occurs because people are separated from family and friends, or parts of their lives that create a strong sense of community.

I’ve seen our people respond amazingly well and embrace virtual work life, but I know there are moments when people tire of the endless screen time, miss the informal chat that happens more when you are physically together, and especially miss the opportunity to celebrate together. Many things work well virtually, but there are still some things that most of us like best when we are face to face.

Adapting to face the challenges of working remotely

At Telstra, the challenges posed by COVID have been complex. On one hand, we already had a strong flexible working culture and many of our people already worked from home at times. I think that meant we started with strong foundations – many of us had good technology in place, and many leaders and teams were used to having some team members join meetings virtually.

However, the last 18 months have taken that to a new level; I think some of the most important things we have done are to double down on communication, whether that’s in weekly all-staff livestreams, our end of year virtual celebration event, or just more regular team check-ins. When you don’t have informal contact as a given, I think we really knew that meant we had to be very deliberate and invest in communicating with our people.

Carving out time to connect

For me it is important to be part of and feel connected to a number of communities. Work is an important one, but not the only one. My family both direct and extended, my friends and my kids’ school community are all important communities for me to stay connected to.

Equally, some of my rituals also help me feel less lonely. My exercise normally involves getting outdoors with a friend at the start or end of the day, so it serves as both a social and physical wellbeing activity. The other thing that I’ve found is that sometimes the way I fit that activity might be by having a call rather than a video meeting. For me, as well as the physical benefit, I often find it changes the tone and nature of a conversation – it can feel more personal and creates a change of pace that is a positive in my day.

There was a lot of work we had already done that gave us strong foundations to build upon and make this transition easier on our people. It hasn’t been without challenges or missteps, but it is great to see our people working hard to maintain their connection to each other.

If you need help, mental health support services are available through:

Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636
Lifeline – 13 11 14
Kids Helpline – 1800 55 1800