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Loneliness at work – a sign of the times?

Geoff Hardy

‘Unprecedented levels of hybrid working persist beyond the pandemic. Even as offices have reopened, employees are loathe to give up the benefits of working from home – for a substantial proportion of time.

But two years into what has been an unplanned global experiment in remote work, the costs of the approach are coming into sharper focus.’ (1)

Surveys repeatedly show we want to continue working from home – at least part of the time. (2)

But what if it isn’t good for us - or our colleagues?

For example, there’s an epidemic of loneliness. Made worse during the pandemic, loneliness is a major issue - not only being alone – but the reduced quality of connections.

The frequency and nature of interactions change when colleagues are physically apart and there is a lack of dynamic, spontaneous communication.

 Gone are the ‘mundane moments that, in hindsight, meant a lot:

  • The conversation that took place waiting at the coffee machine.
  • The brief exchange as colleagues passes in the corridor.
  • The joking before the meeting started.’ (3)

‘As a result, employees are likely to feel a diminished sense of belonging to their company and social and professional isolation.’ (4)

The Harvard Business Review reports:

‘Rising rates of loneliness among employees during the pandemic have put the well-being of employees top of mind for most companies as they map out the future of work.’ (5)

It’s well known that loneliness can bring:

  • Health problems.
  • Depression and increased levels of anxiety. (6)

And at work, there’s evidence to indicate the spill-over impacts include:

  • Reduced job performance.
  • Poor decision making.
  • Higher levels of burnout – due to the distress caused by the failure to connect meaningfully with others.
  • Reduced productivity.
  • Employee turnover. (7)

Loneliness is impacting every age group.

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However, in a remarkable development, the young – people between 16 – 30 - are recording levels of loneliness that surpass even those of the elderly. (8)

Research conducted in the UK in September 2021 found that, since working from home, Gen Z and Millennials feel disproportionately isolated - saying it is negatively impacting their relationships at work – and potentially harming their career prospects:

  • Two thirds of employees between the ages of 18-34 said they found it harder to make friends and maintain relationships with colleagues.
  • Almost three quarters felt their relationships with work colleagues are more distant.
  • Over half said that prolonged remote working had caused them to drift apart from colleagues.
  • When asked how they’d feel about working remotely on a full-time basis, over three quarters of younger employees felt they would feel more isolated – compared to a third of employees aged over 35. (9)

‘When technology erodes the need to meet up with people, our social skills are eroded, weakening our ability to meet new people.’

With hybrid work likely to stay. And as more and more young people move jobs and careers, they trade familiar friends and family for a rotating cast of strangers - that make it hard to feel connected in their own offices or neighborhoods.’ (10)

The pandemic has shaped the ‘future of work’ – and, whilst companies have done their best to adapt, they are yet to understand the full consequences when it comes to the younger generation of workers. Remote working may be convenient for many – but for others it’s a recipe for loneliness – with younger workers disproportionately impacted.

  • They miss out benefit of being surrounded by more experienced colleagues and the informal learning and motivation that comes from this.

‘What’s more younger workers are now quitting – if they’re not happy.’ (11)

So, what can companies do?

Here are some ideas for team leaders and managers:

  • Check-in: if colleagues are working from home a lot, check in with them on a regular basis. A simple video call to make sure they’re OK – don’t just talk about work.
  • If staff are coming into the office, all come in on the same day (s) - arrange team meetings, a lunch, or a social activity on those days.
  • Think through very carefully how you’re going to onboard new staff – it’s harder starting a new job and having a great onboarding experience when we’re all working from home – and a successful onboarding is important.
  • Cut out any hint of a presenteeism culture - looking to see who had a ‘green tick’ next to their name on Teams - showing they’re available at 6pm.
  • Buddy team members up – allocate everyone a buddy in the team – make sure everyone speaks to their buddy weekly.
  • Give younger team members tasks that use their strengths – keeping them motivated and engaged.

And finally –look out for each other.

In his book ‘The Promises of Giants,’ John Amaechi says:

There are so many young people in our workplace who are afflicted by loneliness, insecurity, or anxiety – and the pandemic has made things worse.

They face the day with a sense of dread – for all the rubbish that will be strewn in front of them.

But if they can count on one colleague who will ask how they’re doing, it makes a world of difference. It can be a life raft through choppy waters

Their ability to get through the day is dramatically enhanced by authentic interactions with people who truly see them.’ (12)

 

 

1.     The Loneliness of the Hybrid Worker, MIT Sloan Management Review, May 2022

2.     For a summary, see, Is it time to admit that hybrid is not working? Financial Times, 8 January 2022

3.     From Podcast, How to Beat Loneliness, Make a Friend at Work, Harvard Business Review, 10 February 2021

4.     The Effects of Remote Work on Collaboration, Nature of Human Behavior volume 6, January 2022

5.     Employees Are Lonelier Than Ever. Here’s How Employers Can Help, Harvard Business Review, 9 June 2021

6.     For a discussion on the links between loneliness and depression and anxiety, see Lost connections by Johann Hart

7.     Employees are lonelier than ever. Here’s how employers can help, Harvard Business Review, 9 June 2021

8.     The Power of Strangers. The Benefits of Connecting In a Suspicious World, Joe Keohane

9.     See, Survey Reveals 81% of Young Workers Fear Loneliness from Long-Term Home Working, HR News.com, 9 September 2021

10.  The Power of Strangers. The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World, Joe Keohane

11.  Quote by Dan Blanden, CEO of Research Firm Chargifi, Survey Reveals 81% of Young Workers Fear Loneliness from Long-Term Home Working, HR News.com, 9 September 2021

12.  The Promises of Giants, John Amaechi

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