Are you feeling lonely at work? Ironically, you may not be alone in those feelings. We explore some of the best research on work loneliness available today and offer some guidance from experts.
For many knowledge workers where working in an office used to be commonplace – fully remote work has some drawbacks including the loss of social connections in the workplace and a rise in feelings of loneliness.
Our own Condeco by Eptura research from early 2022 (“Attitudes to Hybrid Working” report) discovered an unexpected nugget of data: Nearly a quarter (24%) of fully remote workers want to switch to hybrid working despite all of the flexibility and work life balance it afforded.
Luckily, the option of hybrid work has a positive impact on how much employees feel that their mental health and emotional well-being is valued by their employers. While 69% of employees agree that hybrid working shows that employers are taking well-being into consideration, this figure rises to 76% among those who are hybrid working already.
Similarly, Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index, a study of 31,000 people in 31 countries, finds “remote employees (57%) say they’ll consider a switch to hybrid.”
Why? Well, there is more than one reason, but having a sense of belonging is way up there. It’s not that easy to replace face to face, in-person communication. It’s crucial to individual productivity and talent retention. And it doesn’t need to be 5 days a week anymore.
“While employees appreciate saving time, shedding the stress of commuting, and having more flexibility to balance work and personal demands, remote work has downsides that go beyond domestic distractions and blurred work-life boundaries,” writes Australian researchers in the MIT Sloan Management Review in the 2022 post “The Loneliness of the Hybrid Worker.”
This team of researchers go on to express: “In particular, the quality, frequency, and nature of interactions change when colleagues are physically remote and there is less dynamic, spontaneous communication.”
Loneliness at work also happened pre-pandemic — and it had a negative effect on employee performance.
Business management professor Sigal Barsade of The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania studied the effects of loneliness at work before the pandemic in 2018. Her research of 672 employees and 114 supervisors found “resoundingly, loneliness made people less effective at work,” reflects Barsade in a Wharton Idea Lab post. “The lonelier employees were, the lower the performance ratings they received from their supervisor.”
Of course, the collective social distancing and lockdowns that were necessary during the height of the pandemic forced us all into remote work. And we proved on the whole to keep up productivity. But there’s more to it than simply being a productive employee or leader.
But are we being as effective as we want to be if we have feelings of loneliness? The short answer is no.
Working in an office a few days a week may not cure all loneliness, but it could help…
The numbers show many of us understand the value of in-person time. But we want it to remain flexible. Eptura’s latest research from the second half of 2022 reinforces the value of being in an office a few days a week. These data points from our global survey of 6,000 workplace leaders and employees grabbed our attention:
- 45% see the improved ability to meet with colleagues, clients, vendors
- 36% believe coming into the office helps improves company culture
- 35% say they look to the office for a productive, well-equipped environment
- 32% feel coming to the office helps with work/life balance
The human need for social connection at work is vital to culture and collaboration. And the office provides a way to help us boost productivity – especially when systems in the office work well.
There are important business benefits of reducing the impact of loneliness at work.
One of the most important aspects of helping reduce loneliness at work includes having employees work and interact with a wider swath of internal teams and to foster relationships. It makes for happier, less stressed workers, and leads to longer tenure in a company where opportunities for growth exist.
According to Microsoft, employees with strong relationships outside of their immediate team say they’re “more satisfied with their employer (76% versus 57%), more fulfilled by work (79% versus 59%), and have a more positive outlook on workplace stress (40% versus 30%) than those with weak organizational networks,” per the 2022 Work Trend index report.
The software company also finds that “[h]aving a broad network also fuels career opportunities within a company—LinkedIn data shows that employees at companies with high internal mobility stay almost twice as long.”
Managers: Don’t blame employees for not overcoming loneliness at work. Benchmarking, creating core teams, and tying some management compensation to employee well-being can help.
Boston University’s Questrom School of Business is closely watching the changes affecting how we work today on a global scale. And they have seen a marked expansion of loneliness in the workplace. They’ve isolated the macro changes occurring to these four areas:
- Teams are created on-demand are complex and fluid
- Teams are composed modularly adding to the complexity
- Our attention is divided across many teams with competing demands
- Projects are shorter now (weeks instead of months)
“There isn’t enough time for people to form true human connections,” reflects Constance Hadley, a senior lecturer at Boston University in a blog post. “When people feel interchangeable, don’t even know exactly who is on their team, or continuously join short projects, developing social connections became an elusive task … [U]nfortunately approaching this issue as their employee’s problem, rather than what it really is: a structural issue that similarly requires a structural solution.”
Hadley’s guidance is to establish a benchmark where leaders and managers track loneliness via surveys and develop antennas for well-being especially for remote workers. She also advises firms to create “core teams” where interaction and trust is established and reinforced – and for managers to stay on top of it. She even advises organizations tie some compensation to well-being and make check-ins a formal part of a managerial role.
Other ways to help reduce loneliness at work: Understand and highlight individual strengths, cultivate team respect, encourage friendships, and leverage technology to open up time for social connections.
There is no magic formula for successfully curbing feelings of loneliness at work, but here is some additional well-researched guidance available from workplace and mental health researchers. We found some solid guidance from both Gallup Research and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental Health.
Identify individual strengths and make it part of your culture to reinforce it.
Gallup finds: “Loneliness is less likely when employees are aware of their strengths and able to share them with and leverage one another’s strengths.”
Encourage respect and accountability.
Per Gallup: “Work environments with high equity and accountability can serve to reduce loneliness because coworkers are more likely to respect one another’s work.”
Cultivate a culture of friendships at work.
“Assuming that team members have clear roles, are adequately recognized and are given chances to develop, workplace friendships can bring cooperation, innovation, inclusion, and belonging,” finds Gallup.
Use technology to create more room for social connections.
The Center for Workplace Mental Health finds: “This doesn’t mean that technology and personal interactions have to compete. Consider automating tasks and freeing up more time to focus on employee connections. ”The organization suggests creating book clubs, participating in escape rooms, having trivia teams, and encouraging other social gatherings.
Find ways to learn more about each other.
“This can be done by finding new ways to celebrate birthdays or holidays. This can also be done by having volunteer events or lunches to connect departments,” says the Center for Workplace Mental Health. For remote teams, this can done by leveraging the strong video and chat features of collaboration software and by setting up some planned in-person collaboration time whenever possible and where budgets allow.
Learn how Condeco by Eptura is leveraging Microsoft Teams to make in-person collaboration more transparent for everyone and easy to book space for your team.