Ways of Working and the Loneliness Challenge

Ways of Working and the Loneliness Challenge: The Value Opportunity in Building Connected, Engaged and Outward-Looking Professional Communities.



The ‘Great Resignation’ and new ways of working come at a time when 85% of workers globally are not engaged with their job.[1] The international bestseller The Lonely Century by Noreena Hertz captures the impacts of loneliness on people and organisations, building the compelling argument that loneliness is one of, if not the biggest, issue humanity faces. Understanding why an interconnected workforce unlocks value for teams and the bottom line provides inspiration for how we build co-worker communities in an increasingly contactless world.


New ways of working: an opportunity to take on loneliness


Loneliness is a complex ecosystem. It is more than being bereft of love and company or being ignored; it is also a sense of being unsupported and uncared for.[1] Though loneliness and many of its precipitous challenges precede the pandemic, it is particularly pressing at a time when people expect to work in a human-centred and inclusive environment and employers face increasingly fierce competition to attract and retain talent.[2]


The employee/employer relationship continues to evolve, largely due to changing ways of working. These shifts give space to re-engage with pre-existing problems and to identify and evaluate the best methods to overcome them. Such change brings innovative tools to create professional communities and new opportunities to empower and engage colleagues. Recognising the impacts of loneliness, not just on co-worker morale, but on business output too, goes some way to justifying why this challenge is worth addressing.


Scoping the challenge and why we should address it sooner rather than later


Feeling isolated and lonely is bad for business because it is interlinked with engagement and productivity. Disconnected employees take more sick days, are less motivated, make more mistakes and perform less effectively at work than those who are not.[1] Loneliness also makes people less approachable and unable to listen as they become more self-focused and “a less desirable interaction partner.”[2] This can become a negative cycle whereby lonely employees, who would benefit most from collaboration, are the least able to do so, which poses a risk to output, company culture and morale.


Loneliness also limits an individual’s affinity and commitment to an employer, which is particularly relevant at a time when churn is high.[3] As many as 60% of office workers in the UK feel lonely at work, which is troubling as loneliness significantly impacts staff commitment to a company.[4] A survey by Randstad UK found that 69% of respondents expect to move job in the next few months, which costs employers as much as £25,000 per worker as it takes almost 6-months to reach optimum productivity.[5] This is a high price to pay and there is value to be gained in building a strong sense of co-worker community.


Though new ways of working bring many upsides, the accelerated speed and scale of this change is not isolated from individual and collective experiences of loneliness. A Culture Shift survey found that while 54% of people report improved work-life balance thanks to working from home, 47% feel more isolated.[6] Despite the benefits of homeworking, which should be capitalised on, consideration is required on how to avoid, mitigate, or reduce its unintended negative consequences.


“You can’t buy community, you have to practice it.”[1]


So how can organisations build a community of co-workers in a hybrid or remote world?


Communication – the low hanging fruit: inject personality, be well-mannered and express gratitude


Instant messages and emails often prize brevity over politeness and expressions of gratitude. Curt and transactional language can sneak in, manners can be lost and subtle queues harder to detect, which goes some way to explaining why 40% of workers report that communicating with colleagues over email makes them ‘very often’ or ‘always’ lonely.[1] So, whether it’s a matter of double checking the tone of messages before clicking send, or picking up the phone to chat rather than message a colleague, personal and well-mannered communication goes a long way.


Connect co-workers through common interests, with authenticity

Employers often know more about their people than co-workers know about each other, so, as the boundary between home and place of work becomes increasingly blurred, employers could empower teams to build co-worker bonds through shared pastimes. Positioning work as a professional community benefits business, as people who feel rooted in their community are more likely to participate in it.[2] By collating information about employees’ favourite pastimes, organisations could create activity groups, like a running club or an art class. As an example, Transform hosts activities like weekly life drawing, or seasonal events such as wreathe-making, and we’ve got a buddy scheme to integrate new-starters into the team. Bringing teams together through hobbies and creativity offers space to enjoy the person behind the job title.


Small gestures to alleviate everyday pressures


Working from an office is an equaliser of work conditions, while working from home presents unique challenges for every employee. Take working parents as an example – it must be challenging spinning the parental and professional plates simultaneously, especially when babies’ mealtimes inadvertently clash with client meetings. Sharing home space with work also takes a toll on personal relationships, with 2 in 3 Brits (68%), stating that remote working has put a strain on their relationship, according to PR firm Cherry Digital.[3] To address such challenges, online retailer Zalando gave 14,500 staff an extra five days off last summer to recover from increased workload due to the pandemic.[4] On a smaller scale, might there be scope for organisations to perform personalised, thoughtful gestures that give team members respite from everyday constraints? This could be something like covering childcare for an evening or paying for a coffee with a friend at a local café.


Remote work communities: an opportunity to empower social impact, at scale


Company CSR and volunteer days have been impacted due to working from home, stay-at-home orders and spells of social distancing, but remote working offers scope for co-workers, with the support of their employer, to engage with their local communities. Alongside a wide variety of charitable programmes, HSBC encourages employees to spend at least one day a year supporting a project in their local community, which totalled 82,000 volunteered hours in 2020.[5] With workforces dispersed, if each WFH-er were to engage with their local community, the potential for impact, and the opportunity for teams to gain new skills, would be significant.


A flexible hybrid model: a strong way forward


Combining at home and office working puts teams on course to balance collaboration with individual autonomy. Though we are early on our journey to discover the best ways of working, Lazlo Bock, the former head of HR at Google, found the optimal amount of work-from home time to be one and a half days per week. With this combination, employees both have time to connect and build bonds with each other and sufficient time on their own to do deeper, undistracted work.[6] Though Bock provides a guide for where teams work, ensuring that teams – whether at home or the office - are openminded, diverse, and inclusive in how they work is as, if not more, significant.


Conclusion


Though far from an exhaustive list, the suggested activities seek to inspire organisations and their teams to co-create authentic and mutually beneficial solutions that suit their needs. Unprecedented staff churn should be utilised as a catalyst to reposition the workplace as a professional, trans-boundary community. This would enable organisations and colleagues to co-produce a unified collective and the individual experience of being part of something bigger. New ways of working come with the opportunity to shape an (albeit (partially) remote) environment that connects co-workers, fosters friendships, and nurtures.


If you’d like to find out more about how Transform can help your organisation, contact us at transformation@transformUK.com