Office workers with masks
Fun times back at the office. Credit: AP Photo/Steven Senne

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Focus on How to Fight Loneliness at Work

Even before social distancing, too many people were feeling lonely at work, cut off from colleagues and lacking real friends at their offices. That’s gotten worse over the past year, and some of the plans for returning to workplaces could inadvertently exacerbate the issue. What can be done? For answers, I spoke with Noreena Hertz, a UK-based economist and author of a new book, The Lonely Century. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:

You’ve written that people were lonely at work even prior to the pandemic. Why is that?

Yes, 40% of office workers were lonely at work even before the pandemic. There’s a number of factors at play. One, which is slightly counter-intuitive, is the shift to the open-plan office that we’ve seen in recent years. This is now the most dominant form of office space. One might think that an open plan office would foster more collaboration, more connection, more communication. But research has tracked what happened to workforces that moved from a cubicle-office-type workplace to an open-plan office. It’s found that surprisingly, instead of communicating more face-to-face, the workers actually communicated much more via email or via messaging like Slack. The panoptic nature of the open-plan workplace means that one’s tendency is not to speak, because you’re aware that everyone else in the room can hear you.

There’s also, of course, just the practicalities of dealing with the noise, which means that many people end up putting noise-canceling headphones on. And if anything’s a signal to not come and speak to you, it’s somebody sitting there with noise-canceling headphones on. Hot desking is the worst in terms of how lonely and disconnected from each other employees feel. Again, it’s driven primarily by cost. This strategy, which ostensibly should help ROI, is actually likely to be diminishing it! There was one woman named Carla whom I interviewed in my book, who had an operation and was away from work for a few weeks. And nobody even noticed because she’d always moved seats. So nobody knew she wasn’t at work. Of course, that isn’t great news.

Why this matters for business from an employer’s perspective is that lonely employees exact a serious business cost: they’re less motivated, less productive, less efficient, more likely to quit than employees who are not lonely. In fact, the single biggest determinant for whether someone’s going to be productive at work is whether they have a friend at work. And in many workplaces people really don’t have even a single friend. As much as one in five people say that they don’t have a single friend at work. 

Another reason people have been becoming lonely at work is the increased obsolescence of communal moments that used to punctuate the workday, such as lunch breaks, or just breaks in general. In the United States, 60% of employees pre-pandemic said that they ate their lunch at their desk, on their own—”Al Desco”—even though the majority said that they would rather not. These informal get-togethers would be where you get to know your colleagues at a more human level. But not only do they feel less bonded to each other; we also know that employees who eat together perform better than employees who don’t.

It doesn’t even have to be eating together. Having a break at the same time as your colleagues can make a big difference. There was an American bank that did a pilot project where they gave everyone the same break time, and they discovered that as a result not only did people feel happier, again, productivity significantly shot up.

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Is loneliness worse since the pandemic?

We do have a clear, unambiguous sense that it is worse now. Some recent data that came out in the US suggested that as much as half of Americans are currently lonely. It was already bad; it’s gotten significantly worse. This is less empirical, but a growing body of anecdotal data also says that the initial euphoria of working from home that many felt is wearing thin for a lot of employees, especially the young. I’ve been interviewing c-suite execs across the globe, and this is a finding coming out from those interviews with them.

What can managers do to fight loneliness?

A lot of companies now are going through a process of rethinking the office: what will the office look like post-pandemic? And the temptation will be to focus on very blunt metrics like physical overhead cost per employee, which will lead you to think, well, we may as well dispense of the office or radically reduce our footprint and move to a hot-desking system, because that’s the most sensible cost-efficient thing to do. I would say to be cautious, because the real risk is motivation, productivity, and turnover.

The second thing, when you’re thinking about coming back into the workplace, is how can you actually engineer connection and moments of greater communal spirit into the day. Some things are as simple as an allocated space for people to eat together, plus terms set from the top encouraging people to actually eat together, to sit around the table. Family-style breaks at the same time, tested elsewhere, that’s a good strategy. 

Being lonely is also about feeling that you aren’t cared for. So instituting a greater culture of care within the organization is something to aim for. There are companies who are doing that—Cisco, for example, has been running a scheme for some time, whereby employees up and down the organization can nominate anyone else who’s been particularly kind or helpful for a cash reward of up to $10,000. Cisco was voted last year the best company in the world to work for by its employees. Such pro-kindness strategies both help employees feel less alone, more connected to each other, and more connected to the firm.

Another thing companies can think about moving forward is how to enable their employees to have more time off, so they can care. Part of the reason people feel lonely, not at work but more generally, is because they feel disconnected from their family and friends. And part of why they feel disconnected from their family and friends is because they’re working all hours, often, and not investing the time into caring for and tending to their relationships. In the US, a quarter of employees were either fired or threatened to be fired for taking time off to care for a sick relative. If you want employees to arrive at work in a better mental state, help them nurture their external relationships. I’m not just talking about people who’ve got children, but also helping people who’ve got an elderly parent, or even giving people time off so they can help a friend in need and strengthen their non-kinship ties, which are also really important.

Those are a few really practical things managers can do. One is, we’re all in danger of defaulting nowadays to Zoom or calls even in those cases where we might still be able to, in a safe and distanced way, physically meet up with a colleague face-to-face. You may be working somewhere where another colleague is also actually working geographically very close to you, though this obviously depends on where you are and what your safety profile is. But instead of automatically defaulting now to Zoom, think: could I meet this person?

Another thing that is happening is when meetings are moving over to Zoom, we’re losing that informal chat time that would normally happen when you were in an office and going to meet people. That’s actually really important, those informal chats that you have with your colleagues. Some companies have been experimenting with how to replicate those. One company I spoke to is putting non-work Zooms with colleagues into their schedules. So there’s a catch up on another level.

Then one final tip that I’ve heard from a big global law firm, which they’re experimenting with and which I liked—they asked everyone in that company to take a photograph of something that represents something they’re interested in. If you’re into football, it might be a photo of Tom Brady or if you’re into cooking, it might be the Great British Bake-Off. And then you could match with people. Kind of like Tinder, you could match with people if you had the same interests. What happened was that conversation sprung up then between people who might never have actually met in real life or even spoken to each other in the office, from all different layers, who find out that they had a shared passion.

You can read a full transcript of our conversation, including more on generational differences and the connections between loneliness and burnout. You can buy Hertz’s book The Lonely Century

What Else You Need to Know

The commercial real-estate industry wants you to know that it’s safe to return to the office (that your company is renting from it.) Brookfield, a real estate owner and operator, says three-quarters of the 750 staff at its US headquarters in Manhattan have been back in the office since November. 

  • Employees are tested every two weeks, and use an app from Carbon Health to report daily on whether they have any symptoms. Brookfield told the Financial Times that there hasn’t been any virus spread between workers in the office. 
  • Staff can commute for $5 each way using the Via ride-share app, accessing a specially designated part of the fleet, with the company paying the rest of the cost of each ride. 
  • Brookfield remains an exception. New York City offices have less than 15% occupancy, according to one estimate

Gensler, the world’s biggest architecture firm, is working with companies on reconfiguring offices for employees’ return. Among the approaches it’s promoting is having fewer desks than employees, and adding other types of spaces for staff to work at, much as they might shift between a desk, couch, or kitchen table at home these days.

Would you consider asking customers to pay for employees’ Covid tests? One Cambridge, MA, restaurant owner added a new item to the menu: pay $15 to cover your server’s Covid test. After seven of her staff were infected in November, Kari Kuelzer figured out a way to test her employees twice weekly for $300, and patrons have been pitching in to foot the bill.

Norway is using its considerable investment clout to pressure businesses to add women to their boards. Its sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest with $1.3 trillion in holdings globally, wants companies it invests in to add female directors and suggests they set specific targets if women currently represent less than 30% of their board. 

  • The fund plans to vote against appointments to nominating committees of companies—including ones in the US—without at least two women on their board, unless they have clear plans to address that. 
  • Diversity is “a contribution to the overall effectiveness of the board and an indication of an effective board nomination process,” the fund said.

In the US, one increasingly pointed issue is whether companies allow lower-level managers to serve on the boards of other companies, amid concern that it’s a distraction. As businesses look to diversify their boards, they’re recruiting women and people of color who might not be at the highest executive levels, and who might not traditionally have been allowed to accept the offers.

While their intentions are good, some political and business leaders are making a hash of climate-change terminology.  One common mistake—repeated in BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s recent annual letter to CEOs—is to equate carbon emissions and greenhouse-gas emissions. 

  • As Bloomberg’s Akshat Rathi notes: “CO₂ makes up only about three-quarters of the emissions contributing to global warming; methane, nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide and other gases account for the rest.” So a net-zero carbon emissions target isn’t the same as a net-zero greenhouse gas one.

One solution to the sometimes-inaccurate use of climate terminology and science: employing people with expertise to help you get it right when you jump on the bandwagon, and listening to them.

Coda

Inequality is rising…between powerhouse scientists and the rest of their peers. A new study found that the top 1% most-cited scientists represented 21% of the citations in scientific papers in 2015, up from 14% in 2000. 

Japan’s policy for curtailing the virus has boiled down to closing restaurants and bars at 8pm. Infections have dropped by more than two-thirds since that went into effect. One explanation is that restaurants and bars are the only public places where most people remove their masks. A 10pm cutoff, which was tried last year, had much less impact.


What do we think about “the next normal” as a phrase to describe post-pandemic life? That’s what one Hungarian software firm is calling it, and you have to appreciate the effort. It would indeed be great to have a word or simple expression to convey that exciting time ahead of us when we no longer have to think about the pandemic every day.


The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email.