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Will Return to Office Make Workers Feel Less Lonely?


An employee lonely
Image: fizkes -
Among the points of debate brewing around remote vs. in-office work is which is better for employee mental health and conducive to a feeling of workplace connectedness.
Concerns of employee engagement and overall workplace wellbeing are certainly not new, and workplace researchers have been trying to shed light on the topic for some time. In a January 2020 employee survey, Cigna found that more than 61% of 10,400 respondents were lonely at work, with millennials and Gen Zers experiencing loneliness at higher rates than Baby Boomers, as Employee Benefit News (EBN) reported. For a more recent look at the issue, the U.K.’s National Centre for Social Research (NatCan) found that employees who worked from home and lived alone experienced larger increases in mental distress over the course of the pandemic.
You can point to a host of reasons why employees might experience loneliness that may or may not directly relate to the workplace, but Cigna CEO David Cordani’s comments on the root cause of loneliness and stress are worth exploring. As noted in the EBN article, Cordani identifies three main contributing factors: “increasing use of technology, more telecommuting and the always-on work culture.” That technology and telecommuting are on his list was telling then and has implications to the current moment.
Meanwhile, the NatCan research doesn’t lay the blame solely at technology, but researchers did state that the “social, practical and technological implications should be carefully considered before employers assume that working from home is equally desirable for everyone.”
So, if technology and telecommuting (work from home) are indeed two of the contributing factors to loneliness, does this give credence to the workplace leaders who are touting the benefits of in-office working for employee mental health?
Of course, the answer isn’t a simple yes or no, but I think this does slightly tilt the scale back into the favor of in-office working, or at least hybrid work. Yes, technology companies will continue to pitch ways of bringing the spontaneous nature of working in the office to virtual spaces. For a recent example, team collaboration provider Slack released an audio huddle feature, designed as a digital alternative to those stop-and-chat in-office moments. But will employees find such features true collaboration enablers, or just poor substitutes to the real thing?
This doesn’t mean employees will be throwing their computers out the window anytime soon or doing away with video meetings, but it does mean that workplace leaders should consider how to reintroduce in-person activities as first steps to improving employee mental health and their overall feeling of connectedness. For those hesitant to spend a day at the office, a meet-in-the-middle compromise might be hosting a meeting at a local park or outdoor café.
These sorts of in-person get-togethers might be just the morale boost that they need. So, if you haven’t seen some of your team members in person lately, I suggest you plan an outing — some of them might be needing it more than you think.