Some people see work as a social outlet. They’re excited to talk to coworkers about last night’s ballgame or that binge-worthy Netflix show. They eat lunch with the regular gang, plan happy hours and genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
But for many, work is lonely.
They drive to work alone.
They quietly shuffle into their office and work behind a computer alone.
They eat lunch at their desk alone.
They drive home alone.
Sure they’re technically surrounded by people and sporadically ushered into meetings, but with email and Slack, communication is often impersonal and many workers can go an entire day without actually talking to anyone.
“The workplace is becoming increasingly decentralized and in many ways less human—with more machines and automation, and more people working remote. As a result, people aren’t getting the human interaction they once did,” says Dan Schawbel, author of Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation. “Even if they’re in the physical office, you can be isolated in a cubicle. And you can certainly be isolated working from home.”
In a study of more than 2,000 managers and employees in ten different countries, Schawbel found that employees spend half their day communicating digitally rather than in person. As a result, slightly more than half feel lonely always or very often.
It’s more than just a morale problem—it’s a retention killer. The study found that 60 percent would be inclined to stay with their employer longer if they had more friends at work. That number climbs for so-called job-hopping generations, reaching 74 percent for Gen Z and 69 percent for millennials.
“If you are socialized, highly engaged, and have good friends at work, you’re more likely to stay,” said Schawbel. “It’s easy to leave a company when you have weak ties and acquaintances rather than strong bonds and friends. It’s that simple.”
It’s important to remember that some people are shy but we all have “the innate human need to connect and have relationships,” said Shawbel. “We want human connection. We need it to function, survive and be productive.”
A Journal of Business Psychology study found that the opportunity to make friends at work leads to higher job satisfaction and a higher commitment to their workplaces. The research certainly jives with the opinions of Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, who argues that loneliness is an “epidemic.” In a Washington Post interview, Murthy said the “reduction in lifespan [for loneliness] is similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and it’s greater than the impact on life span of obesity… Look even deeper, and you’ll find loneliness is associated with a greater risk of heart disease, depression, anxiety and dementia.” At work, loneliness lowers performance. “It limits creativity,” Murthy to the Post. “It impairs other aspects of executive function, such as decision-making.” He called it a lost opportunity for businesses because “when people have strong connections with the people they’re working with that can not only improve productivity and the overall state of the company, but it can also improve their own health.”
Workplace Design to the Rescue
How can leaders foster relationships between employees? It takes a whole lot more than a conference room birthday party. Enrolling in a sports league can help. It’s a healthier and more inclusive alternative than a happy hour. After just a few games of softball or soccer, people from all divisions of the company could be on their way to becoming fast friends. If that’s not in the cards, go axe throwing, ice skating or grab a table at the local tavern.
It’s also important to offer a variety of activities that are inclusive of all your employees. Sports leagues may exclude team members with limited mobility, and bars may not be where some employees feel comfortable hanging out. Think beyond these standard choices—fun group classes, tours, or picnics are all great options.
The most important thing is to get them beyond the office walls and interacting.
“Take people outside of their normal work environment so they’ll be more personal and share more things about who they are,” said Schawbel.
For remote workers, Schawbel highlights a few different creative ways employers have helped them feel less lonely and isolated. He consults one employer who empowers remote workers to lead meetings, even though they’re not physically in the same room as the rest of the team. Another has the budget to fly to see all the remote workers around the world. “The level of investment is powerful because it shows that she’s committed to the employees and she’s taking time to invest in those relationships. It’s very powerful.”
From a workplace design perspective, promoting healthy “collisions” is a must. Make sure the coffee, snacks, refrigerators and microwaves are all in a central location. Make sure the lunch tables are large enough to accommodate large groups. Make sure the printers aren’t in a closet but rather in an open space. All these seemingly inconsequential decisions are crucial to making sure people talk with each other during the day.
Bloomberg promotes collisions by having all employees change elevators on the 6th floor, which has coffee machines, food options and large open spaces. Apple built its new headquarters specifically with serendipitous collisions in mind. Amazon’s “rainforest” headquarters in Seattle has 40,000 types of plants and gives people aplace to not only relax but have chance encounters in the process.
It’s also important to design your office with plenty of workspace options. People should have the choice to work on the open floor one day, and hop into a closed office the next.
“By having an environment like that it would encourage people to go to the physical office,” said Schawbel. “If your physical office is a boring corporate site, you’re not going to be as excited to go to that office as much as you would be if it was built around the way in which you work best.”