Credit: Courtesy Noreena Hertz

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 is a transcript of our conversation, edited for 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. So that’s one factor, the open-plan office or the design of the workspace.

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.

There was fascinating research done on firefighters in the United States, where the researchers wanted to understand why certain companies of firefighters performed better than others. What they discovered was that firefighters who ate together performed twice as well as companies of firefighters who didn’t. And 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.

A lot of it sounds counterintuitive. You put people in proximity, take away walls, and they feel more lonely. You take away their breaks or discourage them from going out for lunch, and they’re less productive in the end, right?

Yes. Counterintuitively, many of the measures that are being implemented to enhance productivity and collaboration are actually not only making employees lonelier. They’re also on both those counts delivering worse returns.

Are there national differences in terms of the extent to which workers feel lonely?

With loneliness overall, we see far less national difference than we might expect. Because there is the loneliness that a worker feels at work, but you’ve also got the issue of people feeling lonely and bringing their loneliness from the rest of their lives into the workplace. We don’t see that much difference for some reason. And I don’t know why the same global study that established that 40% of US office workers were lonely, which was pretty much the average, also established that 60% of UK office workers were lonely. I can’t disentangle it—why Brits particularly are lonelier.

Are you seeing any differences across generations?

When it comes to loneliness in general, what we know is that the young are actually the loneliest generation. That is counter-intuitive perhaps, because when we think about loneliness we often think of it as being something that primarily affects the elderly. But it’s actually the young who are the loneliest. We also know from research conducted just in the last few months that during the pandemic, the youngest have been disproportionately affected. Everyone feels lonelier on average, but the young feel even lonelier already from a lower base. Given this is a demographic who already tend to have disproportionately higher rates of turnover, for example—thinking of ways to help them feel connected to their colleagues, but also to the employer, makes real sense. Especially when people who don’t have a friend at work are seven times less engaged than employees who do. Encouraging bonds at work, especially amongst the young who on average are more likely to be disengaged and to leave, it makes real sense from a business perspective.

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.

How does loneliness connect to mental health, burnout, and stress?

Firstly, it always surprises me when I look at employees’ pulse surveys, and there isn’t a question typically on how lonely you’re feeling. We know that it’s the single clearest way of establishing productivity, performance, and motivation of an employee. I think that’s a real omission. It’s something that employers are only starting to wake up to, that loneliness can actually be very debilitating. Loneliness is not just about feeling disconnected from your fellow colleagues, or disconnected from your friends and family in your personal life. It’s also about feeling invisible and unheard. And that’s something which remote work can amplify, that’s one of the things that’s coming out from these testimonies of people I’ve been speaking to since the pandemic. There’s a sense of that, how do you even get your boss to see you or notice you.

But of course that sense of not being seen, not being heard was a problem in many workplaces before the pandemic as well. It’s interesting to see the calls for unionization in some very white-collar companies like Alphabet, amongst some of their staff, which partly speaks to this sense of wanting solidarity with other workers, wanting to feel connected to other workers, but also wanting to be seen and heard and feeling that they almost have to be a bloc to be seen or heard.

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. It’s not going to be the pure play you might have thought it would be.

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 of 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. I think 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. Right now in the world of remote work—a lot of people are thinking, well how do we help our teams feel connected to each other right now? I mean, first that is clearly a real growing challenge again, from the interviews I’ve been conducting. There’s no silver bullet here, but there are a few tips which I’ve been learning from some of the companies that I’ve been speaking to. One is, I think 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.

I think another trouble with some of our Zoom engagements is that it’s also a matter of scale. If you’re on a call with 10 people, people can often feel that they’re not being seen, not being heard. And the social element really feels quite forced because everyone’s listening into each person speaking. So from the leader of the call’s point of view, it’s really important to make sure that they’re bringing different voices into the conversation and that they’re not being dominated by others, which somehow seems amplified on Zoom. Some companies have experimented with doing breakout groups with just three people maximum at mini meetings so that people can feel more connected.

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, I guess 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 for, I don’t know…

Tom Brady….

Yeah. So we’re all experimenting right now. But also that loneliness is about feeling that you’re not cared for, not seen. And you’re not visible. Managers now are trying to be particularly mindful and empathetic about the struggles that many of those who they’re managing are likely to be having having right now. And each of us are understanding and reminding ourselves that we’re all having very different experiences of the pandemic which are affected by our own health, our own wealth, whether we’ve got kids, whether we’ve got dependents, who we’re responsible for. Because there can be a danger that higher-level management who may have nice space or moved to their second home are actually not having the same experience as the 23-year old who’s in a shared living situation where they’re now essentially confined to their bedroom.

Post-pandemic, many companies are planning for hybrid and flexible work arrangements, with hot desking and other office reconfigurations. Is there anything that businesses can do that would help minimize loneliness as they move forward with these plans?

The best examples of successful remote work in the pre-pandemic world have always been ones with set times where everyone’s come together in the office. And set days where everyone’s come together, like Pizza Thursdays, or really structured and regular face-to-face get togethers with their staff. That’s what we know from the exemplars of successful remote work and flexible work from before the pandemic. So that’s important, how are you going to engineer in enough face-to-face contact?

I’d also be careful about slashing your physical footprint and going whole hog with hot desks, because you could be engendering even greater post-pandemic loneliness amongst your employees. That means that they’re going to be less motivated, less likely to quit, and less engaged. That shouldn’t be your default strategy right now, which it is for many companies. But some degree of flexibility will be continued to be sought. It’s a balancing act for sure, but this shouldn’t be the case of the pendulum now having swung so far in the other direction that you lose the bonding, the cohesion and community, and the sense of togetherness that we know not only makes employees happier, but better employees.

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