The shift to home-working has been the silver lining of the pandemic for a lot of people, but there are downsides. Loneliness is becoming a big problem for people spending all their time at home, instead of heading into the office.
For many people, co-workers are their main course of social interaction during the day. And for some, work friendships go beyond having someone to join you on the coffee run — and extend beyond the 9-5. In a 2018 survey conducted by researchers at Olivet Nazarene University, 82% of respondents reported having at least one work friend. Nearly 30% said that they had a work best friend.
We tend to fall into these friendships out of convenience. The average employee spends 40+ hours a week with their co-workers, so getting along is a lot easier. But over time, work friends provide support, advice and company, fulfilling our basic need as humans to connect. And this is why many remote workers are finding the transition to home-working so isolating.
According to a recent survey of 2,000 people by the behavioural science consultancy Mind Gym, more than half of said they miss office “small talk” and building relationships with colleagues (59.7%). A third said they were also struggling without the separation of home and the office, and another third said they missed “feeling part of something” when working remotely.
Having a close work friend increases fulfilment, productivity, and even company loyalty, according to Gallup research. Those who strongly agree they have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged (63%) compared with the women who say otherwise.
Being close to colleagues can also build a good workplace culture, helping employees feel engaged, valued and comfortable, too. Ultimately, a happier workforce is far more likely to perform better than one where people feel surrounded by strangers.
On the flip side, loneliness among workers can affect both professional and personal health. Although we no longer have to commute, we’re also missing out on the informal kitchen chats and lunch breaks that break up the working day.
“The informal air that an office environment brings is often integral to business growth, as well as the personal growth of employees,” says behavioural science expert Octavius Black, co- founder and CEO of Mind Gym.
“What could start as an informal chat can easily find its way to a developed, intelligent idea, which now doesn’t happen with such ease. Zoom (ZM) calls and team meetings with rigid agendas don’t mimic this natural brilliance that can often happen in person.”
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These shortfalls of remote working aren’t simple to overcome, but with more people expected to work at least part-time from home after the pandemic, loneliness is something leaders should address.
Without gathering daily in a communal space, colleagues will no longer share the proximity that once allowed friendships to blossom with minimal effort. However, there are other ways to connect with colleagues, even if you don’t see them in-person every day.
“Whilst flexible working and operating from home is likely to become a permanent feature, business leaders would be wise to ensure a level of hybrid working so colleagues can build relationships, innovate faster and collaborate successfully,” Black says.
Encouraging people to spend more time on video calls may be tricky, but virtual coffee breaks and post-work drinks can be a great way to stay in touch with co-workers informally. A video chat room link set up for people to drop in can be a good way to recreate the “watercooler” chat in an office. And until pubs and bars reopen, online escape rooms and other virtual activities can be a good way to keep the chat away from work and coronavirus too.
“Make sure that the first people to come back do so voluntarily and share with remote workers what it’s like for these early returners in social media,” adds Black. “Remind people how they will gain personally such as sparking ideas off each other, learning faster, and having a laugh.”