Are you lonely? You are not alone.
Loneliness, for Hertz, is not just an unmet craving for connection and intimacy with friends, colleagues and family, it’s also a desire to be “seen and heard, not only by friends and family, but your employer and the state”.
Even before the pandemic, Hertz notes, one in five American millennials said they did not have a single friend. Three quarters of Brits aged between 18 to 34 said they felt lonely often or sometimes. Four in ten office workers globally said they felt lonely at work.
An ever-lonelier world has deeply worrying implications for the workplace, businesses, and the global economy. Hertz believes companies must act now.
“We know that that lonely workers are less efficient, less motivated, less productive and significantly more likely to quit a company than a worker who isn’t lonely,” the former Cambridge University fellow said. “It’s exacting a very significant toll on business in a material sense, affecting productivity and the bottom line.”
Bad for business: the cost of loneliness
Gallup’s employee engagement database shows that only two out of 10 US employees strongly agree that they have a best friend at work. The researchers argue that, by moving that ratio to 6 in ten, companies could see 36% fewer safety incidents, 7% more engaged customers and 12% higher profit.
“Loneliness is bad for business because of the impact it has on employees,” said Hertz. “And, secondly, because, with ESG (environmental, social, governance) issues increasingly of importance to the investor community, how your employees feel and their state of mind is increasingly going to be an issue that the investor community is going to be looking at.”
Furthermore, loneliness levels are higher among the young – the post-millennials that will form the bulk of future talent pools and workforces.
So, what action can companies take to foster a happier, healthier and more productive workforce?
During the pandemic, technology came to the rescue in the battle to keep teams engaged and productive. Virtual conferencing tools and project management software such as Zoom and MS Teams, while not replicating the full benefits of face-to-face interaction, meant that isolated workers could still feel part of a team and continue to function.
The success of this mass adoption of technology has tempted some companies to consider remote working as a base model for the future, pandemic or no pandemic.
Hertz argues that imposing “work-from-home” policies indefinitely would only fuel a further rise in loneliness.
“Some companies feel they can massively slash their physical footprint and tell everyone they can work at home indefinitely,” she said. “Such a draconian policy shift is a mistake in most cases. Many of us know that, while better than nothing, it’s very hard to develop the social glue that an organization needs virtually.”
Pre-pandemic work by former Google HR boss Laszlo Bock’s new venture Humu found that 1.5 days could be the optimal amount of time that employees should spend away from the office.
However, just being in the office for a set amount of time is not enough. The quality of that time together is crucial.
With this in mind, Hertz proposes four ways in which employers can tackle loneliness to improve employee well-being and drive stronger performance.