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Loneliness Soars, Fully Remote Work May Be Partly to Blame

Americans are increasingly lonely, and digital interactions seem to deepen the sense of isolation, according to recent research highlighted in a Wall Street Journal article.

Work often serves as a place for social connection. As participation in traditional community activities such as civic and church groups decline and tribalism in politics increases, work has become a main source of social connection.

How does remote and hybrid work impact these connections? According to a Cigna poll, Americans feel increasingly isolated; 58% of U.S. adults call themselves lonely compared to 46% in 2018. Remote work has also increased the amount of time Americans spend in meetings, tripling since 2020. Experts say this leaves less time for casual interactions with colleagues, known to increase happiness at work. Even when people go into the office, only 8% of meetings are face-to-face, leaving them with mostly virtual relationships. 

Loneliness and employee engagement: The lack of interactions with colleagues impacts employee engagement—research has shown that having a “best friend” at work contributes to improved performance, productivity, and job success. These relationships deepen employees’ sense of ownership for work and lead to a sense of responsibility to one’s colleagues. 

Data doesn’t paint a clear picture. While there is consistency regarding the concept of flexibility, what that looks like for individuals across gender, ethnicity, age, and educational levels varies considerably. Remote work or hybrid work is highly valued by employees—some research suggests the ability to work remotely is valued the same as an 8% pay increase and when given the chance to work remotely, 80% of employees take the opportunity. However, fully remote work does seem to have a negative impact on productivity, individuals are up to 10% less productive than when working on-site, while hybrid work has little impact on productivity as compared to in-office work. 

What can employers do? Is hybrid work the best approach? Many employers seem to be landing with hybrid work models to allow the flexibility employees desire while maintaining much needed collaboration and social connection among colleagues.

  • Everything starts with leadership: Leadership sets the foundation of employee culture and leaders should foster environments which prioritize quick social conversations before meetings begin and remain receptive to feedback from employees. Additionally, employees that feel trusted to do their work are more likely to be motivated and engaged, whether in-person or remote.

  • Create interactive opportunities: Coming into the office, even if it is just on a hybrid basis, leads to a 20-30% boost in connections. A Worklytics survey of Fortune 500 companies found that coming in once a month provides a significant boost in work ties and two or three times a month adds an additional boost. Yet working in-person four of five days a week makes almost no difference, reinforcing the sweet spot of hybrid work environments. 

  • Increase communication: Create cultures which encourage dialogue between and within teams. Encourage managers to recognize milestones like work anniversaries and birthdays and share status updates on work projects. 

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Authors: Margaret Faso

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