Combating loneliness in a modern workforce

by FM Media
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Loneliness represented by a man stranded on an island.

Technology may be creating loneliness in the office but it still has the power to bring us back together again, writes BRIAN MARGERISON.

Recent studies show that a growing number of Australian employees are feeling lonely and isolated by the work they do.

In some ways, this seems strange. We’re in the midst of a ‘gig economy’ that’s geared to promote the latest connected technologies and workspace design. Technically, it’s never been easier to communicate and collaborate with our coworkers.

In reality, however, employees are not finding the social link.

Being part of a gig economy means many employees have flexible working arrangements beyond the traditional employment models of the past. They may choose to freelance and string together jobs on a short-term contract basis or even to work full-time for a set employer but without all the benefits of permanent employment.

Technology is a big enabler of agile and freelance working. With a smartphone and an unlimited data plan (or a nice cafe with wifi) just about anyone can work from almost anywhere. However, working remotely or apart from other people can inspire feelings of loneliness and depression, which is not only unhealthy but also impacts on employee productivity.

The rise of the coworkers

This revelation incited the rise of coworking where independent employees ‘work alone together’ in a shared office space. While the average cost to use one of these facilities varies, studies by Harvard Business Review show employees are still quite satisfied and think the cost is worth it.

Engaging with people in a coworking environment is one way to lower loneliness. Gig workers have stated that coworking spaces have helped them expand their social network and they are happier and less lonely.

But what about loneliness in employees?

Unsurprisingly, even though loneliness is a profoundly subjective and personal experience, emotions can lead to negative objective outcomes in the workplace.

Employees who feel disengaged and isolated are considerably less productive and make a lot more mistakes. A recent study by HR think thank Reventure has discovered that 37 percent of all workers feel lonely at work. A main reason for this is technological advances that were supposed to make jobs easier or more flexible. The survey of just over 1000 employees also found 38 percent of lonely workers reported making more mistakes and 40 percent felt less productive.

Do we need to change the way we focus?

“There’s no doubt that the current way that we work is essentially driven by our demands around being transactional,” says Reventure Managing Director Lindsay McMillan.

“Transactional means looking at screens a great deal of our time, more time now than ever before and continuing to rise. So our focus on the screen means we’re not focusing on people beside us, on the floor above us or below us.”

Focus, when used correctly, is very effective. But when our workplace forces us to multitask…

It’s hard to do one thing well when we’re constantly being bombarded with a multitude of external demands on our attention – from the constant ping of message alerts and urgent emails to distracting chats and intrusions due to the open design of our workplace environment.

The past 20 years have seen dramatic changes in the way we work. The old walls have been torn down and replaced with open plan areas, but it seems that the new walls have become our computer screens, mobile devices and smartphones. The constant barrage of emails, text messages and other electronic intrusions are taking time away from water cooler chats or daily face-to-face interaction. Who even has time any more to recognise a lonely worker?

The modern workplace can feel like a constant push and pull with challenges and realities that appear to be contradictory and almost impossible to resolve. As a result, we find conflicting demands all around us:

  • We want more open and collaborative spaces in workspace design, yet we also need closed/quiet focus spaces for concentrated work.
  • We need to maintain a conscious awareness of the social value of companionship at work but also maintain a non-intrusive association of employer and colleagues.
  • We’re seeing an unprecedented spectrum of generations and diversity in the workplace, creating apparent cultural barriers.

Perhaps it’s time for facility managers as team leaders to stop and say ‘hello’ to those around us. Further, we should be aware that simply catering to what we think will satisfy the needs of the majority won’t necessarily deliver the best outcomes for the company or for individuals.

One size doesn’t fit all

Adopting a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to workspace management technology and workplace design certainly doesn’t work anymore.

By developing a deeper understanding of the emotional and transactional behaviour of our employees and being more sensitive to socially disconnected employees, we can discover innovative ways of engaging and involving all members of our workforce.

Adapting the workplace to satisfy a wider range of employee needs may seem expensive, but it pays back in improved productivity and employee retention.

Effective and thoughtful workplace design can provide the right types and variety of workspaces that are required to support the diverse range of tasks that staff need to perform on a daily basis: from activity-based workstations to team rooms, from informal brainstorming areas to quiet spaces and pods.

Selecting the correct workspace management technology to support this flexible space is every bit as important as effective workplace design. The solutions that you deploy need to be as fit-for-purpose and as flexible as the workspaces themselves – and just as easy to use.

When it comes to booking workspaces and scheduling supporting services such as catering and AV, we should be providing our employees with workspace management technology that is intuitive. It also needs to integrate seamlessly with the existing technologies (such as Outlook) that they’re already using on a daily basis.

This familiarity makes it easy for them to find and book the workspace that best suits their specific needs even when they are on the move by using an app.

When used effectively, workspace management technology can help alleviate stress and bring employees together for perfect meetings and pleasant, easy and effective collaborations – and there’s no better answer to loneliness at work than that.

Brian Margerison is director for Australia and New Zealand – NFS Technology.


Image: 123RF’s lassedesignen ©

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