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Human Resources

In the lonely century, office time gives staff the ‘social glue’ to perform better

Published 15 October 2021 in Human Resources • 7 min read • Audio availableAudio available

An alarming rise in loneliness is damaging our health, our communities and the bottom line. Having convinced themselves of the benefits of remote working, companies must not lose sight of the importance of regular in-person interactions, Noreena Hertz tells David Bach.

 

You can hire a friend for a day who will laugh at your bad jokes. You can pay for a quick cuddle from a professional hugger. There are AI-powered robots that keep the elderly company. And, given even the slightest chance, young people are flocking back to the unifying experience of music festivals.

This newly-styled “loneliness economy” is booming and it looks set to continue to grow. Why? Because, according to economist and best-selling author Noreena Hertz, we are living in the lonely century: feeling more and more isolated, and desperate for connection.

You might think the pandemic is solely to blame, but you’d be wrong. Researchers began measuring loneliness in the 1970s, and studies show that feelings of isolation started to escalate in the 1980s until around 2010, when there was an ominous gear shift.

“It spiked up even more steeply to a kind of new level of extreme loneliness and then, of course, the pandemic, when there was the most recent spike,” Hertz, the author of “The Lonely Century”, explained.

Why was this happening? Hertz argues that the rapid acceleration in loneliness in recent decades coincides with two trends: first, the rise of the neoliberal economic model.

“This form of capitalism valorizes self-interest, competitiveness and hustle at the expense of qualities such as care for the collective, helping rather than hustling, and collaboration rather than competition,” the Honorary Professor at University College London’s Institute for Global Prosperity said, observing that fewer people today are involved in community-oriented activities, such as attending religious services or joining a trade union.

“This form of capitalism valorizes self-interest, competitiveness and hustle at the expense of qualities such as care for the collective, helping rather than hustling, and collaboration rather than competition”
- Noreena Hertz

“There is an individualist mindset that accompanied the dominant political and economic ideological neoliberalist mindset,” she said, illustrating the point with the vivid example of pop song lyrics since the 1980s where words such as “we” and “us” have been  steadily supplanted by “I” and “me”– even in China.

“An ‘I’ focused world is inevitably going to be a lonelier world, in which we cast ourselves as competitors rather than collaborators and hustlers rather than helpers,” said Hertz, who also sits on the board of Warner Music Group.

The second driver of loneliness is, Hertz argues, social media and its associated technology, with smartphones fuelling an addiction to endless feeds of content that make us less “present” for those around us and dilute the quality of our interactions.

“When we connect on social media, the connections themselves often feel shallower – these media being vehicles for exclusion and exacerbating loneliness, especially among the young,” she added. 

When we connect on social media, the connections themselves often feel shallower – these media being vehicles for exclusion and exacerbating loneliness, especially among the young,

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.

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.

Encourage employees to eat together

Hertz advises companies to organize regular shared meal times for employees – at least once a week – to build closer relationships. Here, she cites a study of US firefighters: Companies that ate together not only felt more bonded to each other, but they performed twice as well.

Ensure employees take breaks at the same time

It doesn’t just have to be lunch, Hertz argues. A Bank of America pilot found that, when people took short breaks from work simultaneously in one of its buildings, team bonding, engagement and productivity increased.

Value “anti-loneliness” behaviors

Companies should acknowledge and reward acts of kindness and care at work, she says. For example, this could mean including such behaviors in appraisals or linking them to bonuses.

Employees at global IT company Cisco can nominate colleagues who have been kind or helpful for a cash reward of up to US$10,000. The company, which employs more than 70,000 people globally, has been voted the world’s best workplace by its staff for the fourth year in a row.

Consider giving paid time off for carers

Hertz predicts that employers will move beyond providing employees rights for paid maternity and paternity leave, but also develop solutions for the growing demands of social care for parents, friends and relatives.

“Ensuring that your employees are able to nurture their relationships outside of work will go a long way to help them be happier, more motivated and more productive in the workplace,” she said.

The state has a responsibility to act too

Companies cannot do this alone, Hertz says. For starters, policymakers should further regulate social media companies – a cluster of firms that Hertz labels “the tobacco companies of the 21st century”.

“The research is pretty clear that social media is, in many ways, a public bad and responsible for rising levels of loneliness among the population,” she said.

She points positively to pending UK legislation, which aims to impose a duty of care on social media companies so that they do not cause physical or psychological harm to users.

“These kind of regulations are necessary and it’s where the world is moving,” she explained. “You wouldn’t allow children to buy cigarettes, so allowing children to use something we know is extremely addictive is problematic.” 

Re-funding the infrastructure of community is also essential, Hertz said. For example, US federal funding for public libraries has been slashed by a third since the credit crunch and, in the UK, 190 public libraries were shut in 2019 alone.

Finally, governments should incentivize companies that actively tackle loneliness, such as tax breaks for independent bookstores or community-minded cafes. In this regard, Hertz says, individuals can make a real difference too, by supporting local businesses and community activities.

“We all have a role to play in helping our communities to be less lonely and helping those around us who are feeling lonely,” she said.

Authors

David Bach

David Bach

Professor of Strategy and Political Economy

An expert in political economy, David brings to IMD a proven track record of creating impactful learning journeys in a dual role as both Professor and Dean of Innovation and Programs. Through his award-winning teaching and writing, Bach helps managers and senior executives develop a strategic lens for the nexus of business and politics. 

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