It’s safe to say that for many companies across the UK the homeworking experiment imposed during the lockdown has simply revealed that WFH really is possible and even favoured by some, with the likes of Twitter and Deutsche Bank now allowing employees to WFH permanently. Meanwhile, long-held sceptical views surrounding employee productivity have simply been brushed aside thanks to virtual technology like Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
The supposed benefits of WFH don’t stop there, with some companies even reporting increased employee productivity, alongside claims of huge future real estate savings - thanks to reductions in office space. As for the employees, the absence of a daily commute has meant many of us are enjoying more time at home with family and friends, not to mention a significant chunk of money in their back pockets, something I for one am pretty happy about. It’s also been hard to ignore the influx of social media posts featuring activities like jogging and cycling, with many enjoying the flexibility afforded through their new working lifestyle.
And yet against all these positives, nearly every person I’ve spoken to over the past few months has expressed a strong desire to return to the office. Admittedly, very few have wanted to go back full-time, although the possibility of returning one day a week has been quite favourable. Many remarking that they miss the social aspect of the office environment and have struggled to create a separation between work and home. A tricky task when the dining room table has also become the office, or in my case, when the commute is less than 3 steps.
So, it comes of little surprise, that over the past few months concerns over loneliness and social isolation - for remote workers - have grown significantly. With a recent survey by Totaljobs reporting that almost half (46%) of UK workers had experienced loneliness whilst WFH.
For many, the office played a rather significant yet somewhat overlooked role within our social lives, by which I don’t just mean close office mates and Friday drinks, but instead the weak ties and acquaintances. The sense of community and office culture that it provided, governed through common purpose, shared identity, small talk over coffee and cake for someone’s birthday.
Let’s not forget though, the office of the past wasn’t perfect. Far from it in fact. With workplace loneliness even before the lockdown a serious concern, yet for the majority, it provided an opportunity for this form of connection. Your colleagues, as much as you may not like them all, know you, like some sort of estranged adopted family. Which, when considered alongside the fact that very few people know their neighbours these days, highlights the social significance of the office.
Noreena Hertz’s recent book ‘The Lonely Century’, captures exactly why the office environment was important, suggesting that loneliness is not simply just about friendships or social relations, as academics so coldly define, but rather a sense of feeling integrated, known, relevant, seen and heard. Similarly, echoing Olivia Laing in ‘The Lonely City’, in which she described loneliness as a desire for intimacy, which cannot exist without being known. Suggesting that with the absence of the office many of us have simply lost access to social relations, mentorship, and our position within its social structure. Substituted instead for virtual technology which, as I’m sure everyone would agree quite simply doesn’t facilitate the same connection. Almost half of us actually think it has negative effects on our social relations with colleagues.
Bringing me back to my previous remark on the apparent increase in productivity whilst WFH. A recent article by Mckinsey suggests that the satisfaction and productivity many are experiencing whilst WFH may be the product of social capital built up after years in the office. Something which will surely deteriorate without regular face to face interactions, with reports indicating that 24% of remote workers believe loneliness is already impacting their productivity, creativity, and problem-solving abilities.
Many have also started to recognise the challenges of acculturating and teaching new staff, as well as the difficulties of undertaking collaborative work remotely. As Albert De Plazaola, Global Principal at Unispace puts it, “remote working allows for convenience and favours task-based work – but it comes at the expense of evolving culture, connection and innovation.” Suggesting that whilst the novelty of WFH may have encouraged an increase in productivity, in the long term, the social repercussions may be far more detrimental and subsequently diminish it. Something executives seem rather worried about, with a recent survey of 270 companies identifying business culture as their main concern.
Now, if we consider that the productivity of WFH may only be short-lived and inextricably linked to deteriorating social capital, alongside factors like cramped working conditions, shared housing, poor internet connection, childcare and work-life balance, then the loss of the office appears rather significant, and its future relevance arguably essential. But what might this mean for workplace loneliness?
Previous workplace contributors to loneliness could be understood as either reducing hours for socialising, things like; commuting, the pressure to succeed and long working hours  or related to a lack of control, implying privacy, working schedules and the overstimulation of the office. The opportunity to return just one day a week, however, could perhaps negate some of these concerns. Many of us have already experienced the social benefits and flexibility afforded through WFH, so combining both environments within the working week could provide the best of both worlds.
In this respect, the office may be seen as more of an experience in which we can connect with colleagues, eat cake and drink coffee. Undertaking the essential collaborative and innovative tasks, alongside maintaining social capital and office culture. In the end, offering flexibility, facilitates more diverse working lifestyles, and provides a greater sense of agency over where and how we spend our time. Changes, which I believe are a step in the right direction to ameliorating loneliness at work.