Sarah Wright is an Associate Professor at the University of Canterbury Business School. Her current research focuses on the phenomenon of workplace loneliness and the ways co-working spaces can enhance social connection and wellbeing. Her research has most recently been published in the Harvard Business Review. Here, she talks to Britomart’s Jeremy Hansen about the trade-offs of flexible working, how social connection in the workplace can be a foundational element of wellbeing, and how offices of the future might evolve

JEREMY You’ve been researching workplace loneliness. Could you talk about what that is?

SARAH It’s the negative feelings we have when there’s a gap between what we want from our social connections at work and what we actually experience. That deficiency can be from a lack of quality or quantity of relationships. We can think our relationships at work are not as good as we would like them to be, but the crucial part of understanding loneliness is whether that gap is distressing and how upset we feel about it.

JEREMY What is causing it?

SARAH One thing that I’ve picked up on in my research beyond the deficiency I just mentioned is that loneliness comes from not feeling heard or understood, or not feeling seen. And that invisibility that comes from being overlooked at work can be a painful type of loneliness, particularly for younger workers. 

JEREMY Is this a new thing? 

SARAH When I first started doing my research, the lonely worker sat on the periphery of the social network within organisations, but what we’ve seen in recent years is that loneliness is becoming an issue throughout organisations, at all levels. You could be working in multiple teams across multiple parts of an organisation, interacting all day, and you’re still lonely. People are still saying they’re lonely even when they feel really embedded in their work.

JEREMY Does remote or flexible working have anything to do with this?

SARAH When we work remotely, we tend to become more insular and task-focused, and work becomes more transactional – you do your tasks and finish for 1 the day – and even if that’s how we want to work, it has implications for social connection. For all workers in our research, home was the loneliest space – the more time someone spends at home, the more likely they are to report that they’re lonely. That’s an incentive to come back to the office, but they don’t want to because home is just so convenient, particularly for working parents. So we experience a convenience trap that’s not necessarily good for us, but we do it because it requires the least effort.

The task-focused way of work-from-home neglects the informal roles that we have in organisations, the spontaneous social connections that might be meaningful to us personally and can also be the social lubricant that we need to get our work done. Remote work can also create a lack of interdependence: we can do our tasks and we’re less reliant on working through or with other people. In our research, we see people who are in those disconnected roles becoming lonelier. What I have noticed, particularly with junior-level remote workers, is that virtual work has exacerbated our reliance on the sole worker to get their task done. The less interdependent you are in your work with others, the less reason you have to connect with others to perform your work. 

JEREMY It sounds as if the rapid evolution of flexible working is having unanticipated effects.

SARAH I think so. We’ve been part of a worldwide experiment of drastic change in our working lives. The changes in our working patterns have had an influence on loneliness and social connection – that’s indisputable in terms of the data and evidence. For some people, working in lockdown conditions was the first time they’ve felt lonely. If social connection didn’t matter so much, we wouldn’t see an influence on the outcomes of our work. But because changes in the patterns of work can have negative outcomes for both individuals and organisations, that highlights the way in which we work does matter to our overall wellbeing.

JEREMY Has your research investigated the connections between people’s loneliness and their productivity and effectiveness?

SARAH If we start at the individual level, lots of research – not just in the workplace, but generally – shows us that once somebody is lonely, they’re much more likely to become socially hypervigilant, in that they start to interpret social interactions more negatively, which can isolate them further from others. In other words, a lonely person behaves in ways that can promote more loneliness. For example, a lonely worker might become increasingly cautious about being rejected by their peers or their colleagues, which can make them seem less approachable, which can exacerbate loneliness. Lonely people tend to be more sensitive to negative social cues, and they’re also more likely to ignore positive cues.

There is other research that suggests worker relationships can suffer when work is virtual because we lose the richness of that face-to-face interpretation. Because our work usually requires us to work through people to achieve our goals, a lonely worker can become less effective worker because they are seen as less approachable. So you can start to see from an individual perspective that loneliness creates a dark lens through which we interpret our social interactions; there’s reduced creativity, there’s lower wellbeing, there’s a higher risk of burnout, more sick days and absenteeism, there’s flawed decision-making because of that social hypervigilance. And as a result, there is lower performance. Not surprisingly, a lonely worker also is less committed to their organisation: my research points to higher intention to leave the organisation, as lonely workers think about quitting more often than non-lonely workers.

Research from Cigna shows that in the US alone, the estimated cost of all these impacts of loneliness to the economy is over $400 billion a year. And that’s a pre-pandemic figure.

JEREMY How widespread are these feelings of loneliness, according to your research?

SARAH A Microsoft study surveyed 31,000 people across 31 countries, and found that 55 percent of hybrid employees and 50 percent of all-remote employees reported feeling lonelier at work than before the pandemic, due to the feelings of being disconnected and burned out. But we know that loneliness is more than a lack of in-person interaction with others; coming to an office where you don’t find a connection with others can create feelings of loneliness too. It was an emerging problem in office environments before the pandemic.

Across many of the studies I have done on loneliness at work, only 10 percent on average indicate that they are never lonely. That shows us that while loneliness is something we don’t usually talk about, the reality is that a great number of people are experiencing it. In our New Zealand survey, 78 percent of the sample said they want to have better social connection at work, and they find social connection important. So you’ve got a situation where people want to connect but aren’t able to achieve connection beyond superficial interaction.

JEREMY What can organisations do about this?

SARAH First, it’s recognising that this is not just a worker problem, but also an organisational problem. Businesses need to recognise the importance of social connection. COVID has helped highlight how important worker relationships are. The first strategy is to collect data around this, so there’s a benchmark for understanding and tracking the presence of loneliness and social connection more systematically. Once you know what you’re dealing with then you can think about appropriate changes.

At an individual level, we can intervene with EAP [Employee Assistance Programmes] and teaching employees to focus on self-care and helping to build social confidence. But we need to recognise that it’s a systemic issue. If 55 percent of any organisation is saying they’re lonely, what is it in the environment that’s not contributing to their social fulfillment?

We’re not expecting managers and executive teams to be psychologists, but there are some things you can do at a broader level. Look at the structure of your teams and ask how connected those teams are. Research by Connie Hadley from Boston University has shown that people working in multiple teams across multiple parts of an organisation don’t have enough time within one team to really cohere and have meaningful relationships.

If you already have a coherent team, and have good processes to interact, then don’t make them all about work. Have some time for socialisation and make regular check-ins a normal part of a team’s processes, so that everyone feels comfortable connecting at a more personal level if they want to. It is also important to recognise that everyone has different expectations and social needs, but having a core team so people can say, ‘This is my home team, this is where I belong,’ can help enhance that sense of social connection and give people a sense of belonging. It can also be a good way for team leaders and managers to check in on social wellbeing, particularly for remote workers. 

JEREMY I think one of the challenges for organisations since flexible working has become more widespread is that they’re reluctant to prescribe working days because it might feel as if they’re infringing on that flexibility – and that team members might leave as a result. But it sounds as if you’re suggesting that more structure might be helpful.

SARAH Here at my work, we got the idea from some research participants that you have some core days in the office, and that you only do collaborative work on those days. All other work can be done remotely, but when you get together, you’re not on a screen together: you’re engaging interpersonally, the work you’re doing is interpersonally meaningful, and it’s better to do it face-to-face. That way, the work tasks are rewarded, and social relationships are developing as well – and it’s not a big infringement on flexibility. 

JEREMY How does workplace design fit into this? 

SARAH It’s not necessarily just about designing space for human use, because well-designed spaces won’t reduce loneliness if those spaces sit empty. It’s partly about designing those spaces for a balance between private space and social space. One benefit of working from home is that you get private space. Interestingly, over 50 percent of our sample in our European remote work survey said that the main benefit of remote working was avoiding unnecessary interactions with annoying co-workers – I found that the most interesting of all our survey data.

With that in mind, private spaces that allow people to avoid abrasive interactions are important, and allows for focus time. Interestingly in our sample, more women than men want to work from home to avoid these abrasive interactions, and that needs further research because it may have implications for workplace design.

We also need to consider how annoying these so-called annoying colleagues are. Are they really that annoying or is it just that even mild discomfort with interactions is seen as so abrasive that we’ll avoid it by working out of the office? Not all relationships are perfect. Not all teams are perfect, and there’s always going to be someone that you don’t get along with. But the reality is we can’t get the benefits of social interactions without some investment and recognition of the effort that relationships take. I think we’ve lost sight of that.

JEREMY What you’re discussing isn’t easy territory, because some organisations have made quite earnest efforts to entice people back to the office – free coffee, team lunches and so on – but a lot of those efforts have induced eyerolls among employees, who may as well be saying, ‘I’m not going to commute 40 minutes for a free coffee with people I’d prefer to avoid anyway’. It sounds like a lot of organisations are going to need teams of people with very particular expertise to reintroduce the pleasure of social interaction at work. 

SARAH It is a conundrum because employees want and have got used to flexibility, but we also need to recognise that we’re making ourselves disconnected because of it. It’s not about forcing people back into the office for no reason. It’s about actually overpowering the convenience of staying at home with an incentive to come to the office, and that incentive being ‘good medicine’ for our social wellbeing.

The office needs to become the interactive place for purposeful face-to-face engagement: you make office time important and meaningful. It’s also about talking to employees and asking them what would encourage them back to the office, and to provide ideas and solutions that will help them feel more connected at work. What is it that would bring them back to the office? To me, there’s little point in creating interventions about social connection without connecting with staff to create them. Training on team-building, with the specific purpose of interpersonal connection, might also help. 

JEREMY In your research, you mentioned the benefits of co-working or ‘third’ spaces that give employees the ability to avoid unwanted interactions, yet still be present for the collaborative benefits of work. Can you talk about that?

SARAH The survey research we did last year on remote workers in Europe suggests that co-working spaces are the most socially fulfilling spaces to work in. The reason why people find them socially fulfilling is because people can choose not just when they work but also have flexibility about who they interact with on a day-to-day basis. We believe it is the choice that enables workers to craft who they work with – just like we do in our personal lives.

JEREMY And when you say a co-working space, what do you mean?

SARAH It’s an organised space for people to work together. Our Harvard Business Review research suggests community mindedness is the key to a successful coworking site, such as having a community manager who focuses on social elements of the co-working site. Opportunities for skill-sharing and collaboration are the kind of features that make for a successful co-working site – skill-sharing is interesting because it enhances an individual’s professional network while upskilling along the way. Interestingly, co-working spaces were the most popular workspace for Gen Z remote workers [Generation Z is generally regarded as being comprised of people born from 1997-2013].

JEREMY What does your research suggest an optimal co-working space looks or feels like? 

SARAH I’ve heard many people complain that they’re forced to come back into the office – but when they get there, they sit in front of their computers all day and then pack up and go home, and it’s not really helping with social engagement. If you walk into your workplace and you’re not greeted by anyone, you don’t know anyone personally and no one even acknowledges that you’re there, you’re not likely to feel filled up from a social fulfillment perspective.

If you walk into one of these co-working sites where you know who you’re going to be sitting next to, you can greet others, they greet you and have a chat, it is a much more socially engaging experience. I don’t know about the physical design, but it seems that we need a balance between community and individual spaces. Some of the co-working spaces I’ve seen have incubation rooms, which are specifically social spaces, and also dedicated quiet spaces. Some organisations might find it difficult to have all those spaces in one building, so using co-working spaces can help cater for that balance. 

JEREMY In your research you refer to relational job crafting. What is that? 

SARAH It stems from the job crafting movement, where employees tailor the tasks they do to better align with their skillset. Relational crafting is not just how you work, but who you work with. The logic is that if we can go to work and choose who we interact with, we’re much more likely to want to want to engage on a day-to-day basis. Relational crafting also forms a foundation for high-quality connections, minimising those relational pain points in our day-to-day lives and maximising interactions with the kind of people who fill us up. 

JEREMY Your research seems to suggest that we all need a certain level of social fitness, because it provides a foundation for good mental health – and that interactions at work can help with this. This makes me think of the work by the Yale Professor Dr Laurie Santos, who talks on her podcast of how micro-interactions that may not seem meaningful form some sort of psychological bedrock on which our sense of wellbeing depends. Things like chatting with a barista in the morning, or a colleague, or a stranger in a queue.

SARAH That’s right; positive social interactions are good medicine. They are little doses that can fill us up and help offset some of the more negative interactions. And that’s what we can miss by working from home – we lose these micro-relational aspects that help piece together a relational jigsaw that can improve our wellbeing. We can find ourselves in a rut and can get into what I’ve called relational lethargy – we forget how to connect with people on a day-to-day basis, which can lead to loneliness. Social interaction is a habit that we need to reinforce and practice, and if we lose that habit or avoid interactions because they seem difficult, it makes social interaction seem more effortful than it used to be. Having someone to chat with when you when you are getting your morning coffee gives you a little lift in your day, and that has a knock-on effect throughout the day, and can spread to other’s wellbeing at work too. 

JEREMY Do you feel optimistic about the ability of businesses to overcome the challenges that your research outlines? The stakes seem relatively high, given that the mental health of many people will be enhanced with employers resolving these issues successfully. Not to mention the costs to business that you’ve discussed.

SARAH It is a monumental challenge, but it presents lots of opportunities as well. People wouldn’t feel lonely if they didn’t yearn for meaningful connection. People generally want to socially connect at work. And the challenges don’t need to be insurmountable, because if you break it down into small steps it starts with micromoments of connection and creating them throughout the day to help make the workday more meaningful and fulfilling – while balancing the need for privacy and focus time. It comes down to people seeing work as a bit more human. We shouldn’t park our humanity at the door when we sit in front of our laptops or go into meetings. The ideas for creating social fulfillment should come from the very people who are working in that organisation.

This interview is one in a three-part series about how workplaces are evolving. To read the interview with psychologist and architect Erin Peavey, click here. And to read the interview with Sir John Kirwan, co-founder of workplace wellbeing platform Groov, click here