Loneliness at Work

Loneliness at work reminds of me of “boredom” at home. When I complained of being bored as a child, my mother used to say, “I wish I had the luxury of being bored.” With a full-time job, and two children at home, most of her time was accounted for, so there was no opportunity to be bored. In the workplace today, can you be “lonely”?

A piece by Aimee Picchi posted on CBS News last week asks just that question, positing that all of our technology has created loneliness rather than connection. I wish I had more of that loneliness! In fact, I fantasize about having walls around my cubicle and my own bathroom, kitchen sink, and refrigerator at the office. I’m an introvert, so some days it feels like every face-to-face or voice-to-voice interaction—even the most fleeting—sucks away my energy. It’s the same at home. I often lament to myself that I have to call the laundromat that picks up and delivers my laundry (few people have washers and dryers in their apartments in NYC) instead of sending a simple text: “Pick up, please.” If I can’t text or otherwise tap into my phone whatever it is I need, I feel put upon. At the very least, let me just send an e-mail!

It’s out of fashion, and maybe even politically incorrect, to happily admit that you love the freedom technology gives you from face-to-face, or even voice-to-voice, communication, but I bet others feel the same as I do.

So when thinking about workplace “loneliness,” I have to wonder what lonely means at work. If loneliness could be alleviated by having many face-to-face meetings, like in the old days, when that was the only way to meet, then technology would be the culprit behind loneliness. But I don’t believe business meetings are the antidote to loneliness. You can have hordes of people around you, and you can discuss the logistics of work projects for hours on end, but that kind of communication isn’t the type that helps loneliness. In fact, it can make it worse. You can feel alienated by having to talk endlessly about things are not personally meaningful to you. Instead of having enough alone time in your schedule to think about what most interests you, and make personal phone calls or meet a friend for lunch, you’re spending hours discussing minutia that is not fulfilling to you.

No matter how interesting you find your work, it’s just that—work. No amount of face-to-face or voice-to-voice interactions about your work is going to provide the kind of deep, personally meaningful communication and reflection that relieves loneliness. On the contrary, when I can quickly dispense with a message on e-mail that would have taken twice as long to communicate on the phone, or three times as long to communicate in person, I’m freeing up my mind and time for the parts of myself, and my life, that give me a greater sense of fulfillment. I’m not left with the lonely feeling that I’m spending the whole day having skimming-the-surface conversations and making vapid pleasantries, so that by day’s end, I feel I have no energy left for myself.

The question is: When are face-to-face and voice-to-voice communications necessary? I’m so radical on this topic that I would say almost never. But the catch with me is that while I feel in-person, in-voice communications in business are rarely needed, I see the usefulness of having leisurely, fun-focused in-person lunches with a work group once a month. How about dispensing with the unnecessary live business communications, and, instead freeing up enough time for a monthly lunch together at a nearby restaurant? The purpose of the lunch would strictly be to enjoy one another’s company. You might find yourselves discussing business in passing, but there would be no pressure to do so. It would be a monthly chance to catch your breath and learn more about the people you share office space with.

I don’t need to hear a person’s voice or see his or her face to share the marketing plan I came up with. But I wouldn’t mind sitting across from them at lunch once a month to hear about their upcoming trip to Europe.

How do you know if you have a lonely workplace? What role does technology play in creating, or alleviating, employee loneliness? How much face-to-face or voice-to-voice communication is necessary? What can be dispensed with via text and e-mail?

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