Is Workplace Loneliness Hurting Productivity?

As I have written about in recent weeks, loneliness in the workplace seems like a luxury. With the simple privilege of cubicles—which many of us used to complain about and take for granted—gone, how could anyone be lonely?

Yet, last week, I read a piece in Forbes pondering whether loneliness at work was impacting productivity. The article, by Jason Wingard, quotes a Cigna study on loneliness, and points out how much more lonely than previous generations the Millennials and Generation Z are.

“Lonely workers take twice as many sick days and demonstrate less commitment and weaker performance. Their emotions can spread to others, as well, causing a ripple effect throughout an organization,” Wingard writes. 

Among the tips recommended to guard against loneliness are more face-to-face interactions to balance the high number of interactions that occur via online meetings or e-collaboration. 

For all the forced interaction of open-plan offices, there isn’t much meaningful engagement between people. What if, once a month, work groups were encouraged to go to lunch? Companies could set budget limits for these lunches with managers, so it would not become too expensive. Employees usually feel the need to eat lunch anyway, so why not encourage them to eat together once a month, on the company’s (small) dime? It would be money well spent, letting employees get to know each other in a non-threatening environment, and could boost morale. People would perceive the monthly lunch as a special treat from their employer—another way their employer is showing them how much they are appreciated. If your company can’t afford to offer sponsored work group lunches monthly, what about doing it quarterly?

Another idea is to make interactions in the office more intentional, and, therefore, more meaningful. I wonder how much it would cost to purchase dividers that could be erected between desks in an open-plan environment, which then would be modified to have window flaps cut out so the flaps could be pulled in and out as desired. It would give employees control over how much and how often they interact with those on either side of them. By giving employees this control, you make interactions intentional, rather than forced. That would mean the communication during those interactions would be more meaningful. As close as I was to my mother, when we lived together, we didn’t communicate as well, or as happily, as we did after I moved out to live on my own. I suspect it’s the same with workplace relationships. People often shut down when they feel put upon by forced interactions. Make those interactions voluntary, and suddenly they’re more enjoyable and more likely to be sought out. 

At two of my past companies, birthdays were marked and celebrated with in-office gatherings, cake, and cards. Sometimes we would even go out to a restaurant to celebrate. It may seem like a small, childish gesture to have birthday parties for employees, but it goes a long way toward feeling noticed. A terrible, lonely feeling is going into work on your birthday, and realizing that no one knows it’s your birthday. You may have even told them in the past, and no one was organized enough, or cared enough, to make a note of it and plan for a small celebration. Marking birthdays and milestones such as baby showers, engagements, and even big employment anniversaries, make an employee feel that those they spend the most time with in their work care about significant occasions in their lives. 

Another idea is to let people bring their dogs to the office, and to consider adopting an office cat(s) to help with rodent control and provide comic relief. Most people with allergies are not so allergic that they can’t be in the same large office space with an animal they are not forced to touch. It would be an easy way to both do good, by encouraging pet adoption, and offset that sense of drudgery and alienation that can creep into office life.

How do you recommend combatting workplace loneliness? What solutions would work for your company?

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