ResearchThinkingHow to avoid loneliness in a flexible working world?

Rather than a passing fad, it seems that flexible working is here to stay – so how do we help workers avoid loneliness and isolation?
Content Team5 years ago9 min

A recent YouGov survey revealed that less than 20% of working adults in the UK want to work standard nine-to-five hours. It’s clear then that flexible working is becoming mainstream. It’s easy to understand why. Technology, from super-fast WiFi through to video conferencing, has powered a surge in flexible working, dislodging the desk-based traditional working day. Rather than a passing fad, it seems that flexible working is here to stay, underpinned by continued technological innovation – not least the arrival of 5G.

For example, it’s been predicted that there will be 1 billion 5G customers by 2023, and the effect it could have on the workplace is huge. Vodafone has already conducted its first holographic call over 5G, which connected a 3D projection of footballer Steph Houghton to an office 200 miles away. Holograms are just one examples of how 5G is set to transform offices: global employees will be able to meet under one roof using virtual reality and front desk staff could be replaced by 5G security cameras backed by AI.

All this may sound like a scene from science fiction, but fiction will soon be fact. The benefits will mean greater productivity and more efficient use of resources – all the perks that come with any type of flexible working, now magnified by the next generation of technology.

What will happen to our mental and social wellbeing when everyday face-to-face interaction is replaced by hologram-to-hologram meetings

It’s a virtual world

But what will happen to our mental and social wellbeing when everyday face-to-face interaction is replaced by hologram-to-hologram meetings, and even morning greetings with the receptionist are no longer a part of life? Human beings are social animals, and though traditional offices have their flaws, they at least allow us to develop the workplace camaraderie that we often take for granted.

Loneliness can already be an issue in offices: a recent study found that 60% of employees feel lonely at work, and 38% believe this impacts their productivity. The advances we have already seen in technology, such as messaging and collaboration apps, no doubt play a part by allowing us to work together without being together.

If employers want to prevent a loneliness problem from forming, whilst also getting the most from cutting-edge tech, the key thing they need to consider is workplace design, which encourages employees to interact organically. If they don’t, it’s not just employees that might start to feel isolated, but the whole business’s productivity could dip.

Diversifying spaces

As a starting point, office designers should consider diversifying the types of spaces on offer. The reign of the individual cubicle is long over: instead of these isolated units, consider introducing collaborative and communal areas, which will allow office-dwellers to mingle while they work.

Employees are more likely to work together when they’re not restricted by the space they’ve been allocated

A good starting point is an open-plan space, demonstrated neatly by FlipKart’s headquarters, which also features collaboration zones. Employees are more likely to work together when they’re not restricted by the space they’ve been allocated, and the professional relationships that follow are the foundation an office needs for social integration.

You can step things up a notch by considering an environment that further softens the boundaries between work and play. Workplace culture is not just a set of rules, but the things people do day-to-day. Therefore, something as simple as including a variety of seating options can create a more relaxed, and therefore sociable, atmosphere. Airbnb’s London office, which features areas where employees can choose to sit, stand or recline, is a good example.

The most progressive companies may ask designers to include explicitly social spaces in their offices. Bright HR’s Manchester office boasts innovative features such as a 50-foot indoor garden complete with bean bags, tents and a football goal. On their lunch breaks or after work, employees can go from relaxation to friendly competition and back again. The novelty of these features draws people in, and once they’re there, they can begin to build the personal relationships the workplace needs to make sure loneliness doesn’t become a problem.

Creative paths to workplace happiness

Of course, there are a variety of other creative ways to create a happier workforce. If too much technology is becoming a problem, meaning that employees are glued to a screen from 9 to 5, technology-free zones like the ones at SoundCloud’s Berlin office are a good idea. The company has also introduced guidelines to limit the hours emails can be written in to promote a better work-life balance. In this instance, spaces work together with policies to allow employees the time they need to relax, so that they are as productive as possible the next day.

Studies have already shown that freelancers and remote workers feel less lonely when they work in co-working spaces, but a business of any size can take a leaf out of the co-working book. Managers can’t just sit their employees down and order them to make friends, which is why the role of office design is so crucial: it can encourage natural social connections that create a truly integrated workplace.

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By Guzman de Yarza Blanche, EMEA Head of Workplace Strategy at JLL

Content Team

Work in Mind is a content platform designed to give a voice to thinkers, businesses, journalists and regulatory bodies in the field of healthy buildings.

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