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Virtual fatigue: UK employees are lonelier than ever

A study into friendship in the workplace has revealed the impact of working from home on personal connections in the office. 1 in 20 employees starting a new job while working from home have found it hard to make colleague friendships. This is equivalent to over 300,000 employees struggling to integrate and make friends in a new role.

A recent survey finds colleague friendships make day-to-day work more enjoyable, increase productivity and provide vital support networks

A study into friendship in the workplace has revealed the impact of working from home on personal connections in the office. 1 in 20 employees starting a new job while working from home have found it hard to make colleague friendships. This is equivalent to over 300,000 employees struggling to integrate and make friends in a new role.

The 2021 Friends & Happiness in the Workplace Survey* asked employees from 1,052 UK companies about their work friendships, what they meant to them and how companies can encourage them.

The survey findings come after a government ‘Employers and loneliness’ report, which highlights the cost of loneliness to UK employers – estimated to be £2.5 billion every year. For individuals, the cost of severe loneliness – due to reduced wellbeing, health and productivity – has been estimated at £9,900 per year, according to the Loneliness Monetisation Report conducted for the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport.

Decision makers and HR teams are being encouraged to improve colleague connections as the country moves into a hybrid working model, with a mixture of people working from home and the office.

For those who have a ‘best friend’ at work, the research highlights clear benefits. Unsurprisingly, almost two-thirds (57%) of respondents say it makes work more enjoyable. Interestingly for companies, 22% believe it means they are equally or more productive, and 21% say having a best friend at work makes them more creative. 12% of people are less likely to leave a company where they have friends.

Workplace friendships play a particularly significant role in integrating young employees into a company. Almost one in three (29%) of those at executive level have needed support from colleagues, and almost one in five (19%) are more unlikely to leave a company where they have friends.

What can companies do to improve employee relationships?

After a year of social isolation, and with many people clearly looking to form friendships at work, team-building efforts are more important than ever. The survey asked employees what their preferred method of team bonding would be.

  • 46% favour a monthly after-work drink

  • Almost a third (30%) say they want a space to eat, socialise, and spend time with colleagues at work

  • Nearly a fifth (21%) would prefer a team-building weekend away

A similar Wildgoose survey in 2017 found 23% of respondents wanted a space to socialise at work. The increase in this figure to 30% suggests that people miss the office environment.

The most recent survey also asked people if they would prefer in-person team activities or a virtual equivalent. In every case – whether the event was drinks, playing sport/gaming or a team-building weekend/activity – people chose the in-person option. This is further evidence of ‘virtual fatigue’ among the UK workforce.

As people around the country return to offices, organisations need to respond to the demand for more face-to-face interaction. Team-building events companies like Wildgoose can help by facilitating in-person and outdoor activities, such as the Urban Explorer activity and the James Bond-styled Treasure Hunt.

Commenting on the findings, Wildgoose managing director Jonny Edser says:

“It’s only natural that people want to get out and socialise in person after lockdowns. I think we’ve all had enough of being indoors and people will be looking forward to seeing colleagues in person again. It’s a return to normality.

“Some people have started jobs without meeting their new colleagues, which must be especially tough. Hopefully those people can now get to know their new workmates properly. And companies need to realise that face-to-face social events play a huge role in that, particularly when people have lacked social interaction in their everyday lives.

“For many people, what’s been missing is the chance to have fun with colleagues, rather than just focusing on work. Our activities take people away from reality and let them focus on nothing other than having fun, outdoors, with workmates. We see it every day: getting employees together to do something completely different helps them to reconnect.”

Gill Brabner, FCIPD and OD specialist and CEO at Resound Training, says:

“My advice to HR teams would be: don’t wait for signs of loneliness. Encourage managers to check in regularly with their team members and to take an active interest in their whole lives – know the individuals and what is important to them. Be friendly and warm. Demonstrate empathy and care. Encourage all employees to reconnect with their wider networks across the organisations – to talk to colleagues beyond their immediate team.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on issues of loneliness and this includes people in work who previously would have benefited from social time with colleagues.  This is exacerbated for those who live on their own. It’s also a difficult time to join a new organisation where the onboarding is 100% virtual. Online team drinks can be stressful occasions for newbies as many of the social cues are missing.

Focus on bringing the human elements in to work – set up, manage and facilitate online networking forums – when community forums are run well they can bring a great social element to work.  Encourage leaders and managers to use video and show their human side, be vulnerable and let staff know they care.  Don’t just build a business – build a community and a work family.”

*Survey conducted by Wildgoose

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