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How to work remote from the office, but not people

Guzman de Yarza Blanche

The world of work is changing. Where the office 9-5 once ruled, working from cafes, airports or homes is now commonplace. Powered by messaging apps and collaboration tools, projects can be coordinated across the world all from behind a computer screen. Contributor Guzman de Yarza Blanche, EMEA Head of Workplace Strategy – JLL.

As the office becomes more remote and digital, the benefits of flexible working have become well-rehearsed and the rewards seem endless: increased productivity, a better work-life balance and individual empowerment.

But these new working practices have an often-overlooked consequence: loneliness. When remote working and new technologies start to replace face-to-face interaction and workplace camaraderie, employee wellness can dip. The hum-drum of office chatter is replaced by a solitary tapping away at a keyboard. This has an impact on employees and the businesses they work for as a result. With a study finding that 60% of employees feel lonely at work and 38% saying this affected their performance, it’s time to start looking for solutions to see how we can work both flexibly and socially. 

Of course, you cannot force your employees to interact with one another in the hopes of addressing or avoiding a loneliness problem. To encourage that naturally, employers need to think about their everyday environment, and office design can be the key to unlocking a more engaged and high-performing workforce. 

While coworking and flexible office spaces have been shown to reduce loneliness for freelancers and remote workers in particular, bigger businesses are also starting to consider them to create more dynamic workplaces. Employees at the FlipKart headquarters, for example, can make use of an open-plan space with breakout zones specially for collaboration, rather than being tied to their individual desks. Airbnb’s London office similarly blurs the lines between work and social lives with areas where employees can sit, stand or recline. Flexibility of this kind can create a more relaxed and progressive environment that gives employees the option of connecting face-to-face. With great spaces comes a powerful incentive not to spend time tapping away alone, but to collaborate in a communal area. 

While a carefully considered workspace can provide a crucial foundation for combatting isolation, it is not the only tool employers can use. As with anything, technology can be too much of a good thing; in the workplace, it can boost collaboration, but becomes counter-productive when it starts to substitute human interaction. Companies are starting to confront these consequences with proactive policies. For example, SoundCloud has introduced technology-free zones in its Berlin office, which provide space for employees to socialise without hiding behind a screen or to work without digital distractions. It has also introduced guidelines which promote a healthier work-life balance by limiting the hours during which emails can be written.

It’s also important not to forget workplace culture when creating a strategy to prevent a loneliness problem. While flexible workplaces can encourage employees to collaborate while they work, other measures can be adopted to complete the picture. Innovative features such as the indoor garden at Bright HR’s Manchester office can take the battle against isolation to the next level by creating spaces specifically for socialising. For employers looking for more easily implemented options, something as simple as an onboarding programme can help new recruits to fully embed into their new workplace community.

With companies starting to wake up to the importance of employee wellness, employers should be thinking of loneliness as a key concern. A well-designed office space, together with a supportive culture, can help prevent the problem, and then work towards making every employee as connected, happy and fulfilled as possible. 

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