Should HR leaders be concerned about an epidemic of loneliness?

In March 2020 most of the world’s city centres and offices emptied amidst mandatory lockdowns. But when restrictions eased, and offices reopened many employees did not rush back to their desks.

Hybrid working became the 'new normal', facilitated by enlightened flexible-working policies, championed by influential tech and professional service firms.

Many employees cried freedom from the commute and the manufacturers of ‘garden cabin’ offices could not cope with the demand.

How can HR support employees experiencing loneliness?

By any measure there has been seismic shift in working patterns in the past three years, with the UK leading the way. According to the Munich-based Ifo Institute, it seems now that Britons work from home more than any other European nation.

In the UK, the average worker spends a day and a half at home each week, well above the one-day average in Germany and more than double the 0.6 in France and 0.7 in Italy.

But apparently, we Brits still want more, with the survey finding 2.3 days at home would be ideal and the ONS reporting that some 16% of workers never go into the office at all.

Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University in California, does important research on the new normal, and has become a huge advocate of the acronym de jour: 'WFH'.

He says it has massive benefits for firms and their employees, is hugely popular and is an irreversible trend. The data is compelling (for the US at least) as workers head for the suburbs and vacate city centres creating 'donut cities'.

If he is right, then organisations need something else to connect and cohere their people, and city communities and resources need a new purpose and form.

Are we lonelier now than we were before the pandemic?

It seems the implications are only just being felt for inner city schools, for social capital, and for the wellbeing of colleagues not able to surf the net while being closer to the beach. Not all will benefit, while others improve their golf swing.  

The writer William Gibson once said that “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” 

When we look elsewhere in the world, the future is often in plain sight, we just haven't recognised it yet. Sometimes I so wish that wasn’t true.

In April this year, South Korea announced its decision to pay reclusive boys and young men a monthly allowance the equivalent of around £400 in order to encourage them to leave their homes.

The Guardian reported that 350,000 between the ages of 19 and 39 in South Korea are considered lonely or isolated.

The societal impact of loneliness is profound, with the country’s birth rate now less than 0.8 – the lowest in the world. CNN reported that Japan has a similar problem, with nearly 1.5 million reclusive lonely young people, who are known as ‘hikikomori’. 

Some citizens only leave their homes to buy groceries or for occasional activities, while others just never leave their bedrooms. These wealthy Asian nations are suffering an epidemic of loneliness.

Employers warned of risk of ‘sleepwalking’ into a society lacking human connection

In the UK, Europe and the US we have seized the post-pandemic zeitgeist, emancipated from the commute, logging-on to remote platforms, and dining on Amazon Fresh, Deliveroo, and Ocado.

Business, political and university leaders have embraced hybrid work, remote learning and social media has turned digital content creators into influential role-models.

Many businesses have been smart and progressive, allowing more flexible and hybrid modes of work, often aided by imaginative policy making by HR leaders.

But there are risks in growing a culture that unquestionably normalises working lives spent 'scrolling alone'.  

Hybrid is not going to go away, but the issue of balance and the value of 'in-person' needs to be expressed coherently again – not just be the subject of a return-to-office (RTO) mandate.

Leaders should ensure as much intellectual capital and imagination is applied to encouraging employees to purposefully attend the office, to reconnect and to collaborate in-person, as has been given to allowing them to stay away.

It needs a broader debate among leadership teams, and not just be booked in the accounts as a short-term saving on real-estate costs.

Freedom from the commute is a wonderful outcome for very many. But who does it leave behind? And what might it mean for the next generation of workers?

The role of HR leaders as far-sighted custodians of employer brand, employee engagement and welfare, should be central in that debate.  

John Dore is the author of GLUE: Transforming Leadership in a Hybrid World