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Why loneliness is the next health epidemic and how adapting workspaces can help

There’s a new global health threat on the scene. The World Health Organisation declared loneliness a pressing global health threat last November, and it’s a threat with mortality effects equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

While it would be easy to dismiss loneliness as a purely social issue, business and people leaders in the professional sphere ought to be paying attention.

The workplace has long been a critical piece of the puzzle when it comes to healthy human connection. Colleagues that spend upwards of 40 hours a week in-person together naturally have a healthy portion of all-important social interaction from their offices. But the Covid-19 pandemic catalysed a shift that would change the working world forever, establishing remote and hybrid work patterns into the mainstream of professional culture. 

Read more: Loneliness leads to high mental health risk for 33% of employees, report shows 

While new working patterns introduced welcome flexibility and autonomy, long periods spent alone has led to loneliness among employees in growing numbers. For businesses, unhappy and unhealthy employees mean a number of things. Lower productivity, weaker team dynamics and lower retention rates; the ultimate impact on a company’s bottom line should not be underestimated.

Although some business leaders have attempted to fight this through in-office mandates, it’s been to little avail. Simply enforcing a quantitative return to the office is clearly not the answer; flexibility has too many benefits, from attracting top talent to cutting costs on office floor space. To combat the loneliness epidemic effectively, we must focus on enhancing the quality of in-person interactions. 

This is where the design, layout and facilities of our workspaces become paramount.

How can businesses use workspaces to fight loneliness?

Offices that are ‘just offices’ are no longer fit for purpose in 2024. To tackle the emerging issue of loneliness, offices must become high-quality hubs of connection, fostering meaningful human interaction and collaboration through thoughtful design.

Central to this approach is the incorporation of comfortable and attractive social spaces, and collaborative zones like coworking areas and meeting rooms within the workspace. These designated areas encourage spontaneous interaction and collaboration as well as providing opportunities for socialising. 

Spaces ought to be functionally flexible too; adaptable environments can be used for a variety of purposes such as full-team meetings, busy in-person days or company social events, supporting a variety of experiences that bolster team bonding. Ultimately, employers will witness boosted employee wellbeing, team dynamics, professional development and productivity.

Read more: How can HR support employees experiencing loneliness?

What’s more, instead of limiting employees’ flexibility, finding new ways to bridge the gap between remote and in-office teams should be a business leader’s first port of call. Leveraging workspace technology can play a pivotal role here. From virtual collaboration tools to smart office infrastructure, these advancements foster seamless communication and collaboration.

For example, using workspace apps can create a communal network, enabling hybrid and remote staff to engage with announcements, see upcoming events, and even have conversations, transcending the physical distance between employees. This creates networking opportunities and may even encourage employees to attend the office more frequently.

Shaping workspaces to combat loneliness is not, therefore, just a moral imperative, it is a sound business strategy that yields tangible returns in terms of employee engagement and retention. By fostering workspace environments that prioritise human connection and wellbeing, businesses can cultivate thriving professional cultures where employees feel valued, supported, and connected – ultimately driving success in the long run, all while doing their part to tackle the loneliness epidemic.

By Wybo Wijnbergen, CEO of InfinitSpace