Loneliness of modern office team member

About every other week a number emerges somewhere in the world that I find both understandable and disturbing.

This is the percentage of people who consistently say they do not want to return to work full time in the office. Almost 60% of UK workers said this was how they felt back in September last year and also in March this year, even if more than a third of the British population had had at least one stroke of Covid by then.

In the United States, the proportion of workers who would prefer to continue working remotely as much as possible has increased from 35 percent in September to 44% in January. More recent European research found that 97% of people who were at home would prefer to stay there for at least part of the week after their offices reopened.

Considering that I am one of the millions of people thrilled to be freed from a rushed commute and the boredom of presenteeism, these results seem entirely rational. But they are also concerning because there is a darker reason why even well-paid and valued people in high jobs may not be in a rush to return to the office: Long before the epidemic, they were lonely.

Their relations with the people in the office seemed superficial. Worse yet, their sense of isolation may have less to do with their personal life than how their teamwork was organized.

It is a discovery of studies by Mark Mortensen, associate professor of organizational behavior at Insead Business School in France, and Constance Hadley, organizational psychologist at Questrom School of Business at Boston University.

Mortensen says they were surprised after interviewing hundreds of world leaders just before the Covid outbreak emptied offices around the world. Although leaders were on an average of three teams, almost 80% said they had difficulty connecting with other team members, and 58% felt their social relationships at work were superficial.

Researchers say one reason is that teams have changed dramatically since they began to replace traditional hierarchical work structures over 30 years ago.

Previously, you could expect to work in a team of a manageable size with the same group of people doing pretty much the same thing for a relatively long period of time.

But as corporate work has become more global and 24/7, teams should be bigger, more agile and more profitable. People join for shorter periods, depending on the skills needed for a certain project, and then fly away elsewhere. Or they share the work with others in different time zones, so projects can be completed around the clock, or work part-time in multiple shifts at once.

All of this is good for the flexibility and efficiency of an organization, but not for humans, who may have trouble naming each member of their group.

“I don’t know who is on my team,” an executive told the researchers. “Every Monday someone comes and tells me he’s been assigned to something and the other guy who worked on this before he left.”

“I am interchangeable,” said another. “They made sure everyone could do my job on the team. Maybe they would miss me, but I’m not so sure.

The pandemic has obviously fueled a lack of camaraderie, but this research suggests that putting everyone back in the office won’t entirely solve the problem. And hybrid work can make matters worse, Mortensen told me last week, because people will be working extremely different hours.

“It’s a problem that exists as long as there is shift work,” he said. “We’ve seen it in factories for the last 50 years or so, but suddenly it’s something that we’re starting to see more of, thanks to hybrid work and flexible hours and that sort of thing, even in the knowledge work.

What can be done? Mortensen and Hadley say the first thing to do is assess whether the loneliness exists. If so, consider creating core teams with a common mission that will last for years, not weeks. Also, make sure team leaders understand that loneliness at work can be structural, not personal, so people don’t resolve it on their own. Finally, don’t expect it to go away just because everyone has returned to the office.


Twitter: @pilitaclark

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