Digitalisation over personable interaction
A study by the International Workplace Group that investigated the habits of 18,000 workers across 96 international companies, found that 70% of employees work remotely once a week and 53% spend half their week out of the office.
While technology allows for greater freedom and flexibility in how people want to work, digital channels are putting constraints on social interaction. Emails, instant messaging and social media have replaced what would have been verbal communication 10 years ago.
So, for those that work away from the office the majority of the time – relying only on digital interaction, feelings of loneliness and separation may be creeping in.
In fact, in the State of Remote Work 2018 report by Buffer, 21% of remote workers stated ‘loneliness’ and ‘communicating’ as their biggest struggles. This supports our finding in Rethinking Workplace that people still desire a dedicated place of work – even if only for part of their working week.
The co-working revolution
Although not a new concept, co-working spaces have become a crucial force in alleviating some of the pain points felt by remote workers, including feeling lonely.
For employees based predominantly off-site, independent co-working spaces offer a place where people can work ‘alone together’ – able to retain concentration, but with the ability to collaborate when needed.
The results of a study by Emergent Research revealed that shared, member-based workplaces help to ‘substantially reduce the isolation associated with remote work’, with 83% reporting they were less lonely since joining a co-working space.
With it estimated that by 2020, 50% of UK employees will work from home, and pan-European data revealing that three-quarters (74%) of firms now allow for remote working, co-working spaces seem to be increasingly becoming an important part of the contemporary world of work.
Independent work versus collaboration
Of course, loneliness is not just something that affects remote workers. It’s also been highlighted as a growing problem within the office.
While this could again be in part down to the rise of technology reducing verbal communication, it’s also been linked to the physical interior set-up of an office.
In the UK, open offices are most prevalent, but workers describe themselves as being ‘independent’ rather than ‘collaborative’. They are, in fact, the least collaborative employees in Europe, according to our research. The Swedish workforce, on the other hand, is the most collaborative, but prefers working in private offices.
Traditionally, open offices were designed to encourage interaction and collaboration. It has recently been adopted by many start-up technology companies for these reasons.
However, it seems that open plan doesn’t necessarily lead to collaboration. With noise a top concern for Europe’s working population – as highlighted in our research – many counteract this by wearing headphones, for example. And while this may seem to be supporting productivity, it’s also cited as a contributing factor in the workplace loneliness issue.
Turning the tide
However, designers are working to help this. Through increasingly selecting furniture that promotes collaboration, such as trestle tables and comfortable seating areas, collaboration is encouraged. Though these types of furniture might traditionally have been associated with residential interiors, in the contemporary workplace, more comfortable solutions are being chosen for their ability to help fuel collaborative, group work.
Additionally, the implementation of ‘zoning’ provides employees with a variety of set-ups best suited to individual tasks. So, when complete quiet is needed to get the job done, people can remove themselves from the main office hustle and bustle. But for when two or more heads are better than one, group work can be completed, offering people the chance to be amongst their peers at a time that suits them.
With loneliness becoming a more pressing matter globally, and the typical office employee spending around 40 hours a week at work – whether in or out of the office, the role of the workplace designer in helping combat the issue has never been more important.
The social opportunities that once existed in the workplace across Europe, such as the Swedish tradition for Fika, or extended lunch breaks in France, are perhaps being overhauled in light of heavier workloads – something reflected in our research.
However, whether developing entire spaces for remote workers to collaborate, or dedicated sections of an office for social interaction, the design community is starting to turn the tide on workplace loneliness.