Every other week or so, a song pops up somewhere in the world that I find understandable and disturbing.
It’s the percentage of people who consistently say they don’t want to work in the office full time again. Nearly 60 percent of British workers said they felt this way in September last year and also in March this year, even though more than a third of the British population had had at least one Covid shot by then.
In the US, the proportion of employees who prefer to continue working remotely as much as possible has risen from 35 percent in September to 44 percent in January. More recent European research found that 97 percent of people who have been at home prefer to stay there for at least part of the week when their office reopens.
Since I am one of millions who are happy to be relieved of a rushed commute and the boredom of presenteeism, these findings seem utterly rational. But they are also concerned because there is a more bleak reason that even well-paid, esteemed people in lofty jobs may not be in a hurry to get back to the office: They were lonely long before the outbreak.
Their relationship with people in the office felt superficial. Worse, their sense of isolation may have had less to do with their personal lives than with the way their work was organized in teams.
This is shown by studies by Mark Mortensen, associate professor of organizational behavior at Insead business school in France, and Constance Hadley, an organizational psychologist at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.
Mortensen says they were surprised after questioning hundreds of executives worldwide just before the Covid outbreak emptied offices around the world. Although the executives belonged to three teams on average, nearly 80 percent said they had difficulty connecting with other team members and 58 percent felt their social relationships at work were superficial.
The researchers say one reason is that teams have changed dramatically since they began replacing traditional hierarchical work structures more than 30 years ago.
Previously, one could expect to work in a team of manageable size with the same group of people who did much the same for a relatively long time.
But as the company’s work has become global and round the clock, teams were expected to be larger, more agile and cost-effective. People join for a shorter period of time, depending on the skills required for a particular project, and then fly elsewhere. Either they share work with others in different time zones so that projects can be done around the clock, or they work part-time in multiple teams at the same time.
All of this is good for the flexibility and efficiency of an organization, but not so good for people who struggle to name every member of their group.
“I don’t know who is on my team,” a supervisor told the investigators. “Every Monday someone comes to tell me he was assigned to something and the other man who worked on it before has just left.”
“I am redeemable,” said another. “They have made sure that everyone can do my work in the team. Maybe they would miss me, but I’m not so sure. “
The pandemic has clearly led to a lack of camaraderie, but this research suggests that getting everyone back to the office won’t completely solve the problem. And hybrid work can make things worse, Mortensen told me last week, because people will be working on completely different schedules.
“This is a problem that exists as long as there is shift work,” he said. “We’ve seen it in factories for the past 50 years or more, but all of a sudden it’s something we’re starting to see more of, thanks to hybrid work and flex time and things like this, even in knowledge work.”
What can be done? Mortensen and Hadley say the first thing to do is assess if loneliness exists. If so, consider creating core teams with a common mission that spans years rather than weeks. Also, make sure team leaders understand that workplace loneliness can be structural, not personal, so people don’t solve it on their own. After all, don’t expect it to disappear just because everyone has returned to the office.