Loneliness, and the wellbeing case for a return to work

Organisations have been trying to get workers back in to the office for years. Given that coercive attempts can backfire, is there a way to do so that is both positive and effective?

Whatever else you want to say about efforts to encourage staff to spend less time working from home, you must admit they’ve been creative. Companies have tried everything from mandates and making in-office time a factor in performance reviews to paying money to employee-nominated charities for every day they came in – and these are just the strategies found in a single, recent New York Times article.

In Australia, the more coercive attempts can backfire in a few ways. Firstly, taking away remote work can upset staff who see it as both a benefit and a right. Secondly, it can result in legal challenges. Thirdly, those legal challenges can become an issue for your company’s branding when they make the news.

You could argue the Commonwealth Bank of Australia faced all three in the middle of 2023 when the Finance Sector Union filed a dispute with the Fair Work Commission over its return to work edict.

On the other hand, it’s no coincidence that the New York Times article was headlined ‘Return to Office Enters the Desperation Phase’. Benefit-forward initiatives designed to persuade employees to return to work have frequently fizzled out. Why? Every situation is different, but the overall failure rate – it’s been years and we’re still reading about new attempts – suggests a fundamental problem.

Many of the articles offering advice on how to persuade staff use some variation of the phrase “lure your employees back” (here are just a few examples). So perhaps initiatives fall flat because in their conception they think in terms of baiting and tricking. Typically, you “lure” fish and animals, not people.

Put differently, rather than trying to make in-office work better than working from home, many initiatives assume that this is impossible and instead offer perks that are superficial and temporary.

The company in the New York Times article that used charitable donations, for example, offered $10 a day over a ten-dayperiod. Is a maximum of $100 enough to encourage people to commute more oftenin perpetuity?

Ultimately, if the reason for failure is a fundamental problem, then the answer might be a fundamental solution. So, let's get back to basic principles.

What people want

Why do employees want to work from home? There are lots of answers, but some of the most prevalent are that it provides more time with family, more job control, more flexibility to manage home life (such as looking after children), and it eliminates the commute.

Why do employers want staff in the office? Again, you can find lots of answers, but the strongest from a business performance point of view is that a certain level of in-office work can enhance your organisation’s culture, collaboration, and innovation.

It’s notable that both employers and employees' reasons are rooted in the inherent qualities of human connection. Because we are living in an age where that connection is in trouble.

The loneliness epidemic

The promise of modernity, of the internet, social media, and so on, was that we were supposed to be more connected than ever. Social barriers, we were told, would be broken down by our ability to communicate openly over vast distances instantly.

It turns out something closer to the opposite is happening.

● In the US, the Surgeon General released a report called “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation”. It found loneliness and social isolation increase the risk for premature death by 26% and 29% respectively and that lacking social connection is the equivalent of smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.

● In Australia, KPMG has a report that found 5 million Australians are impacted by loneliness.

Obviously, remote work would seem to lessen loneliness when it means more quality time with friends and family. However, during work itself this is not the case. Not only do many remote workers live alone, or have household members that don’t work from home, but often the demands of the job mean they cannot have longer periods of meaningful social interaction with anyone they do live with while on the clock.

So it’s no surprise that remote work has been linked to loneliness by research. The theory is straightforward: it’s harder to maintain interpersonal relationships from a distance. Not only that, researchers have found that it could potentially hurt your career and quality of work by making your collaboration networks more “static and siloed”.

So what if, instead of offering ephemeral benefits, employers made office work the better situation? What if being in the office made you feel more connected with others, not less?

A truly connected workplace

Obviously, no return-to-work plan will succeed if the strategy is to simply tell staff “come in, you’ll be less lonely”. Also, for most organisations, hybrid work with at least some working from home is here to stay.

Given these facts, ideally you want to be creating the kind of company that organically fosters interpersonal relationships regardless of where workers are, while making sure that the workplace itself is a true hub of social connection.

Western Australian based research looked at the loneliness of hybrid workers and had their work published in MIT Sloan Management review. They suggested the following.

  1. Give workers autonomy when it comes to office hours. Not only because autonomy itself plays a huge part in wellbeing and performance, but because then staff will organically synchronise their workplace time with supportive colleagues.
  2. Avoid stringent surveillance. In line with the above, autonomy is undermined if staff feel they are being closely monitored. While it can feel like unwatched people aren’t working, a results-based approach to monitoring means staff won’t feel that being in the office is an unpleasant experience.
  3. Create buddy systems for new staff and other groups. When someone begins work with your organisation, they need a social foothold to begin developing relationships with their colleagues.
  4. Encourage office socialising. Find what works for your organisation. It could be anything from planned group events and dedicated time for pairs of colleagues to have a coffee, to a culture that welcomes hallway catch ups, mini-breaks and so on, rather than assuming chatting means slacking off.

Healthy Business is a strong believer that healthy workplaces make for stronger companies, both interpersonally and financially. If you want help with a return to work plan that prioritises wellbeing, we can provide a range of effective solutions including individual coaching programs, team mental health workshops and topical health presentations, and so much more.

When it comes to health and wellbeing, we’re here to assist you with meeting your organisation’s compliance requirements in addition to providing effective employee solutions. Get in touch today.

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