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As Airbnb CEO and Co-Founder Brian Chesky recently it said: “The mall is Amazon. The theater is Netflix. The office is Zoom. There is a future where you never leave your home and after Covid is over, loneliness will be the most dangerous.”
Loneliness was a global pandemic before Covid-19, but the consequences have only gotten worse, especially among our young people. A study published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education noted that 36% of respondents reported severe loneliness – feeling lonely “often” or “almost always or all the time”, including 61% of young people between the ages of 18 and 25. More specifically, 43% of young adults reported an increase in loneliness since the outbreak of the pandemic.
At the same time, as the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic began to recede, leaders began to hypothesize what a return to normalcy will look like, which social and economic changes will persist and which ones will fade. This creates the definition of what the new work world will become.
Related: What an expert on loneliness at work wants you to know about the emotion
And with that debate comes an important underlying theme and the centerpiece of many governance discussions: productivity. As recent trends such as: stop calmly popping up, leaders ask if their employees can actually be more productive by working from home, remote meetings can be just as effective as in person, and the virtual water cooler conversation can serve the same level of helpful resources. Still, there’s one big elephant in the room, an underlying theme that many companies continue to overlook because they ultimately fail to see that this translates directly to productivity and, frankly, there’s no correlation to the bottom line.
That part is loneliness.
As leaders reshape the new definition of return to the office, we need to consider the mental health of our employees, and consider the role an office environment plays for each category of employees, especially younger workers. To attain desirable positions, many of today’s younger workers have to move away from their respective universities, move far from their family and friends, and work long hours to learn and grow in their respective professions. Many of them are now even more isolated because of their remote work environment.
When assessing the new return-to-office environment, today’s businesses must consider factors beyond profit and productivity. We, as business leaders, have a responsibility to consider the mental health of those who join our ranks. And we need to be more comprehensive in our approach to do that.
Here are five things companies should consider when assessing a remote environment in the context of the growing loneliness pandemic:
1. Get to know your workforce
Understand the people you hire and consider factors such as their stage of life, social environment and geographic locations. Develop a lengthy onboarding process for new hires, enabling deeper, lasting integration into the company culture. Create ongoing communication touchpoints and an interdepartmental leadership task force that incorporates diverse feedback into the human capital plan.
2. Create Authentic Social Channels
Develop face-to-face meetings that cater to employees’ personal interests. This should be more than just casual happy hours. Consider activities that employees might not otherwise experience together with a focus on wellness, education, exploration, and personal development. Create “growth groups” in which employees with similar passions join activities that align with their interests, creating opportunities for a more meaningful bond that lasts over the longer term.
3. Develop Strong Mentoring Cohorts
The more remote a work environment, the more important it can be to create meaningful mentor/mentee relationships. These relationships may have been nurtured more naturally in personal settings, so they may require more deliberate attention if a company chooses to keep its distance.
4. Redesign the office space
The role of the executive office is changing. Companies have the opportunity to redesign their offices to serve as creative hubs with more communal spaces, places where employees choose to go rather than go. There is an opportunity for a more hotel-like walk-in environment with more flexibility in terms of open office hours and a design that promotes community engagement versus silo work styles.
5. Reinvent the retreat
In earlier days, corporate retreats or off-sites were a one-time event, characterized by expensive locations and planned schedules. There is now an opportunity to have the retreat take place more often. It could be on location once a month at an inspiring out-of-office location where colleagues gather for the sole purpose of spending quality time together. Nothing anymore.
Related: How leaders can get the most out of remote working
It is the right choice to reframe the company’s role in today’s diversified work environment. As the mental health epidemic continues to grow, especially among our young people, the responsibility is even greater. We need to take a deeper dive to develop programs that have a more meaningful impact. Companies that do this will not only serve their employees better, but they will be the ones the best employees choose loyalty to work for. This, in turn, will help foster team members who are balanced, engaged, and therefore more productive.