Workers struggle with Delta "whiplash"
Given the ups and downs of COVID-19, a delayed or reversed return to the office is affecting employees.
Many popular television comedies in recent years have revolved around social life at the workplace, from “The Office” to “Grey’s Anatomy.”
It’s not far off from real life, where more than three in four people have at least one work friend, according to Olivet Nazarene University. In many cases, the office forms most of their social ties. Or, as Michael Scott from the American version of “The Office” once said: "Make friends first, make sales second, make love third —in no particular order.”
But for the last year and a half, many of those friendships have been nurtured via computers rather than the water cooler. And only 36% of workers can maintain strong working and personal interactions with colleagues at a distance, according to JLL’s Regenerative Workplace report.
With companies delaying plans for a return to office due to the Delta variant of COVID-19, the fits and starts have been especially challenging.
“Working from home for long periods of time has led many to feel disconnected from office life and their workplace community,” says Flore Pradère, Research Director, Global Work Dynamics Research, JLL. “The office allows people to meet in person to nurture a feeling of reciprocity and solidarity between colleagues beyond simple collaboration. This sense of mutual help happens to be a strong lever for the ‘social health’ of employees and their ability to maintain close relationships with their peers.”
Take Damien*, a content creator whose department was restructured during the pandemic. Placed on a new team where he only knew one colleague without the connections formed through in-person interactions was more isolating and anxiety-inducing than he ever could have imagined.
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“Even with team-building video calls, fun-side conversations and incredible wins resulting from our teamwork, I felt like I knew none of my teammates,” he says. “I didn’t feel like I really even had coworkers—or sometimes, even an employer. My worst days were filled with grief, anxiety, and sometimes tears.”
Many people want to continue working from home. But Damien is part of a “silent majority of Americans”, with 69 percent of workers in the U.S. wanting to be in the office at least some of the time, according to a Morning Consult survey.
Many say the main reason is loneliness, intensified by the so-called whiplash effect of the Delta variant, which had people who had returned to some facets of normal life having to return to isolation.
In research conducted long before the pandemic about journalists working remotely, the organizational psychologist Lynn Holdsworth found that full-time remote work increased loneliness by 67 percentage points when compared to office work. Loneliness is, in fact, the biggest struggle remote workers face, tied with issues related to collaboration and communication, according to a 2020 report by Buffer.
The crossover between loneliness and burnout has a negative impact on worker productivity. Lonely workers are twice as likely to miss a day of work due to illness and five times more likely to miss work due to stress, while 12% of lonely workers say they believe their work is lower quality than it should be, according to Cigna research. Lonely workers also say they think about quitting their job more than twice as often as non-lonely workers.
How employers are helping
Companies faced with the risks are, for one, turning to frequent and clear communication with employees.
“It’s important that the hybrid work model is clearly communicated, beyond just ‘talk to your manager,’” says Robert Ageloff, Market Director, West Region, JLL.
Scheduling regular check-ins with remote individuals or teams also helps, as does setting clear expectations for how workers will communicate, how often, and what time of day.
While video meetings are often suggested, the research does not necessarily indicate that it helps with employee loneliness, Ageloff says. In fact, many employees feel burned out by all the screen time.
Once local guidelines say it is safe to do so, the real key is to have a clearly communicated return-to-office plan with leaders setting the example. Ageloff says collaboration and camaraderie don’t happen by accident, they must be nurtured in the fertile ground that only the office can provide.
“It’s important that leaders are back in the office showing what the return to office is like,” Ageloff says.
*Name has been changed