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HomeRemote WorkWhy returning to the office won’t solve worker loneliness

Why returning to the office won’t solve worker loneliness

The workplace is one of the most important social resources in a typical American adult’s life. Fifty-four percent of Americans with close friends made at least one of them through work — their own or a partner’s — according to 2021 research from the Survey Center on American Life. Adults in the U.S. are more likely to make friends at work than in any other way, including school, the neighborhood, or through existing friends.

The temptation to blame remote work

It’s tempting to blame the workplace for our current social crisis. Right now, Americans are experiencing a surge in loneliness so profound that the Surgeon General has characterized it as an epidemic. Some critics believe remote and flexible work is at fault, fraying our social ties by removing incidental interactions from our daily lives. Recent reporting from Te-Ping Chen in the Wall Street Journal describes some hybrid teams increasing their in-office time to boost connection.

It makes intuitive sense to reach that conclusion, but the data tells a different story.

The decline in workplace friendships

Since 2007, Gallup’s quarterly Q12 employee engagement survey has measured the strength of workplace friendships. According to this data, the low point for office friendship — the year that the fewest Americans reported having a best friend at work — was 2013.

Social connection, in general, has been declining for more than a decade. Since 2003, the time we spend weekly with friends is down 20 hours per month, while time spent socially isolated has spiked by 24 hours per month. These patterns hold in the workplace, with research from BetterUp finding that only 68% of workers in 2024 say they know their colleagues personally, down from 79% in 2019.

Work location and worker loneliness

The modern workplace may be at fault, but there’s no strong indication that work location is the problem. A meta-analysis of studies on worker loneliness at work found that remote work was weakly linked to loneliness at the height of the pandemic. Still, there was no correlation at all in studies conducted before the pandemic. Research from Perceptyx yields similar results, finding that about 42% of all workers report loneliness, with the highest levels among remote and in-office workers and the lowest among hybrid workers.

That report adds that returning to the office will unlikely solve the problem. It notes, “Remote workers often prefer to work from home for specific reasons. Forcing them back to the office sends their engagement plummeting, which drives up loneliness and all the associated health and productivity implications.”

Workplace factors that ease loneliness

The Perceptyx study finds that the key factors driving loneliness at work are not location but gender, seniority, and time spent in meetings. Men were far more lonely than women, and senior leaders were far more lonely than other workers. Counterintuitively, people who spent the most time in meetings were more than twice as likely to say they were “very lonely” than those with fewer meetings.

It may be that the overload of meetings — which are ineffective 72% of the time — is one symptom of a set of major fault lines in workplace culture. The over-scheduled calendar of a typical knowledge worker can indicate any number of leadership problems: a desire for unsustainable growth and productivity, a need to surveil what employees are doing, or a belief that simply meeting demonstrates that work is progressing — none of them good for people or businesses.

Strategies to foster connection

What does work is clear:

  • Create space for non-work topics: BetterUp’s 2024 Connection Report finds that the top predictors of connection between colleagues focus on getting to know people personally through casual, fun conversation. Conversations about work are not strongly associated with better relationships. Create opportunities for chit-chat within the flow of existing work conversations — people don’t tend to attend optional workplace social time — and make sure leaders participate too.
  • In-person time, but not all the time: Atlassian has found that one high-quality in-person interaction with coworkers boosts productivity and engagement that lasts for 3-4 months. Similarly, the people analytics platform Worklytics has found that you need just one in-office interaction per month to provide 90% of the social benefits of in-person work; after that, there are diminishing returns on in-person interactions.
  • Eliminate the junk meetings: Meetings without purpose or agenda are hurting teams. Here’s a handy diagnostic for eliminating low-impact meetings and boosting the outcomes of the remaining ones. When you do meet, be sure to carve out time for socializing.
  • Focus on trust and psychological safety: Small talk boosts weak ties, which are important at work, but vulnerability is the key to true connection and friendship. Workplaces that create a culture of trust and psychological safety not only enjoy better business outcomes but also create more fertile ground for strong social networks to flourish.

Building a happier and more connected workforce

Worker loneliness is not a simple problem; it defies simple, binary solutions like enforcing a return-to-office mandate. Like so many workplace problems, solving it starts with a commitment to team culture, regardless of location, and builds from there.

The good news is that the workplace is predisposed to alleviate worker loneliness. People may be lonely at work, but they’re significantly lonelier without it. Being part of a team improves loneliness by almost 10%, according to Perceptyx. By continuing to build on that foundation, leaders and organizations not only improve their outcomes but also make real strides toward a happier and more connected workforce as a whole.