The Isolation of Remote Work Puts Young Employees Most At Risk. Here's What We Can Do About It. As the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic has started to wane, leaders have begun to hypothesize what a return to normalcy will look like, which social and economic changes will stay and which will fade. Their top priority, however, should be the issue of loneliness.
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As Airbnb CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky recently put it: "The mall is Amazon. The theatre is Netflix. The office is Zoom. There's a future where you never leave your home and after Covid is over, the most dangerous thing will be loneliness."
Loneliness was a global pandemic before Covid-19, but its consequences have only grown more severe, especially among our youth. A study published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education noted that 36% of respondents reported severe loneliness — feeling lonely "frequently" or "almost all the time or all the time," including 61% of young people aged 18–25. More notably, 43% of young adults reported increases in loneliness since the pandemic's outbreak.
At the same time, as the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic has started to wane, leaders have begun to hypothesize what a return to normalcy will look like, which social and economic changes will stay and which will fade. With that emerges the definition of what the new working world will become.
And with that debate comes one major underlying theme and the center of many boardroom discussions — productivity. As recent trends such as quiet quitting emerge, leaders are asking whether their employees can actually be more productive 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 beneficial means. Yet there is one major elephant in the room that remains, an underlying theme that many companies continue to overlook because, in the end, they don't see that it directly translates to productivity and, frankly, there isn't a correlation to the bottom line.
That component is loneliness.
As leaders reimagine the new definition of a return to the office, we must take our employees' mental health into account, addressing the role an in-office environment plays for each category of worker, especially younger workers. To attain desirable positions, many of today's younger workers are required to move away from their respective universities, relocate far from their families and friends and work long hours to learn and grow in their respective trades. Many of them are now even more isolated due to their remote work environments.
In assessing the new return-to-office environment, today's companies must consider factors beyond profit and productivity. We, as company leaders, have a responsibility to consider the mental health of those who join our ranks. And we must be more comprehensive in our approach to doing so.
Here are five things companies should consider as they assess a remote environment in the context of the growing loneliness pandemic:
1. Get to know your employee base
Understand those you are hiring and take factors such as their life stages, social environments and geographic locations into account. Develop a longer-term new hire onboarding process, enabling deeper, lasting integration into the company culture. Create ongoing communications touchpoints and an interdepartmental leadership task force that incorporates diverse feedback into the human capital plan.
2. Create authentic social outlets
Develop in-person meetups that cater to employees' personal interests. These need to be more than just casual happy hours. Consider activities that employees would not have the opportunity to experience together otherwise with a focus on wellness, education, exploration and personal development. Create "growth groups" whereby employees with similar passions align with activities that cater to their interests, fostering opportunities for more meaningful bonding that is sustained over a 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 more naturally fostered in in-person environments, so they may require more deliberate attention if a company chooses to remain remote.
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 versus having to go. There is an opportunity for more of a hoteling type of drop-in environment with greater flexibility in terms of open office hours and a design that fosters communal engagement versus siloed work styles.
5. Reinvent the retreat
In prior times, company retreats or off-sites have been a one-off occurrence, marked by expensive locales and master-planned schedules. There is now an opportunity to make the retreat a more frequent occurrence. It could be a once-a-month on-site at an inspiring out-of-office location where colleagues gather with the sole purpose of spending quality time together. Nothing more.
Reframing the role of the company in today's diversified work environment is the right thing to do. As the mental health epidemic continues to grow, especially among our youth, the responsibility becomes even more prevalent. We must take a deeper dive to develop programs that make a more meaningful impact. Companies that do so will not only better serve their employees, but they will also be those that the best employees choose to work for with loyalty. In turn, this will help foster team members who are well-balanced, engaged, and, as a result, more productive.