How flexible workspace can tackle loneliness in the office

With the rise of remote working and the growing reliance on digital collaboration, the modern office can feel a lot less social - but well-designed workspace can help prevent employee isolation.

April 04, 2019

Open-plan, collaborative workspaces may have largely replaced the cubicles and private offices familiar to previous generations of employees but workplace loneliness is on the rise

Face-to-face communication often cedes to instant messaging and more colleagues work remotely, while the prevalence of workspace apps means employees working on the same project might do so virtually.

“Modern offices can end up isolating employees if technology or design removes the impetus for people to chat or collaborate face-to-face,” says Guzmán de Yarza Blache, Head of Workplace Strategy and Design at JLL Spain. 

Loneliness can be a neglected aspect of workplace wellness – and one that has socioeconomic costs. Lonely people are less engaged with work and more likely to need sick days.

In the UK, for example, research from the New Economics Foundation estimated that 1.2 million people suffer from chronic loneliness, costing employers £2.5 billion a year due to the impact of loneliness on health, productivity and increased staff turnover.

Flexible workspace encourages interaction

Office design can play a pivotal role in combating workplace loneliness. 

“One element of the progressive working environment is that it’s flexible and activity-based,” says Yarza Blache.

In a flexible workspace, employees can work from different areas based on the type of work, instead of remaining anchored to their desks. At FlipKart headquarters, the open-plan space is divided into several breakout zones for solo or collaborative work, while Airbnb’s London office features areas where employees can sit, stand or recline, blurring the boundaries between work and social space. 

“Agile workspace that can be used for multiple purposes creates social, collaborative areas in the office,” says Yarza Blache. “People are more likely to move around and mingle.”

Redesigning meeting rooms to encourage a more relaxed atmosphere can also get people interacting more.

Companies are choosing furniture and tables that are more like those in cafes,” says Yarza Blache. “A space that promotes socialising helps people to develop personal connections with their colleagues which can strengthen their working relationships and make them more engaged with their work.”

Isolation and loneliness in freelancers and remote workers, for example, improves when in coworking spaces, which feature multiple areas where working and networking are often blurred.

Setting boundaries on technology

Tools for the digital workspace such as video conferencing, instant messaging and project management apps are an important part of modern office life.

However, these same technologies can also create distance between colleagues, while those working remotely can feel disconnected if tech issues hinder virtual meetings. “Technology can enable greater collaboration but if there is an over-reliance, employees lose the chance to connect with each other on a daily basis,” notes Yarza Blache.

Many companies are now setting technology-free zones – for example, SoundCloud’s Berlin office features a chill-out room with no digital distractions – as well as standards that manage how technology is used.

“Some companies have policies of not writing emails before certain hours, or they might specify which digital tools should for sending particular types of messages,” says Yarza Blache. “It’s part of promoting a good work-life balance to ensure employees don’t feel overwhelmed or pressurised into working long hours in solitary conditions, which can have serious implications for their long-term wellbeing.” 

Office culture matters

A supportive work culture is key for encouraging employees to make the best use of flexible workspace, as well as building good working relationships with their colleagues. 

“Good office design is an enabler, but culture is extremely important in combating loneliness,” says Yarza Blache.

A shift in managerial focus towards achievement rather than presenteeism, for example, can improve engagement and productivity when both managers and employees have a clear understanding of the ground rules.

On-boarding programs help newcomers connect with other staff, while features like games rooms or teambuilding activities can encourage team relationships. At Manchester’s Bright HR, a 50 foot indoor garden is outfitted with comfy chairs, bean bags and tents, while one zone has a football goal for a quick kickabout during work or breaks.

Companies should invest in their workplace culture as well as their physical office design, Yarza Blache says: “This operations cost – as opposed to expenditure on furniture – is increasingly crucial to activate what happens in the office, especially for flexible workspaces.”

Some companies are even hiring workplace experience managers to generate buzz around the space. Ticketmaster, for example, hosts launch events, hackathons and dance classes for employees to blow off steam and get to know each other.

With the incoming generation of workers putting a clear priority on social, communal workplaces, creating vibrant office spaces and an inclusive culture has never been more important. 

“Creating an office that is flexible, social and stimulating empowers employees to establish positive relationships with colleagues,” concludes Yarza Blache. “That has a direct return on productivity and engagement.”