Many see it as a key employee benefit in a changing world, with employees having either a flexible timetable or working in different locations, often resulting in a better work-life balance. Such a balance allows them to be happier, more productive and less distracted for their jobs, while also potentially removing key stress boosters such as the morning commute, or arranging childcare.
Yet there is a little-discussed downside to flexible working, namely the growing problem of workplace loneliness.
As more of us opt to work from home, or work varied hours, co-workers are seeing much less of each other and much more of their screens. While colleagues don’t have to be your closest friends, your day-to-day relationships can be significant to feelings of happiness and satisfaction.
The Guardian recently analysed research from the University of Columbia which showed that people who engaged in pro-social behaviour with ‘social weak ties’ in their lives, such as coffee-room chats with office colleagues or the assistant in the local shop, felt happier and less lonely. However, with workers often dispersed across different locations and checking in only via email, there is much less opportunity for the small yet significant bonding moments in the day-to-day.
Furthermore, research from ADP’s Workforce View 2018 report showed that relationships with colleagues are the most motivating factor at work after pay and remuneration, with 21% of colleagues citing this as the factor that most energises them at work. So while flexible working has a number of important benefits, office relationships are also key to employee wellbeing. This isn’t only significant in terms of wellbeing and is something that can have wide-reaching effects on business success. Teams with a good rapport and strong relationships will often work better together, finding more dynamic and creative solutions to tough problems.
It’s a difficult quandary for HR. Flexible working has arrived and is here to stay, yet it cannot be denied that it can have a huge cultural impact on a business. The key things to consider when analysing your strategies and policies are your business’ and your employees’ motivations. Flexible working should always be a choice and not just done as a cost-savings plan; best practice means developing contracts based on an individual employee’s needs and capacities. Do your employees want to work remotely or are they being pushed to stay at home? And for those who do want to work from home, do they have the appropriate tools available to them?
Wherever your employees are working, it’s critical to have them working together. This may involve investing in tech that allows for online collaboration, but it’s a critical long-term investment. For example, some companies are experimenting with virtual break rooms where remote workers can join in conversations with on-site colleagues. Different tools will suit different companies but without them you cannot promote the level of collaboration that employees need.
Companies should also ensure they utilise the easy and cheap tech that’s already available to them, and not just default to the far simpler ‘pinging an email’. It’s easy to become lazy about organising face-to-face time when it feel like you can get the job done without it, but maintaining policies that prompt workers to spend time in the office, or catching up on video chat, is an important long-term investment in your workplace environment. It could be an investment that perhaps only has subconscious effects, but these are nonetheless significant.
It’s no mean feat for HR divisions to tackle these issues, and the trend represents yet another challenge when planning for the future work environment. However, confronting them head-on, and remembering to always consider your employees’ needs, is key to a happy workforce which is still able to enjoy that much sought after work-life balance.
By Melanie Robinson, Senior Director HRBP Sales, ADP