For millions of employees, remote work has been life-changing. Many women, along with Generation X employees who are now approaching middle age, say the ability to work remotely ranks higher than compensation and benefits when they consider what makes them happy about their jobs. Among Generation X employees, remote work also ranked above having a great boss, a positive workplace culture and career-growth prospects, according to research from global technology and talent consultancy MSH.
While people clearly value working remotely, it can come at a personal cost, as a growing number of employees say they feel isolated from their employers and colleagues. Even employees who regularly work in the office can feel lonely. In fact, about 8 out of 10 employees (82 percent) say they have felt lonely at work, according to a 2022 survey of more than 5,000 workers in Brazil, China, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. conducted by consulting firm EY.
Lonely employees are more likely to feel dissatisfied and burned out at work. And loneliness also drags down employee performance and commitment, according to research from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and California State University (CSU).
But companies that provide meaningful support and encourage connections may have a competitive advantage. New research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) shows that close companionships at work can have a significant positive impact on a person's career, job satisfaction, sense of belonging and more.
"Today's workers expect much more than just a competitive salary and good benefits—they want to feel a true sense of belonging and community," says Dan Schawbel, managing partner of research and advisory firm Workplace Intelligence.
Concerns about employee loneliness and isolation have reached the C-suite. Two out of 3 executives believe workers may soon quit their jobs because of how disconnected they feel, according to a survey conducted last year by Airspeed, a social platform firm, and Workplace Intelligence. And those concerns appear to be justified, as being disconnected also was cited as the top reason why employees said they would leave their jobs at fully remote or hybrid organizations.
‘Employers need to create a strong culture of connection in order to engage and retain employees, or they'll risk losing their best employees at a time when most can't afford to do so.’
In addition, more than 90 percent of executives said culture and connection are lacking for their remote team members. At the same time, more than 70 percent of workers don't feel like they are able to socialize enough when working remotely.
Among the workers surveyed by EY, 46 percent indicated they are likely to leave their job because of loneliness. This sentiment was particularly strong among members of Generation Z (54 percent) and Millennials (52 percent). Among members of Generation X and Baby Boomers, 42 percent and 31 percent, respectively, said they're likely to leave an employer if they felt lonely.
"The transition to remote work has been immensely challenging for businesses and their employees," says Doug Camplejohn, the founder and CEO of Airspeed. "Employers need to create a strong culture of connection in order to engage and retain employees, or they'll risk losing their best employees at a time when most can't afford to do so."
The 2023 SHRM Workplace Romance & Relationships Survey found that organizations that encourage friendships may have a competitive edge: increased retention rates. According to the survey, 76 percent of U.S. workers who have close friends at work say it makes them more likely to remain with their employer. And 25 percent of U.S. workers who have close friends at work say that if their friend left their job, they would consider leaving too.
The SHRM survey also found that:
- 85 percent of U.S. workers who have close friends at work say it has positively impacted their career.
- U.S. workers who have close friends at work are significantly more likely to say they feel a strong sense of belonging to their organization (80 percent) than those without close friends at work (63 percent).
- U.S. workers who have close friends at work are significantly more likely to say they are satisfied with their job (86 percent) than those without close friends at work (74 percent).
Alone in a Crowd
However, isolation and loneliness can affect all employees, not just remote and hybrid workers. An employee does not have to be alone to feel lonely, according to the Wharton School and CSU study. "[L]onely employees can be lonely even when interacting frequently with many others," the study authors wrote "… Whether employees feel lonely depends on the level of closeness, security and support they seek in their interpersonal relationships. Thus, the same work environment could fulfill the interpersonal needs of some employees while leaving other employees lonely."
In EY's survey, 40 percent of global respondents said a lack of face-to-face interactions with co-workers was a main contributor to their sense of work-related loneliness.