Can flexible workspaces combat loneliness in the office?

While remote working’s rise and the growing reliance on digital collaboration means the modern office can feel a lot less social, well-designed workspaces can help prevent employee loneliness.

June 28, 2021

Despite the cubicles and private offices of old being largely replaced by open and collaborative spaces, 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 Ashleigh Duke, JLL New Zealand Head of Project and Development Services.

“This has clear socioeconomic costs due to the impact of loneliness on employee health, productivity, and staff turnover.”

Flexible working

Office design plays a vital role in combating workplace loneliness.

A flexible workspace is built on the premise that rather than being fixed to their desk, employees can work from different areas tailored for different types of work.

JLL recently completed a new office fit-out for New Zealand law firm Buddle Findlay which adopts new ways of working with features like open-plan space divided into several breakout zones for solo or collaborative work and areas that blur the boundaries between work and social space.

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

“Redesigning meeting rooms to encourage a more relaxed atmosphere can also get people interacting more. For example, choosing furniture and tables akin to those in cafes promotes socialising that helps develop personal connections that can strengthen working relationships and increase productivity.”

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

Technology - a double-edged sword?

Tools for the digital workspace such as video conferencing, instant messaging and project management apps have become a vital part of the modern office.

However, these same technologies can also create distance between colleagues.

“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,” says Duke.

“Companies are now recognising this, as we’re seeing a movement towards 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.

“Other companies have policies of not writing emails before or after certain hours, or they might specify which digital tools should be used for sending particular types of messages.”

It comes down to promoting a healthy work-life balance so that employees don’t feel overwhelmed or pressurised into working long hours in solitary conditions at the detriment of their long-term wellbeing.

Office culture is key

A collaborative work culture encourages employees to make the best use of flexible workspace, as well as building strong working relationships with their colleagues.

“While good office design is an enabler, a healthy workplace culture is vital in tackling loneliness,” says Duke.

On-boarding programmes help new employees connect with other staff, while features like games rooms or teambuilding activities can build team relationships.

“Companies should invest in their workplace culture as well as their physical office design,” says Duke.

“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 or establishing social committees to generate buzz around the office with events like launch celebrations, dance classes, and shared lunches to relax and get to know others in the office.

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

“Creating an office that is flexible and social helps to empower employees to establish positive relationships with colleagues – and that has a direct positive return on productivity and engagement,” concludes Duke.