Inspiring Human Connection at Work

Face-to-face interactions keep employees happy and productive

by Haworth, Inc.

There has been a disturbing trend cropping up in the workplace: loneliness. A new survey from Cigna indicates that most American adults can be considered “lonely.” Not only does this affect the happiness and well-being of individual employees, but it also has a negative impact on workgroups and an organization as a whole—reducing collaboration, creativity, innovation, and productivity.

So, what’s causing this epidemic of loneliness?

It’s hard to say what makes everyone tick, but the increased use of digital technology at work can’t be ignored. While allowing for more communication—anytime, anywhere—virtual tools, including social networks, email, and countless messaging platforms, may actually be isolating us from one another.

When Social Media Isn’t So Social
As it turns out, social media may not be so social after all. A recent study appearing in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, reported that young adults with high social media use—more than two hours a day—feel more socially isolated than their counterparts with low social media use. That feeling of loneliness, however, doesn’t seem to be related solely to an increased use of social media. Rather, the cause is more likely the fact that this virtual form of communication has been replacing the quality face-to-face interactions that keep us truly connected.

The Pitfalls of Email

In 1971, a young computer engineer by the name of Ray Tomlinson ushered in a new era of communication by inventing what he referred to as “a neat idea,” according to a New York Times article. That “neat idea” has now become the global standard for ’round-the-clock, instant communication in the business world. While it’s helped us share ideas, news, and work with others a world away, we may have gotten too comfortable with it. Think about how often you’ve sent email to someone sitting not more than five feet away, when you could easily just turn and talk to the person. Why do we think that email is somehow more beneficial than speaking with someone face-to-face?

To beg the question even further, we can look at the research. A study conducted at Western University found that making a face-to-face request is actually 34 times more effective than sending an email. This tells us that, not only is email replacing our loneliness-busting human interactions, it also seems to be less valuable in terms of communication and understanding. According to the study, nonverbal cues conveyed during face-to-face interaction are clearly superior to the absence of them (as in email). It is these cues that lend legitimacy and clarity to the information presented.

Face-to-Face Opportunities Can Help with Loneliness and Connection
Cigna’s recent loneliness survey found that in-person interactions play an important role in alleviating feelings of loneliness. People who engage in daily face-to-face interactions are typically much less lonely than those who experience infrequent in-person interactions. And data shows that people who more often have meaningful, in-person social experiences report having good physical and mental health, with a balance of activities in their lives.

As companies begin to understand this important connection between interaction, loneliness, and well-being, they’re starting to create more in-person opportunities for people to see and connect with each other. While remote work is still very much alive, we’re seeing a trend in which companies are investing more in their office programs and physical spaces to entice people to come into the office more often.

Cigna itself has used the data collected from their survey to address workplace loneliness and foster a culture of human connectivity. In an article published in The Washington Post, President and CEO, David M. Cordani shared some of the things Cigna is doing that could be put into practice by other organizations:

  • Implementing opportunities for employees to build networks through mentorships, partnering, and coaching. 
  • Encouraging cross-functional collaboration to help people feel a greater sense of shared goals. 
  • Instituting new ways of working that require more face-to-face interaction.
  • Establishing employee resource groups to provide support communities for employees and better foster a diverse and inclusive workplace.  

In terms of workspaces, we’re seeing more companies renovating and consolidating locations to support workers who come into the office. Open spaces and benching workstations are making it possible to easily collaborate and connect within teams. Comfortable, homey spaces for group work and meetings are being integrated. And floorplans are being redesigned to offer opportunities for serendipitous meetings, building relationships as people move throughout the space. These changes are enticing more workers who have a choice to come in and work with their colleagues in-person.

Offering people the choice to work wherever they work best is essential in today’s workplace. However, research shows that when employees interact more with each other in physical environments, it can decrease feelings of loneliness and social isolation—and promote creativity, collaboration, and relationship building. Providing employees with opportunities and spaces to come together, face-to-face, is a winning investment all-around.