How technology created a lonely workplace


Like many entrepreneurs around the world, I regularly collaborate with a remote team. It allows me to save time, extend our talent pool and gain flexibility. This workplace situation has become commonplace regardless of company size, geography and industry.

A study by the Global Leadership Summit found that about a third of the global workforce will be remote in the next two years. After over seven years of remote working, I’ve realized how isolated, lonely and disengaged I’ve become in this work situation. Even despite being highly productive, it always feels like something is missing when I don’t see my colleagues.

The main driver of remote work is technology, which has enabled everyone to connect with each other from anywhere, at anytime. Technology has created the illusion that we’re all highly connected, and social, when in reality we are deprived of real human interaction, which has led to a loneliness epidemic and lowered team commitment.

‘After over seven years of remote working, I’ve realized how isolated, lonely and disengaged I’ve become in this work situation. Something is missing when I don’t see my colleagues.’

Even though you might believe your employees are present during a conference call, their minds are actually wandering. While you might think they are productive, they are actually just searching for a new job or starting their own online business.

The freedom that technology has given us has had the reverse effect on your personal needs. After shelter and food, we desire relationships and love, which are hard to receive when technology is a barrier between us. While we crave in-person interactions, our behavior shows that we are addicted to our devices.

Through two global studies conducted by Future Workplace in partnership with Randstad, we found that young professionals choose a corporate office over remote work, and in-person meetings over virtual ones. Yet, we also found that over a third spend approximately 30% of their personal and work time on Facebook

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Instead of acting on our desires, we are so consumed and distracted by our devices that we look down instead of straight ahead.

Lucas Deming

Dan Schawbel.

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As a result of our technology overuse, our productivity, loyalty and relationships have declined. Sigal Barsade, professor of management at the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, interviewed 672 employees and their 114 supervisors, and found that greater employee loneliness led to poorer task, team role, and relational performance.

In a separate study, John P. Meyer and Natalie J. Allen, professors of psychology at Western University in London, Ontario, found that the quality of employees’ interpersonal relationships has a significant impact on how they perceive and connect with their company. Employees who are lonely are more likely to feel a lack of belonging at work and have a lower commitment to their company. Technology might create an abundance of connections but they are weaker and have less staying power.

‘Bumping into other employees can spark new relationships that lead to breakthrough ideas, but when everyone is on their phones, those conversations don’t take place, so opportunities are lost.’

If you’ve ever been in a team meeting, you’ve experienced an employee who is on their device the whole time instead of actually participating in the discussion. Their lack of attentiveness shows they aren’t present and are disrespectful to their teammates, even if they feel like they aren’t. In the hallways at work, bumping into other employees can spark new relationships that lead to breakthrough ideas but when everyone is on their phones, those conversations don’t take place, so opportunities are lost.

Managers are especially prone to letting technology be a crutch to real leadership, ownership and delegation. Paul Reich, senior vice president of local sales at Yelp

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told me, “Front line managers in particular are susceptible to being sucked into their screen for hours on end, when the real work is out there on the floor, interacting in person with their people.”

Managers can’t let technology do their job for them or their positions will be susceptible to automation. Instead, they need to put effort into showing face, speaking up and being empathetic to their sales force — just like their sales force needs to use the same personal touch to close major deals.

Email over-usage leads to workplace loneliness. Many employees would rather go back and forth dozens of times through email over walking a few feet to communicate an important message. In a global study by Future Workplace and Virgin Pulse, we discovered that about half of an employee’s day is spent using email to communicate and over 40% of them feel lonely very often or always as a consequence.

Email exchanges can create weak ties, miscommunication and frustration among teammates, when face-time can be more efficient and effective. When employees feel isolated and alone, they become unfulfilled and unhappy, which leads to job searching and poor health.

Work loneliness is a serious threat to our overall health and should be taken seriously. Dr. Vivek Murthy, the former Surgeon General of the United States, told me that “loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in life span similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.”

Leaders have to encourage face-to-face communication in order to create a healthier, and less lonely, organization for them and their teams.

Dan Schawbel is the author of “Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation.”

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