Not long ago, things were simple. Most people went to work (they actually went somewhere) and worked with colleagues (who they knew well) often for many years. Along came technology and suddenly the working world was transformed...
Now some people work wholly or mainly from home, teams can be spread across the world, managers manage colleagues they have never physically met. Entire working lives can be spent alone at home or travelling. Even more traditional industries are heralding the arrival of hot desks and agile working. At the same time the gig economy, increase in self-employment and general trend towards more freelance and flexible roles is changing our workforce beyond recognition. According to the Office for National Statistics , for example, the number of self-employed people in the UK labour market grew from 3.3 million (12%) in 2001 to 4.8 million (15.1%) by 2017.
There are advantages – for some, work life balance is massively aided by being able to work flexibly or remotely, business overheads can be decreased by savings on office space and the transport system has a little bit of pressure taken off it (not that that is noticeable on my jam packed train into the City). But one size does not fit all. What may be lost is not only the sense of being part of a team but also the human interaction and camaraderie that comes with a 'traditional' work life – water cooler moments don't happen at your kitchen sink.
One person's freedom is another's isolation. At a time when we are supposedly more connected than ever, the irony is that loneliness is soaring. Last March, a survey by Aldermore found that nearly 40% of self-employed people say they have felt lonely since they became their own boss. The UK Council for Psychotherapy released figures on World Mental Health Day last year (10 October) showing that workers in the UK reporting anxiety and depression have risen by nearly a third in the last four years. Interestingly, the figures for part time workers were worse than full-timers with a rise of 33.6%. Aside from the human cost this is also a major expense to the economy given associated time off, impact on productivity and resources required to deal with the fallout.
So I say bring back society – or at least a sense of it. Even in a world of hot desking and remote working, promoting contact between colleagues can mitigate some of the effects of (physically) disconnected working. Regular get-togethers, face to face meetings, Skype calls and even phone calls in place of email are all ways of keeping in contact with colleagues and may help to ensure any issues with isolation are detected more quickly. Those working for themselves could consider working in one of the growing number of workspaces for entrepreneurs. These can provide both networking opportunities and a means of combating feelings of disconnectedness.
Linked to this, those designing workspaces should not lose sight of the fact that people are different – some thrive on solitude and quiet, others on social contact. Even in open plan environments consider giving people the option of working in not only different locations but also in differently configured spaces.
Ultimately, as the trend towards flexible types of working looks set to continue, we all need to ensure that mental health issues are identified and managed. Isolation is not so splendid – let's work together to combat it.
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