Social Connection in Remote WorkReport 2022

Does remote work make us lonely? After two years of lockdown-imposed homeworking, it’s not surprising that this is one of the most commonly asked questions about the future of work.

Why does it matter?

Loneliness is a dangerous and widely underestimated health issue. It's been associated with damaged relationships, depression, substance abuse and an array of other serious health issues.

And it’s on the rise. In the United States, 15% of men say they have no close friends, an increase of more than 10 percentage points since 1990. In the Netherlands, almost a third of adults admit to being lonely. In 2010, Three in five Brits between 18 and 34 said that they are lonely either often or sometimes. And two 2018 studies found that 40% of office workers globally struggle with loneliness —several years before we all started working from home.

With modern technology, we can interact with others anywhere and at any time. But it’s often these same tools that make us feel more alone and isolated. Some are concerned that the recent uptick of tech-enabled remote work will exacerbate this loneliness epidemic. Others believe remote work actually holds the key to reviving our communal ties; that by releasing us from office-based work, companies empower us to spend more of our working days amongst neighbours, friends and family.

To settle the debate, #WorkAnywhere & Selina teamed up with world-class researchers from Boston University and the University of Canterbury to collect and analyse data from ~1,100 remote workers around the world. Social Connection in Remote Work is the first-ever study that incorporates data from non-home remote environments to explore these questions.

Our hope is that this study will help policymakers and businesses protect and boost the social and mental health of their growing remote workforces.

Technial Notes

Overview

The data was collected via survey between February 17, 2022 and April 26, 2022. Throughout this period, participants were recruited on social media (including LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram & TikTok) and through email via supporting organisations.

Sample Population

Respondents were eligible to participate if they provided informed consent and worked (either as an employee at an organisation or as a self-employed freelancer / contractor) at a job that could “provide the potential to work remotely, even in a limited manner.”

A total of 1,617 participants initiated the survey. Of these, 1,291 provided informed consent and met the eligibility criteria. Of these, 226 responses were incomplete and excluded from analyses. A further 8 were excluded for quality control reasons. This resulted in a final analytic sample size of 1,057.

The sample is made up of 819 (77.5%) employees and 238 (22.5%) freelancers. The average age of the demographic was 34.0 years old and the most common age generation (70.48%) was millennials. Responses came from people living in 55 countries: 54.0% in North America, 29.7% in Europe and 6.7% “Don't consider [themselves] to live in a single country”. The sample was 66.0% female and 31.6% male. 11.0% of respondents lived with children and 39.0% with a partner. Full breakdown available for download here.

In order for this study to effectively compare home, office and third spaces, we secured a sample population that had mostly experienced all three. This allowed us to adequately evaluate third spaces as an alternative to the office / home (with the hopes these learnings could be valuable to the broader population).

Measuring Loneliness

The UCLA Loneliness Scale was used to measure the loneliness of respondents on a 5-point scale where 1 = not lonely at all and 5 = as lonely as is possible. Respondents were asked three questions:

1. How often do you feel that you lack companionship?
2. How often do you feel left out?
3. How often do you feel socially isolated from others?

With responses: (1) Never, (2), Hardly ever, (3) Some of the time, (4) Often, (5) All of the time. The average of their three responses calculates their loneliness scale. This 5-point loneliness scale is referenced throughout.

The most & least lonely respondents, also referenced throughout, are those on either extreme of the loneliness scale. This was calculated as 1.5 standard deviations from the mean - greater than 3.84 or less than 1.38 on the loneliness scale respectively.

Introduction

According to the Campaign to End Loneliness website, loneliness is as bad for one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and actually worse than obesity. It’s also associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure and puts individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Coupled with severe depression, loneliness can even be fatal.

But loneliness has another major consequence: the deterioration of employee retention in the workplace.

Employee retention and turnover is a leading workforce management challenge. Large U.S. businesses lose at least $1 trillion each year due to voluntary employee turnover, which many workers say their managers or organisations could have prevented. Our hope is that these findings will encourage employers to do more to preserve employee health and wellbeing.

This was calculated by asking respondents “How often do you think about quitting your job?” with available answers: (1) Never, (2) Hardly ever, (3) Some of the time, (4) Often, (5) All of the time. Responses were averaged for most/least lonely respondents.

This was calculated by asking respondents “For how long do you anticipate staying at your current employer?” with available answers: (1) Less than 6 months, (2) 6-11 months, (3) 1-2 years, (4) 3-5 years, (5) Over 6 years. Responses were averaged for most/least lonely respondents.

This shows that ‘least lonely’ employees anticipate staying for an average of 1.5 years at their job. ‘Most lonely’ employees, however, only expect to stay for 6-12 months.

This was calculated by asking respondents “How satisfied are you with your current job?” with available answers: How satisfied are you with your current job?. Responses were averaged for most/least lonely respondents.

Loneliness in the Remote Workplace

According to Stanford Economics Professor Nick Bloom, the pandemic generated the largest shock to working life since World War II. Our data tells a similar story: the amount of home working among our respondents increased by nearly 300% (from 24.5% pre-pandemic to 67.6%).

It’s the greatest lifestyle upheaval our culture has seen for generations, which is why we need to understand how this tectonic shift is impacting our social and mental health.

So how often do remote workers actually feel lonely? 55% of our sample population report feeling at least some loneliness, with 15% falling into the ‘at risk’ category (lonely ‘often’ or ‘all of the time’).

Psychologists define loneliness as the gap between a person's desired levels of social contact and their actual level of social contact. It’s a subjective feeling and refers to an individual’s perceived quality of their personal relationships.

That’s what makes these insights so crucial. If social connections during the workday were unimportant to most people, their working patterns would remain unaffected whether they were lonely or not.

But that’s not the case.

68% of our sample population find social connection to be important, meaning where and how they work can have a major impact on their wellbeing. This number increases to 77.8% for lonely employees, but only 57.5% of non-lonely employees believe that social connection during the workday is important.

The Risks of Working from Home

This was calculated by asking respondents “Over the past month, approximately what percentage of your work time did you spend working from each location?” with the organisation’s office, home and other remote-work locations as available options to apportion time. Home percentages were averaged for most/least lonely respondents.

Our data shows a link between time spent working from home and loneliness. The more time someone is at home, the more likely they are to report that they are lonely. The difference in working patterns between ‘most’ and ‘least’ lonely people is significant, but that doesn’t mean that working from home is all bad. ‘Least lonely’ people still spend the majority of their working time there.

This was calculated by asking respondents “In general, how socially fulfilling do you find working from your organisation’s office / home / other remote-work locations?” on a 0-10 scale, averaging responses for respondents that primarily worked from each location.

Work-from-home respondents reported home as their most socially fulfilling work location significantly less than those who work mostly from offices or third spaces. We suggest that work needs to be done to determine what keeps someone at home when they might be lonely there.

Resources and access are still two of the biggest obstacles: for example, if one’s office is closed and they can’t afford a coworking membership. But that still wouldn’t explain why one wouldn’t go to a public place. Perhaps home could be described as a ‘convenience trap’ that keeps homeworkers stuck inside their comfort zones.

CONCLUSION

There is a link between time spent working from home and loneliness. The more time someone is at home, the more likely they are to report that they are lonely. Additionally, home is a far less socially fulfilling work location than the office or third spaces.

The Rise of Third Spaces

The term ‘third space’ refers to a place where people can work outside of their home or an office. Third spaces are typically separate locations that combine the requirements for basic job functions (WiFi and a desk or table) with the ability to meet and interact with other like-minded people. These could be someone else’s home, private places like cafes and hotels, public libraries or coworking spaces.

What is interesting is how high coworking spaces score given the higher barrier-to-entry (paid membership) that exists compared to other options. The findings that we have later in this report on the social benefits of coworking spaces might explain their popularity.

Interestingly, when looking exclusively at ‘Gen-Z’ workers, coworking spaces top the chart as the most popular workspace (33.64%). Private places are a close second (32.71%).

Does the majority of people wanting a stronger connection with their neighbours point to how disconnected and individualistic our society has become?

Evidence from the General Social Survey paints a bleak picture of our society’s interpersonal engagement. From 1985 to 2004, the proportion of people who report having no one to discuss important matters with nearly tripled. The question for this project is, given that the majority of workers want a stronger connection to people in their community, where and with whom are they most likely to find it?

For Gen-Zers, ‘flatmates / housemates’ increases to 25.44%, while ‘friends’ increases slightly to 16.67%. However, some of these figures change drastically with the demographic. For people with children, ‘children’ shoots up to 53.51%. While those living with a spouse/partner, ‘spouse / partner’ skyrockets to 83.12%!

Later, we’ll find that people who live alone, are single and don’t have children report higher levels of loneliness than those without. This suggests that working alongside loved ones can have a positive impact.

A massive 46% of respondents work alongside their friends in third spaces. Given that most of our sample population finds social fulfilment during the workday important, this makes a lot of sense. It might also suggest that many friendships are formed in these third spaces.

Looking exclusively at Gen-Z, ‘friends’ shoots up to 52.56%. Truly, the upcoming generation experiences work like never before.

CONCLUSION

Third spaces, or additional work locations outside of workers’ offices and homes, are quickly becoming more popular. Workers’ desire to connect with a large community and work colleagues makes third spaces like coworking spaces particularly useful, especially when they can interact with others outside of their immediate family, partner or house / flatmates.

Is Coworking the Solution?

Here, respondents were asked: “In general, how socially fulfilling do you find working from your organisation’s office / home / other remote-work locations?” on a scale of 0-10. Third spaces stand out as a clear frontrunner.

What’s particularly striking about this finding is that 30.9% of our sample population reported never working from third spaces over an average month. It's safe to assume a sizable portion of that percentage have never worked from third spaces at all and therefore wouldn’t have selected ‘third spaces’ as their answer. This will have inflated the number of ‘Office’ and ‘Home’ results.

If 100% of respondents had tried third spaces, the 42% figure would likely be even higher. Notably, when looking exclusively at Gen-Z, ‘Home’ and ‘Office’ are almost reversed - with the former changing to 31.78% and the latter to 23.36%. For people that feel social connection during the workday is unimportant, home skyrockets to 45.96%.

The following chart comparisons show how those most at risk of loneliness (live alone, are single, don’t have children) want to spend more time in third spaces.

Respondents were asked “What best describes your current living situation?” with available answers: (1) I live alone, (2) I live with a partner or spouse and no children, (3) I live with a partner or spouse and one or more children, (4) I am the only adult and live with one or more children, (5) I live with flatmates / housemates, (6) I live with family, including one or more parent, (7) I live with family, not including a parent. Respondents who do not live with a romantic partner are defined by having answered anything but 2 or 3. Respondents who do not live with a child are defined by having answered anything but 3 or 4.

The charts on the left were calculated by averaging loneliness scale responses for respondents of different living situations. The charts on the right were calculated by asking respondents “Post-pandemic, over an average month, approximately what percentage of your work time would you prefer to spend working from each location?” with the organisation’s office, home and other remote-work locations as available options to apportion time. Other remote-work location percentages were averaged for respondents of different living situations.

To measure the perceived importance of social connection during the workday, respondents were asked “In general, how important is it to you that you have social connection during the workday?” with available answers: (1) Not at all important, (2) Somewhat unimportant, (3) Neither important nor unimportant, (4) Somewhat important, (5) Very important. Respondents who answered 4 or more are defined as feeling social connection during the workday is important and 2 or less as unimportant.

We then asked respondents “Post-pandemic, over an average month, approximately what percentage of your work time would you prefer to spend working from each location?” with the organisation’s office, home and other remote-work locations as available options to apportion time. Office and other remote-work locations percentages were averaged for respondents that felt social connection during the workday was important/unimportant.

Here, third spaces outperform the office in an important way. We’ve already seen how the ‘social connection during the workday’ lens is hugely relevant.

Individuals who find it unimportant are unlikely to have their levels of loneliness impacted by where and how they work. But our research finds that most people do find it important. Not only that, but most want to spend more time in third spaces than the office, a clear indication of how socially fulfilling these locations are for them.

Interestingly, those who find social connection during the workday unimportant want to spend twice as much time in third spaces than the office. This may speak to the convenience factor of third spaces. Another thing to bear in mind is that ‘avoiding unnecessary interactions with coworkers’ was a frequently reported benefit of remote work cited by respondents. Working away from the office achieves this.

Coworking spaces are drastically more socially fulfilling than other third space locations. Given all we’ve seen in this section —how third spaces outperform home and the office on a variety of levels when it comes to social connection— this suggests that coworking spaces, the most socially fulfilling of all third spaces, offer a tangible proposition for tackling loneliness in remote work environments.

Looking exclusively at Gen-Z, ‘someone else’s home’ almost doubles to 14.58%. We’ve already seen how over half of Gen-Z third space users work alongside their friends there. This is another data point suggesting that the upcoming generation places a particular emphasis on spending time with friends during the work day.

Given the clear benefits of third spaces, and in particular coworking spaces, it’s important to understand the obstacles preventing workers from using them, as these can be factored into how the spaces are designed and managed, and the kinds of activities that take place within them to keep users socially engaged. Concerns about being distracted and privacy are significantly more common than other worries.

CONCLUSION

Third spaces (coworking spaces, cafes, etc.) are by far the most socially fulfilling work location for our sample population. While coworking spaces are by far the most socially fulfilling third space in our study. Additionally, those most at risk of loneliness (live alone, are single, don’t have children) want to spend more time in third spaces. A credible argument can be made here that coworking spaces reduce loneliness in remote work environments for some people.

Personality Plays a Big Role

If coworking spaces present a tangible proposition to tackle loneliness, the question becomes: is this true for everyone?

The following insights provide some important depth to the conversation by revealing how introverts and extroverts respond differently to the various work locations.

It’s important to note that introversion itself isn’t a measurable personality trait, as such. Rather, introversion refers to low levels of extroversion, which is one of the Big Five personality traits.

In this study, introverts and extroverts were defined by asking respondents “What level of introversion (solitary/reserved) do you consider part of your natural personality, in comparison to your level of extraversion (outgoing/energetic)?” with available answers: (1) Highly introverted, (2) Somewhat introverted, (3) In-between introverted and extraverted, (4) Somewhat extraverted, (5) Highly extraverted. Introverts are defined as respondents who answered 2 or less, extroverts 4 or more.

Respondents who identified as introverts are more likely to be lonelier than extroverts. This was calculated by averaging loneliness scale responses for introverts and extroverts.

Here we asked respondents: “In general, how socially fulfilling do you find working from your organisation’s office?” on a 0-10 scale, averaging responses for introverts and extroverts.

This was calculated by asking respondents “In general, how socially fulfilling do you find working from home?” on a 0-10 scale, averaging responses for introverts and extroverts.

Here we asked: “Post-pandemic, over an average month, approximately what percentage of your work time would you prefer to spend working from each location?” with the organisation’s office, home and other remote-work locations as available options to apportion time. Home percentages were averaged for introverts and extroverts.

This was calculated by asking respondents “Post-pandemic, over an average month, approximately what percentage of your work time would you prefer to spend working from each location?” with the organisation’s office, home and other remote-work locations as available options to apportion time. Other remote-work location percentages were averaged for introverts and extroverts.

CONCLUSION

Introverts are generally lonelier than extroverts, but they find working from home more socially fulfilling
than other people. Extroverts are less lonely, but working from home is particularly bad for them.

This implies that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Even though introverts are most at risk of loneliness, it’s extroverts who are most vulnerable when working from home and can benefit the most by working elsewhere. Offering third spaces (like coworking spaces) as alternative work locations could be key to fulfilling employees’ unique social connection needs and empower them to work, connect and interact more effectively.

Third Spaces Could Help Level the Playing Field

This chart shows that gender working trends appear to have flipped. Prior to the pandemic, men spent more time working from home than women. Now the reverse is true. This could hint at fundamental workplace inequities.

Before, it seems men had more flexibility and were able to work from home more often. But after the pandemic equalised remote work access, it’s now women who are gravitating toward working from home.

This was calculated by averaging loneliness scale responses for men and women.

Here we asked respondents: “In general, how socially fulfilling do you find working from your organisation’s office?” on a 0-10 scale, averaging responses for men and women.

While it falls outside of the scope of our survey, a key factor at play here could be sexual harassment in the office. According to 2016 research from the Trades Union Congress (TUC), 52% of all women (and 63% of women aged 18-24) reported experiencing sexual harassment at work:

• 32% said they had been subjected to unwelcome sexual jokes
• 28% had experienced sexual comments regarding their body or attire
• 23% had been touched against their consent
• 20% had experienced unwanted verbal sexual advances
• 12% had been sexually assaulted

In addition, a wealth of recent research suggests that open-floor office plans could negatively impact women in the workplace more than men. Some women have reported that these spaces can affect the way they dress, act and communicate and that they can be breeding grounds for sexual harassment.

This was calculated by asking respondents “Post-pandemic, over an average month, approximately what percentage of your work time would you prefer to spend working from each location?” with the organisation’s office, home and other remote-work locations as available options to apportion time. Office percentages were averaged for men and women.

This is hardly surprising, given that we’ve already seen how men find the office more socially fulfilling than women do. But could there be other reasons?

A recent UK-based poll of 2,300 leaders, managers and employees showed that 69% of mothers want to work from home at least once a week after the pandemic compared to just 56% of fathers.

This suggests that child caring responsibilities are another reason why women want to spend less time in the office, which could continue the trend of women and men not returning to the office equally.

And although it’s unlikely that office workers will only be men, these figures point to a possible scenario in which women occupy relatively few desks. Could we be looking at intensified gender inequality in the office?

This was calculated by asking respondents “In general, how socially fulfilling do you find working from other remote-work locations?” on a 0-10 scale, averaging responses for men and women.

CONCLUSION

Gender working trends have flipped from pre-pandemic to now. We’ve seen that this may be because men find the office more socially fulfilling than women do —high rates of sexual harassment against women or the fact that offices may be designed for men are possible explanations.

But another reason that women are gravitating toward working from home may be traditional gender roles that lead them to have more housework and caring responsibilities. While there are certainly benefits to letting workers do their jobs from home, there’s also a risk of widening the long-standing gender gap that’s already been exacerbated by Covid-19.

It also presents coworking and other third spaces with an important mission - and an opportunity -: to help mitigate the harmful effects of a post-pandemic gender imbalance at work and home.

Parting Thoughts

Our society is more disconnected than ever, and scientists have discovered a deluge of serious health problems associated with loneliness. Therefore, urgent steps must be taken to reconnect communities and increase social fulfilment before it’s too late.

As this study finds a link between working-from-home and loneliness, does that mean we should all return-to-office?

No. We have measured the social fulfilment of every type of work location and coworking spaces significantly outperform offices in our study. This data indicates that remote work can be more socially fulfilling than office-based work, depending on where someone spends their working day and who they work alongside.

The concept of coworking has only been around since 2005. By contrast, the first office buildings were created circa 300 years ago. As of 2020, roughly two million people used coworking spaces (just 0.025% of the global population). When the coworking phenomenon spreads across the globe, fuelled by a growing remote workforce, it’s absolutely essential that steps are taken to improve access to these spaces, especially in underprivileged and rural communities. A failure to do this would only magnify existing inequalities.

Our research indicates that improved access could benefit the following people in particular:

• Individuals who live alone, are single and without children (majority of young workers).
Extroverts, who are disproportionately harmed by working-from-home.
Women, who find the office less socially fulfilling than men.

Moreover, the motivations for helping workers access coworking spaces don’t need to be purely altruistic. We’ve seen how loneliness correlates with the costly issue of employee turnover. Thus, businesses that want to retain young, extroverted and/or female workers could follow in the footsteps of Spotify, who provides coworking memberships to its employees.

A recent report on hybrid working by Zoom goes as far as to suggest that governments should fund local coworking hubs to provide workers in every community with the option of a ‘thirdspace’ from which to work. Zoom cites additional positive impacts such as incentivising workers to visit their high streets during the day, thereby driving local growth.

We envisage a world where affordable ‘community-workspaces’ are viewed as a public good. This would help to unlock the many societal benefits of remote work - such as lower cost of living, local regeneration, less pollution - while safeguarding the health and wellbeing of workers.

One thing we must stress, however, is there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Many people genuinely prefer corporate offices or working-from-home. Ultimately, we want all workers to be empowered to make their own choices and work where and how they work best.

For questions about this report or data, please reach out to press@workanywhere.org. You are welcome to share and republish all of the charts on this page. This data was collected between February 17, 2022 and April 26, 2022.

Download the methodology

A comprehensive breakdown of the survey methodology and sample characteristics.

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Meet the researchers

Dr. Connie Nooman
Boston University
Dr. Constance Hadley is an organizational psychologist at the Boston University Questrom School of Business, a consulting researcher at Microsoft Research Lab, and a founder of the Institute for Life at Work. Her goal is to help organizations identify and address pain points so that work life can be improved for all employees. Her research on loneliness, team dynamics, and remote work has been published in the Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, Financial Times, The New York Times, and other news and academic outlets.
Dr. Sarah Wright
University of Canterbury
Sarah Wright is an Associate Professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. She teaches courses in organizational behaviour, management skills, teams and group dynamics, and leadership. At the heart of Sarah’s research and teaching is a focus on human relationships within groups and organisations, with a particular focus on workplace loneliness and relationship quality. Sarah has published in leading academic journals such Human Relations, Leadership Quarterly, Academy of Management Learning & Education, Leadership, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, Group & Organization Management, and Management Learning. She is a Fellow with the Higher Education Association.

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