27 September 2023

The magic ratio to avoid loneliness while working from home

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Sophie Kesteven and Zoe Ferguson* say researchers have found a ‘magic ratio’ to balance it with office work.

COVID-19 has changed many things in our lives, not least where some of us work.

Many employees now have the flexibility of working either in the office or from home.

It’s been dubbed “hybrid working”.

But failing to strike the right balance between working in these two locations can leave some people feeling lonely and disconnected.

Mark Mortensen is an associate professor for organisational behaviour at INSEAD Business School.

He says it’s a misconception to think a worker’s loneliness is their problem alone, rather than an organisational matter.

“What we have to recognise is that you can’t fix loneliness by saying, ‘Hey, you, you’re lonely. Don’t be so lonely,’” Mr Mortensen tells ABC RN’s This Working Life.

“You have to recognise that loneliness is actually a structural problem.

“It’s the fact that my environment doesn’t give me what I need.”

The side effects of loneliness can have varying impacts on an employee’s wellbeing.

“It can be as extreme as triggering depression or is as light as … not quite feeling right,” he says.

That lonesome feeling

Loneliness is increasingly common in Australia.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has conducted several national surveys looking into overall loneliness rates since the start of the pandemic

The surveys found that over half of respondents had felt lonelier since the onset of COVID-19.

Cathy Ngo is familiar with this feeling.

She finds working from home in Sydney quite lonesome from time to time.

“Most of the time I am home by myself. It’s just myself and my mini zoo … I do miss that face-to-face interaction,” she says.

Ms Ngo is a HR and communications consultant specialising in diversity, equity and inclusion.

She usually works from home five days a week, with the occasional weekend too.

Often her only company when working is her pets — a rabbit and two dogs.

“My personality is quite extroverted, so I miss that people interaction … because that’s often quite energising too,” she says.

Dr Caroline Knight, a Research Fellow at Curtin University’s Future of Work Institute, says it’s well known that people need autonomy, competence and relatedness for psychological growth.

Relatedness is the need to feel connected or have a sense of belonging or connection to other people.

“I think it’s that relatedness we lose [working from] home. We don’t get that need met, which we can do in the workplace,” Dr Knight says.

“A lot of people like coming into the workplace when it’s busy and active and it’s partly because we get those needs met.”

When we are not in the office, it doesn’t happen as much and we start to feel more melancholic, anxious, lonely and isolated, she says.

What can we do about it?

Researchers have been looking into the ideal number of days spent working from home versus in the office to reduce the onset of loneliness — the so-called ‘magic ratio’.

“Some research on this actually does show that it’s around two to two and a half.

“So any more than two and a half [days] at home is meant to be a bit too much,” Dr Knight says.

She says research also found that when people are at home, their connections with other workers are less spontaneous.

“You often [only] have a quick chat in messages, so the quality of the relationships may become a bit more eroded,” she explains.

This can be improved when you’re working in the office.

“When you’re in the office, you can have more dynamic interactions.

“You stop in on people and say hi and have spontaneous conversations; you can develop much more meaning and relational aspects.”

It’s also important to have a variety of interactions while in the office.

“We have found … interactions with colleagues rather than managers when you’re in the office offsets that sense of loneliness, even when you’re working from home,” she says.

“If you get that connection with colleagues, when you’re in the office, say three days a week, it actually stops you feeling as lonely.”

Allowing teams to have autonomy and having open discussions in the workplace about how to strike the balance in hybrid work is vital, she adds.

“Managers can be really promoting socialisation, both in the office and online,” she says.

“Allowing people to take time to have that coffee break and things like that … and have open spaces, perhaps where people can collaborate and communicate, and being okay with that.”

Mr Mortensen acknowledges that there may be some reluctance in returning to the office a few days a week, particularly if some employees find that they get more done at home.

“The reality is, you need to also ask yourself, fine, you’re super productive working at home — that’s awesome,” Mr Mortensen says.

“But how are you doing mentoring your junior people? How well are you contributing to the social fabric of what makes your organisation what it is?

“All of these are important pieces of the puzzle.”

There are also many other things that employees get from working from the office too.

“Things such as learning and development opportunities, a sense of community, a sense of connection,” Mr Mortensen says.

“That all brings meaning and purpose.”

*Sophie Kesteven is a Video and Digital Producer at ABC Radio National in Sydney. Zoe Ferguson is senior producer at ABC Radio National and a sessional lecturer and tutor in radio/podcasting at the University of Sydney.

This article first appeared at abc.net.au.

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