Love, Friendship, And Loneliness At Work

Researchers Nicholas Bloom and John Roberts ran an experiment with Ctrip, China’s largest travel agency. They wanted to test the effect of work from home policy and thus let a portion of their employees work from home four days a week. As expected, productivity went up. This was both because of agents logged more minutes and bigger productivity per minute. So far, so good. After the nine months trial, the management decided to roll it out to the whole company and also continue to give the work from home option also to those who were part of the experiment.

Then the surprise came. Half of those who worked from home decided to return to the office. Three-quarters of those who initially showed interest in work from home practice but were not selected for the experiment also changed their mind. The reason? People who worked from home quoted loneliness as the problem. Many of them missed being part of the on-site team. They missed the social aspect of work.

Cornelia Gerdenitsch, Tabea E. Scheel, Julia Andorfer, and Christian Korunka performed two studies to explore the social impact of coworking spaces. They confirmed that one of the reasons professionals enjoy coworking spaces is the opportunity for social interaction as a remedy for isolation they may experience when working remote. Coworking spaces indeed provide that social support in the form of exchange of information, informal interactions, or even direct help and collaboration. It is not only about having a place to sit but also about the feeling of being part of a group of likeminded human beings.

For all its glory and advantages, teleworking or working from home has a dark side. It can lead to isolation, and it makes it much more difficult to create genuine emotional bonds with your coworkers—the social aspects of work matter.

The importance of authenticity

The loneliness at work can be caused by actual physical separation, like work from home, but not only. You can be surrounded by coworkers and be lonely. If you don’t connect at the emotional level, the quality of the relationship and the interaction is far from ideal. You can spend your day interacting with others and still feel hopelessly lonely.

This is especially true for those who feel they can’t be authentic. If you are always acting like someone you are not, you can hardly expect others to get to know the real you. Your relationships with coworkers are then very superficial. There is no depth. And you feel lonely.

Gianpiero Petriglieri suggests that what he calls violent politeness is what is making the loneliness at jobs worse. Not speaking up when one has things to say is the common cause. We feel threatened by voicing our concerns to the more powerful. Or we are trying to be polite and not embarrass others when we are in power. Regardless of the reason, we often chose to remain silent. But close relationships require us to address things that bother us. You can’t just stay quiet forever.

It is lonely at the top. It is lonely everywhere if you chose politeness over honesty. To feel less isolated at work, learn to say what needs to be said in a way that others accept.

I understand this may be difficult to do in some environments. If the organization doesn’t create psychological safety, an atmosphere of inclusion and belonging, it can be risky to be authentic. Especially if your authentic self doesn’t align with what the organization considers an ideal employee.

I would still argue that taking the risk and being yourself is a preferable strategy to a lifetime of suffering from loneliness and having the constant feeling of being an impostor. Can this lead to you leaving the organization? Maybe. If that happens, you created an opportunity to join a company that is better aligned with what you value and who you are.

Even though there is a risk, it may not be as big a risk as you believe. The chances are good that there are other people in the organization feeling the same way. Finding them can be of great mutual benefit. Polly Parker, Douglas T. Hall, and Kathy E. Kram examined how peer coaching can help with both professional and personal development. It can also help with your struggle with authenticity and loneliness. Having even one person you can connect with, and share who you are is all it takes to reduce your feeling of loneliness significantly.

Friendship at work

As Tom Rath and Jim Harter wrote, those who have their best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs than those who don’t have friends working with them. It leads to better health, higher productivity, retention, and general job satisfaction.

Belonging is one of the fundamental human needs. Consider the amount of time you spend at work. It is a lost opportunity not to address the need to belong.

To be fair, having close friends at work can also have some disadvantages. It creates a stronger emotional dependence, and it is exhausting to maintain such relationships, especially under pressure coming from the business.

Relationship conflicts between team members who are friends have a negative impact on team performance. The same type of disputes between non-friends lead to positive performance.

Don’t get discouraged by the effort it may take to maintain work friendships. Every relationship has its ups and downs, but ultimately the benefits of having friends at work vastly surpass any potential negatives.

Love at work

Love is not a word we tend to associate with the workplace. It has been touted for a long time that emotions have no place in the business environment, and one should separate work from the rest of life. This view is increasingly outdated. Sigal G. Barsade and Olivia A. O’Neill looked at how an emotional culture of companionate love impacts employees at work. They found that teamwork and satisfaction at work are affected positively. What more, absenteeism and emotional exhausting decreased.

There is a difference between romantic and companionate love. The later is defined as feelings of affection, compassion, and caring for other people. It is less intense than romantic love, but it is still important to have good emotional experience as a human being when interacting with others. It strengthens social bonds and makes us more committed to our tribe, family, or organization.

It is the caring compassion or expressions of affection that are visible in strong organizational cultures that often keep people glued in. They are emotionally invested in the group. They care about others and feel that others care about them. It is the sense of belonging and psychological safety that has an incredibly strong pulling factor. You don’t leave teams like that.

Putting it all together

If you want to feel satisfied with the time you spend working, learn to bring your whole self to the office. Don’t try to separate your “professional” and your “real” persona too much. It will lead to frustration, loneliness, and depression.

Get comfortable with making friends at work, learn to care about others in the team, and accept that they may care about you. When you work remotely, make an extra effort to be there for others. Don’t become a hermit. Reach out to others not only on work-related topics, but make sure you also talk about life as much as possible. Working from home for a couple of weeks may sound great. Once you do it for an extensive period of time, there is a real danger it is going to have a negative impact on your psyche.

They say you shouldn’t mix business and friendship. Nonsense. Learn to mix it, and you will do just fine.


What are your thoughts on the topic? Do you believe that loneliness when working remote or from home is a problem? Do you have friends at work? Do you feel that culture of companionate love works? What is your personal experience?

Photo: johnhain /

Categories: Career, Life

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