'A dangerous thing' | HR should listen to Airbnb chief's concerns about remote work

HR should listen to Airbnb chief's concerns about remote work

The world is saturated with hot takes from CEOs about the state of remote work.

Lord Alan Sugar recently opined that people who work from home 'lazy gits' who should be sacked for not returning to the office.

Author Malcom Gladwell claimed earlier this year that employees working from home were “hurting society”, despite him previously expressing a distaste for offices.

Last November, Morgan Stanley’s Managing Director, Chris O’Dea, went so far as to admonish young bankers who weren't returning to their offices full time, calling them “nuts” and warning them their career progress was at stake.

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However, one boss has now warned that the most concerning element of remote work is not anything to do with company finances, nor the career progression of the workforce, nor is it even a hit to productivity.

Instead, says Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, loneliness is the biggest danger posed by remote working.

According to a tweet, the chief and co-founder of the holiday rental company told a tech conference: "There’s a future where you never leave your home and after COVID is over, the most dangerous thing will be loneliness”.

Chesky’s comments would appear to be sincere, rather than an attempt at dissuading people from working from wherever they feel comfortable. In fact, his company’s actions demonstrate a positive attitude towards remote working.

Earlier this year, Chesky himself announced that the “vast majority” of employees would be able to continue working from home (or anywhere else), permanently.

In an email to staff, he wrote: “Today’s startups have embraced remote work and flexibility, and I think this will become the predominant way that we all work ten years from now. This is where the world is going.”

The wellbeing toll of remote work

Given Chesky’s views that remote work is here to stay, it’s important to consider recent research which sheds light on the impact lone working is having on the workforce.

Tanner’s 2022 global culture report, which analysed data provided by 38,000 HR leaders and execs, found that 62% of British workers admit they feel less engaged with family and friends than they did a year ago, with a quarter saying they feel disengaged from colleagues.

This points to a growing loneliness crisis in the workplace. The pandemic – which saw larger numbers of people working remotely than ever before – no doubt contributed to this. Historically, a large proportion of people’s social interactions was with work colleagues, and many people have met best friends or even partners through work – but this has become much harder now remote and hybrid work have been normalised. Chats over the watercooler have become messages over Teams, with Zoom quizzes instead of Friday drinks after work.

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Although both hybrid and remote working have huge benefits in reducing time and costs spent commuting or on childcare, and contributing towards a better work-life balance, the pay-off is that some of the social aspect of work life has been sacrificed, leaving some people feeling lonelier than ever.

But having friends in the workplace is, in fact, as important as it’s ever been – from an employer’s perspective as well as a personal one. The 2021 Post Lockdown Friends & Happiness In The Workplace study by Wildgoose found that not only does having a good friend at work making it more enjoyable and provide support, but 22% believe it makes them more productive and a further 21% thinks having a friend makes them more creative.

Interestingly, research by Silicon Reef found that three-quarters of employees believe that its up to their employer to do something about their work loneliness problem. But where do you start?

Check in regularly

A good starting point is to check-in regularly with your remote or hybrid working team – after all, you won’t know if they’re struggling with loneliness unless you ask them. London was found by Wildgoose to be the city in the UK with the worst work loneliness problem, so if this is where you’re headquartered, it’s more important than ever to keep checking in with your staff.

Buddy systems

Another way to boost social connections in remote workplaces could be to implement a buddy system. According to a recent Know Your Team blog post, this could take the form of assigning someone an official “mentor”, with whom they have 1-2-1 meetings once a week or bi-weekly to ask questions and to get used to the company. Or a small group of employees could get together over a video call to have a chat about something fun and non-work related.

Team activities

Although ‘forced fun’ isn’t for everyone, a recent Quantum Workplace blog post shared some suggestions for team activities which included a virtual scavenger hunt, virtual book club, team fitness challenge or trivia session.

Health & wellbeing programmes

There are plenty of health & wellbeing programmes available online for HR use, or for individual use, which can help workers the tools they need to tackle loneliness and develop effective ways of improving their wellbeing. It’s certainly worth exploring this further.

Oliver Harrison is CEO of Koa Health, a digital mental healthcare provider on what loneliness means for your business. He previously told HR Grapevine: “Despite some benefits of hybrid work, many people feel they miss out on important face-to-face time and can be left feeling lonely and isolated. In fact, research shows that loneliness levels across Britain have still not recovered from the impact of the Covid pandemic. A known risk factor for poor physical, mental, and cognitive health, loneliness is as bad for overall health as smoking. It’s a problem business leaders must not ignore. “

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He went on: “I urge business leaders to offer care that covers the full spectrum of mental health issues, whether clinically diagnosed or not. Deliverable at scale, evidence-based digital therapeutics provide the best options for employers. They have few barriers to access, no waiting lists, offer a strong alternative to face-to-face care and, crucially, offer more than just mindfulness and meditation. Further, these tools are both cost and time-effective, as well as bespoke to the individual’s needs.

“With historic demand for mental health treatment in the UK, there’s a risk that failing to prioritise mental health within businesses will lead to burnout, absenteeism and turnover across teams. Offering solutions which are supported, encouraged, and role modelled by leadership, makes the workplace more engaging, attracting the best talent, retaining them at a time of great churn, and helping them be productive. This is not only the right thing to do but it makes sound business sense”.

Indeed, as more and more employees turn to digital-first working practice– particularly as flexible working is increasingly demanded by employees and therefore essential to talent recruitment and retention - it is more crucial than ever that good social connections are promoted in order to combat loneliness. A happy workforce is a productive workforce – so it’s good for the bottom line, too.

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Comments (1)

  • martin
    Mon, 24 Oct 2022 12:23pm BST
    Chesky is perfectly right, lack of social interaction is the biggest problem for remote working and for many of my roles, it has been social not business interaction that has been most common, with most of my work done on computers and over phones, not with those local to me.
    Online stores provide many of our needs now, so businesses need to work with local authorities to make better use of office and leisure space to improve the lives of their staff without necessarily reverting to the office
    The cure isn't necessarily a return to an office and a diktat of an 8 or 10 hour day, with associated long commutes, it could be working with other businesses to set up post code offices to meet like minded people from other companies, or for groups from the same company (maybe normally working from different sites) to meet locally.
    We need to think about how to achieve the best results for businesses and for staff. It has long been proven that self and group motivation gets better results than the 40 hour diktat.
    Creating major traffic congestion 3 instead of 5 days a week is not necessarily the best solution

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