So while some people are understandably nervous about returning to their workplace, many are having an experience more like mine. My friends and colleagues who have returned to a physical office and seen others—even in a limited capacity—have told me that returning made them realize how isolated they had become during the pandemic, and the burden of stress they had been carrying, even if they faced no job threat or major health risk.
Some employers, however, have realized that several of the pandemic’s workarounds are cost-efficient, and are considering making them permanent. There are many corporate leaders who still recognize that, in Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s words, “digital technology should not be a substitute for human connection.” But in what we might call a “Zoom forever” move, many other companies are contemplating radically downsizing traditional office spaces and making remote work permanent for large groups of employees.
Derek Thompson: The workforce is about to change dramatically
The problem is, if millions of people never “go back to work” in a way that resembles the pre-pandemic world, it could have drastic consequences for our well-being. There’s nothing wrong with a partially remote situation—say, work-from-home Fridays or more flexible schedules. But going fully remote forever could exacerbate one of the worst happiness disasters of the pandemic.
Remote work does have some happiness benefits, and not just for employers looking to cut office costs. For people living in or near congested cities, for example, commuting is time-consuming and soul-crushing; it is near the top of daily activities that stimulate unhappiness.
However, aggravation from commuting is no match for the misery of loneliness, which can lead to depression, substance abuse, sedentary behavior, and relationship damage, among other ills. And it is simply undeniable that remote work usually leads to loneliness. In research conducted more than a decade before the pandemic about remote work among journalists, the organizational psychologist Lynn Holdsworth found that full-time telework increased loneliness over office work by 67 percentage points. Based on data from 2019, the 2020 State of Remote Work report issued by the social-media management firm Buffer showed that loneliness is the biggest struggle remote workers say they face, tied with problems of collaboration and communication.
Work is where many people have the bulk of their social interactions. In a recent survey, 70 percent of employees said friendship at their job is the most important element of a happy work life. Research shows that employees say a co-located office environment is where they establish not just work collaborations but also their social ties.
Read: The pandemic is changing work friendships
Employers intent on abandoning the physical office might respond that the pandemic has led to a proliferation of potentially loneliness-easing communication technologies. Few of us had ever used Zoom before the lockdowns; now, many of us see our colleagues every day on the platform for hours at a time. It’s not like we are incommunicado.