Last year human relations think tank Reventure (A Future that Works) published a report on how the loneliness “epidemic” is impacting workplaces in Australia. Now, in the middle of another epidemic that is shaking economies and the world of work, feeling isolated in a huge, open plan office seems the least of a worker’s worries. MercatorNet asked Reventure’s managing director, Dr Lindsay McMillian, about the threats and opportunities arising from the coronavirus situation.

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The coronavirus pandemic has led to a massive disruption of (paid) work, among other things. The threats to individuals, businesses and the economy are fairly obvious, but do you see any opportunities arising from this situation?

Our research focuses on the impact of work on humanity. It is within this framework that I am confident that we will survive, renew and become better in the way we interact with each other and within the work context. It may seem out of reach at present, but a worthy pursuit, nevertheless.

Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Professor who writes on all aspects of “disruption”, makes the point that it is out of the unknown that some of the best ideas emerge. He talks about unlocking the potential of individuals to think differently about the way they work, interact and discover. Chaotic times like we are experiencing provide an immense opportunity to build new and innovative businesses.

We should not let this time pass us by. A key element that will drive this endeavour is the time we now have to be still, reflective and thoughtful. Already, e-health is becoming the norm for many, home deliveries for all aspects of life are on the increase, manufacturing is becoming more agile, food production is keeping pace with the changing way we consume, which includes a move back to more home based cooking. Apps that connect us across the globe are also on the rise.

The downside of this is the loss of many face to face relations. As humans we need to feel connected and engaged with others. We need to ensure that human flourishing is key in all our conversations and designs for the future. There is no playbook that helps us understand what is happening now, tomorrow and next week. We have never been down this road before. However, the human spirit can rise to the occasion when everything around us is turbulent and fragile. The fallout from COVID-19 is an opportunity for us as a society to be more responsive, engaging and enterprising.

People working from home now are physically isolated from their colleagues, but your research has shown that more than a third of Australians already felt lonely or isolated at work? Why is that?

Some people relish working from home while others need the energy and sounds of an office to feel more productive. One of the streaming services now provides ‘office sounds’ to make workers feel like they are at work. But we found that even with colleagues around them, there are people who feel out of place and alone. Loneliness is the negative feeling one feels when they are isolated and not engaged emotionally with another person. If a person feels lonely, then they are! They do not feel like they belong.

We can postulate why there is a growing loneliness epidemic in Australia. Some researchers indicate that technology provides a false sense of connection. We can have many Instagram or Facebook friends but still feel alone. Our research confirms this fact. Friendship becomes something artificial. In the workplace, strangely enough, open plan offices have also created lonely workers; having many people in the same space does not necessarily make one feel more connected with.

As a society today, we tend to value transactions more than relationships, but we can see emerging from COVID-19 circumstances a hunger to recapture the relational power of just being human. I have heard that people are Zooming with friends or contacts that they have not spoken with for some time. Only time will tell if this deep human desire to feel connected remains once our world of activity resets.

Should employers have to care about the wellbeing of their workers, especially if the problems arise from outside the workplace? Is it worth their while?

This is a challenging and real issue within business today. There is a conversation that suggests concern about wellbeing in the business setting is a fad, and that it is not the role of a business to create happy employees. As one CEO commented, “we expect that employees we have and recruit will come to work demonstrating resilience, determination and a focus on performance and productivity.” In short, they should come to work, “well and fully human”.

From our expansive research, a key element is that work is now 24/7/365. We are on call all the time and connected, all the time. The “need to know” syndrome is real. Large office buildings are now open 24/7. But of course one can’t simply turn off what is happening at home, with the children, caring for aging parents, and of course personal relationships outside work. So, there needs to be recognition that work, and home and other activities are intertwined. Our research of the top 10 human relations directors found that there are some very creative ways they have developed to ensure that home and work can coexist without guilt and with high degrees of wellbeing.

Some cultural observers say we have become too fixated on work, at the expense of family life and relationships generally. They talk about “workism” taking over from “familism” as a social ideal. Does this explain some of the unhappiness around work?

If work has become all consuming, we need to ask ourselves: “What is important to me? Where do I find my identity? Does consumerism, time on screens, money for the next experience or social recognition make me who I am?”

Our research found that the big driver of work decisions these days is the deep desire to find purpose and meaning. This was noteworthy among millennials who indicated they would seek out an organisation that has a big picture of creating value and meaning that resonated with the employee. Furthermore, they would give up bonuses and other benefits if the company’s values and intent was in keeping with their own interests and desires.

Purpose and meaning needs to be grounded in something bigger than just a receiving a monetary reward for effort or activity. And yes, where this is not evident individuals will just leave! Our research discovered that millennials will remain in a role around two years. Given this is a fact, then there are many Australian workers who may be unhappy and searching for something that their work cannot accommodate.

There seem to be two possibilities for the people now working at home with their family around them, including children who also need to be educated: they will either go crazy, or learn to value the work and life of the home more. Your comment?

COVID-19 has thrust us into a world that has changed dramatically all aspects of life, including the confines of our home and school. We clearly need to reconfigure way we do “school” and “work”. This requires open communication, discernment and judgment with love, care and compassion. It will need to be led by the adults in the environment.

We need to reimagine what is important within families. Conversations like this are rare. We have now been forced to wrestle with what is important in life. We are working within a stress test context. The challenges within a family with children may create a crazy world of high demands. We need to revaluate what is important. Routines and responsibilities will need to be redefined and this in turn will bring some sense of normality. I acknowledge that this will not be easy. The fact is there is no playbook for the situation we have been thrust into!

Character will be central to future success, and this is the indispensible work of the home. The character traits that will be critical for us to manage the new world order will be resilience, kindness, authenticity, trust, and compassion. The way we communicate is changing. We need to recognise that our desire to gather together, in groups, large or small, is and may change forever. I am very optimistic about the future.

Dr Lindsay McMillan is a leading academic, thought leader and social commentator exploring the impact of the current way we work on humanity. He is the managing director of Reventure Ltd, and has led social...