Gen Z’s Loneliness: Could Returning to the Office Be the Cure for Some?

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When COVID-19 made its way around the world, many Gen-Zers were in their first professional jobs after college or just finishing up their college careers.

When working from home, mandatory lockdowns, social distancing, and curfews became the norm, the toll on those at the top rung of the Gen-Z (people born between 1996 and 2010) ladder might have seemed somewhat bewildering.

No one knew what to expect from a global pandemic, much less expect that pandemic to knock the first steps on the career ladder askew, after all.

I mean, everyone likes not having to go into the office and getting to avoid at-work politics and positioning, right?

When everything shut down, we all learned that a lot of our work could be done from the comforts of our own homes, where we were safe and still productive.

As much of the world has learned since March 2020, those on-the-job things can be explained over Zoom, Skype, or Google Meet, but can the valuable human interactions we need and get from workplaces be translated into the digital world as well?

Need, Desire to Be Human

“As human beings, many of us crave social interaction and being with other people. We want meaningful relationships, and it’s easier to build camaraderie in the office.” This wisdom comes not from a psychiatrist or a sociologist. But from the logistics/design/furniture company dancker.  

“When we’re in the workplace, casual conversations and interactions happen on a regular basis any and everywhere: at the coffee machine, in the cafeteria, passing one another in the hall,” the company continues to say on its website. “This doesn’t happen when we’re behind a screen — it takes more of an effort to catch up with colleagues and learn about each other’s lives.”

Those statements likely go a long way in explaining the findings of a study of more than 60,000 Microsoft employees who were required to work remotely. The results show remote work caused the workers to network with each other less and those important professional relationships aren't built as fast or as strong.

The study, published in the Journal Nature Human Behaviour, analyzed the communication habits of the employees between December 2019 and June 2020, before and after Microsoft went completely remote.

In another study, this one in 2021  commissioned by Cigna, 79% of surveyed young adults aged 18 to 24 reported feeling lonely, compared to 41% of surveyed people aged 66 and older.

“People need to feel acknowledged and appreciated as humans, not just as producers of work,” Kirsta Anderson, a senior client partner and leader of Korn Ferry’s global Cultural Transformation practice, says in the report “Young, Isolated, and Alone.”

Loneliness and the Mind

But why the vast difference in feelings of loneliness between the generations?

Perhaps Amanda Mull laid out the answer best when she wrote in the Atlantic in October 2020, a time when COVID-19 was still raging.

“To have a job without a workplace, you must build an office of the mind. Structure, routine, focus, socialization, networking, stress relief — their creation is almost entirely up to you, alone in a spare bedroom or on your couch, where your laptop might vie for attention at any given moment with your pets or kids.” 

How many Gen-Zers, with or without kids, have that down? Only time will tell how long-term remote work will change the professional landscape in the future. 

Author: Richard Pretorius