It has been a long time since Mike Durkin worked out of an office regularly.
Durkin is a regional director in medical affairs at the Cambridge-based biotech Blueprint Medicines, and he spends the vast majority of his workweeks in the field, meeting with clients all over the East Coast. But he had only been at the company for five months when COVID shut the world down, and his occasional visits to the Cambridge office were cut to zero.
By the time things began to return to normal and workers started filtering into the office again, Blueprint had dramatically expanded its staff. When Durkin started stopping in again, he felt like a stranger. “You didn’t know who you didn’t know,” he says. “I felt like the new kid in school.”
Durkin’s time spent on the road visiting clients makes him atypical. But feeling out of place in the office? These days, that’s becoming more and more relatable.
Indeed, thanks to a longstanding decline in social connection, and a pandemic that forced much of the world into isolation, employees today are lonelier than ever. Earlier this year, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy published a report that described “an epidemic of loneliness” that has taken root in America over the last several decades. Making matters more complicated is hybrid work, which has workers spending less time in the office than they did before the pandemic. While many employees enjoy more flexibility — and fewer days commuting — it also means that forming social connections with colleagues is more challenging than ever.
Now employers are stepping in to do something about it, creating new initiatives that encourage workers to interact with each other outside of typical work meetings. One of the more common programs among Boston-area companies is a system that sets up randomized coffee chats for employees to get to know each other.
Blueprint, for example, has a program that pairs employees together for a coffee once a month. Workers can meet up in person, or sip coffee together over Zoom, and talk about life, hobbies, even work, if they so choose. “It’s been a game changer for me,” Durkin says. “I’ve met people at the company that I never would’ve met otherwise.”
The idea, says Debbie Durso-Bumpus, Blueprint’s chief people officer, is to more often stimulate the kind of water cooler discussions that once happened naturally. Those interactions, she says, can start friendships and help workers engage with the company at a deeper level. “We want people to feel connected to this company,” Durso-Bumpus says. “And we know people work better when they have relationships they look forward to at work.”
There isn’t one well-defined reason why Americans today are feeling lonelier than before, but office interactions are increasingly important. Constance Hadley, an organizational psychologist at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, says Americans simply aren’t as social as in decades past, are less involved in civic groups, and don’t attend religious services at the same rate. That puts additional pressure on interactions at work to fulfill our social needs, Hadley says. While it may seem unnecessary, that water cooler talk is key for office workers to have adequate social lives. So, hybrid work may be leaving something of a void for workers.
Recent studies have indicated that some 60 percent of US adults reported feelings of loneliness. That should be alarming to companies, Hadley says, because there is a direct link between loneliness and productivity — it’s in an employer’s best interest for employees to have their social needs met. “We really can’t understate how pervasive of an issue loneliness is for workers,” Hadley says. “It impacts every part of their lives, and that comes back to harm the companies they work for. It’s a bad cycle.”
Programs such as Blueprint’s coffee chats are trying to break that cycle.
Entrada Therapeutics, a Boston-based biotech, has a similar program called “Coffee Roulette” that follows the same idea, with employees getting paired together every two weeks to meet up and have a discussion. Entrada started the program back in 2020 as a means of connecting employees when the office was fully remote, and it has stuck around because of its popularity.
“One of our company’s core values is humanity,” says Kerry Robert, Entrada’s senior vice president of people. “We think quite often about how to cultivate a culture that makes people feel included and part of a team. Coffee Roulette is just one small way that we do that.”
Triverus Consulting, a Woburn-based IT consulting firm, which is still mostly remote, has taken a different approach, giving workers the option to participate in virtual events such as a baking class with a chef from Flour Bakery + Cafe, meditation sessions, or company-wide games.
“It is particularly challenging to get employees feeling connected when we’re still remote,” says Kim Kuzmeskas, the company’s vice president of marketing. “We get great participation in our programs, and I think that speaks to the fact that people really do want to feel connected with their co-workers.”
While these programs are a great start, there’s still some work to be done. Laura Putnam, a workplace well-being expert, said that with loneliness on such a stark rise, employers need to establish a broader culture that makes their workers feel comfortable. Wellness programs can be a part of that, but it also means workers shouldn’t have to hesitate to speak openly about mental health, and there should be abundant resources for struggling employees.
“Loneliness is pretty tricky, and it can be difficult to talk about,” Putnam says. “These wellness programs are great, but they’re designed outside of how the work gets done.” The next step is making sure they’re incorporated into the regular work routine, to keep the connections coming.
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