Work and isolation

On the same day that I saw a journalist in London seeking to speak with people about workplace isolation, a friend in California noted that she wanted to have a little social but found that her real world community was either virtual or non-existent.

My friend in California chalked her lack of community down to her being an entrepreneur, where long hours of work mean one’s options to socialise are mainly people who are employees or customers, both of which can be awkward.

When I mentioned workplace isolation to friends in senior corporate jobs, one quipped that this isolation malarkey was all down to people opting to work in the gig economy. Another noted, with a sigh, that the more senior one became in a large corporation, the more isolated one became, with fewer and fewer people seeing one as human, and fewer still willing to speak truths to power, so to speak. Indeed the story of António Horta Osório, the CEO of Lloyds Bank in the UK, and his spiralling into depression that led to a breakdown is well-known and one of the few honest stories of the impact of isolation to come out in public.

Without even reflecting over my own career of over 20 years, I know instinctively that the gig economy did not create workplace isolation. It is an existential condition of human beings to seek both camaraderie and company, and solitude: the former perhaps to generate ideas and to rejuvenate the self, the latter to reflect, create, and indeed, rejuvenate.

My experience of isolation in corporate life came from many sources. One  of them was being a gender minority. I even wrote a piece about my experience in Cosmopolitan magazine’s India edition around 1996-97. While my male colleagues were good people, it was tricky to socialise with them weekend after weekend. The city I lived in, Delhi, did not then have public transport so it was expensive, unreliable, unsafe, or all of the above to go across town to attend book readings or see films etc.  My solution was to start learning German on the weekends, which earned me much mockery but also a career break into Europe to open a new country office.

That unfortunately brought its own flavour of isolation. This time I was in Switzerland’s German speaking region, as a gender, ethnicity, and apparently age minority in the IT industry. My coping was hugely eased by my friendship with two others in a similar boat, both foreign to the German speaking regions in their own ways.

I then transitioned to a role in the UK where my team was spread across time zones. That was splendid isolation indeed as I began work at home at about 4.30am to catch my Asia-based team members as they began the day and the work day rolled on all the way to California. Going into the office was an option but I needed a few hours in the day unplugged. This is the bit of my experience now cited in this FT article the journalist mentioned earlier was writing.

You see, there are many ways the structure of corporate work and workplaces can be isolating.

My life as an independent consultant and advisor, an entrepreneur if you will, after the corporate stint, has been a solitary experience, save for meeting clients at lunch and sometimes friends for coffee. This fits the cliched image of the gig economy that I mentioned earlier.

Yet somehow we cope. And many of us continue to thrive.

My sense is that women cope better. Most women are socialised to seek and build communities, “to tend and befriend” not just in times of great stress. The web is helping break geographical barriers and enhance some sense of community. MumsNet is a well-known example of such a community. Several closed and secret groups of women founders and leaders thrive on Facebook. Some such as Blooming Founders and NOI Club have physical world components too. With the burdensome expectations of performance of masculine behaviour, men suffer silently — and alone — in their loneliness. This does not help workplaces or society.

Institutionalised solutions are emerging too. The gig economy worker, the entrepreneur and the small-corporate worker alike now have options. WeWork provides co-working spaces, designed to foster serendipitous and organic networking. The company has diversified into providing co-living in a few cities around the world too and it is branded WeLive.

Some criticise WeLive as an extension of dormitory or student halls living but really now! In the face of all this evidence of loneliness and isolation, that is the best criticism you can come up with?

As I said to Emma in that FT article, loneliness can have an existential quality. It forces us to examine the meaning of life in ways being surrounded by people all the time does not make feasible. From that isolation emerge creativity and ingenuity. But it can also foster mental health and addiction problems for many.

The real solution for us all lies perhaps in Goldilocks’s perfect porridge — not too much isolation, not too much cacophony of human company. Each person’s “perfect” however will differ.

What does all this mean for the design of work and workplaces? And indeed for our lives and societies?

As I see it, we may need a complete rethink of our shared and personal spaces. For workplaces, it could mean the provisioning of both open spaces to socialise and banter, and closed, quieter spaces to think and do actual work, sometimes energised by that interaction. Our living spaces need similar possibilities, if not within our own homes, then within the larger context of our neighbourhoods and cities we live in.

Politically and socially, we seem to be in an upheaval worldwide. Many are selling us the nostalgia of a glorious past, which, some argue, keep us from imagining better futures.

In this churn, could we hope to create a new order of things that are actually designed to serve the humans that use or inhabit them? Much like the Arts & Crafts movement’s thinking on spaces, a hundred years on?

I need to reflect on this. Alone. Perhaps you do too. Let’s convene later!

What do YOU think?