Serve up community in your post-pandemic lunch room (review of The Lonely Century)

Putting communal tables in your lunchroom may be your best post-pandemic recruitment and retention strategy.

To fill those tables, encourage everyone to break for lunch. Discourage us introverts from always eating “al desko.”  Introduce dig-in potlucks and occasionally splurge on ordering in a meal. Keep smartphones out of the lunchroom so we look up, look around and strike up conversations with our coworkers. And make cleaning the lunchroom a shared responsibility. If you’re the leader, volunteer for the first week of cleaning duty. 

“Eating together is one of the easiest ways of building a greater sense of community and team spirit in the workplace,” says Noreena Hertz, academic, thought leader and author of The Lonely Century. “So as companies seek to rebuild a sense of community and help their staff to reconnect after months of forced distancing, reinstituting a formal lunch break – ideally at a set time – and encouraging workers to eat together should form part of their strategy.”

This is especially important if you’re looking to hire and hold on to 20-somethings. Hertz says this demographic, despite all their friends and followers on social media, is among the loneliest in society and the group most craving connection and community. More than half of Gen Zs in the workforce report feeling emotionally distant from their colleagues.

The rest of us aren’t faring much better. Forty per cent of office workers worldwide say they feel lonely. In the US, nearly one in five people don’t have a single friend at work,

According to Hertz, there was a loneliness epidemic long before the pandemic hit. And there’s a good chance our social recession will continue when the pandemic’s behind us thanks to advances in technology.

Hertz isn’t optimistic the booming loneliness economy will save us. That economy includes everything from RentAFriend and increasingly lifelike social robots to mukbang – the practice of watching someone eat on-screen while you eat alone at home.

We’re also commercializing community, even though it’s something you make rather than buy or have done for you. Yet community’s increasingly packaged and sold like a product. “If you can’t pay enough, you are not invited in. There is a real danger that community becomes something increasingly accessible only to the privileged. That loneliness becomes a disease that only the wealthy have a chance to cure.”

Hertz recommends we reinvest in public spaces that bring everyone together while also rolling back taxes and offering incentives to pro-community enterprises, like neighbourhood bookstores and cafes that are getting pummeled by online retailers

We also need to reconnect capitalism with care and compassion, says Hertz. A self-obsessed and self-seeking form of hustle harder bootstrap capitalism has “normalized indifference, made a virtue out of selfishness and diminished the importance of compassion and care. Forty years of neoliberal capitalism has, at best, marginalized values such as solidarity, community, togetherness and kindness.”

So now’s a good time to add kindness to your organization’s list of core values. And during your communal lunches, take a few minutes to recognize and reward colleagues for their small, but hugely important, acts of community-building and loneliness-busting kindness.

In a post-pandemic world with rampant loneliness and isolation, it’ll be the friendly, kind and caring organizations that have a definite competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining good people.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Wondering if there’s more than this? You’re ready to climb the second mountain (review)

mountain climbYou went to a good school, graduated into a great job and built yourself a rewarding career.

You’ve earned serious money, status and power.

You’re living the dream and life is good.

But what if it could be exponentially better?

“Most of the time we aim too low,” says David Brooks, New York Times columnist and author of The Second Mountain. “We walk in shoes too small for us. We spend our days shooting for a little burst of approval or some small career victory.

“But there’s a joyful way of being that’s not just a little bit better than the way we are currently living; it’s a quantum leap better. It’s as if we’re all competing to get a little closer to a sunlamp. If we get up and live a different way, we can bathe in real sunshine.”

second mountainBrooks says there are two metaphorical mountains for us to climb.

Most of us are in a mad scramble up the first mountain. We’re decked out in “I’m free to be me” athleisure as we pursue happiness and self-love, build our personal brands, manage our reputations, curate our best lives on social media, keep score and take stock of how we measure up.

“The goals on the first mountain are the normal goals that our culture endorses – to be a success, to be well thought of, to get invited to the right social circles, and to experience personal happiness,” says Brooks. “It’s all the normal stuff: nice home, nice family, nice vacations, good food, good friends, and so on.”

Maybe we’ll reach the peak and love the view. But we may suffer existential dread as we wonder if there’s more than this. Or we could get tossed off the mountain after losing our job, good health or reputation.

Fortunately, there’s a second mountain for us to climb. On this mountain, we trade independence for interdependence and swap happiness for joy. Instead of living our best life, we’re dedicated to making life better for others. Choosing one or more commitments to a vocation, spouse or family, a philosophy or faith, and a community is our price of admission to the second mountain.

“A commitment is making a promise to something without expecting a reward,” says Brooks. “Adult life is about making promises to others, being faithful to those promises. The beautiful life is found in the mutual giving of unconditional gifts. When I meet people leading lives of deep commitment, this fact hits me: joy is real.”

On the first mountain, we have careers. On the second mountain, we dedicate ourselves to vocations.

A career is based on what we’re good at while a vocation is built on what we’ve been obsessively interested in for many years.

“In choosing a vocation, it’s precisely wrong to say that talent should trump interest,” says Brooks. “Interest multiples talent and is in most cases more important than talent.  The crucial terrain to be explored in any vocation search is the terrain of your heart and soul, your long-term motivation. Knowledge is plentiful; motivation is scarce.”

Still searching for your vocation? Say yes to everything. “Say yes to every opportunity that comes along, because you never know what will lead to what,” says Brooks. “Have a bias toward action. Think of yourself as a fish that is hoping to get caught. Go out there among the fishhooks.”

If you’ve been blown off the first mountain or find yourself underwhelmed by the view, Brooks will help you find the fishhooks and the courage to climb your second mountain.

This review first ran in the Feb. 15 edition of The Hamilton Spectator. I serve as communications manager for McMaster’s Faculty of Science, live in Hamilton and have reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.