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.