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How Coworking Can Help End Our Loneliness Epidemic

Thrive Editorial

Coworking can be the antidote to our loneliness epidemic.

We make the case for smiling, talking to strangers, and enjoying all the community perks offered by coworking spaces to fight our country’s growing isolation and loneliness problem.

By Kaytlin Cook

A real-estate broker, a former race-car driver, a mobile IV drip distributor, and a supply-chain manager walk into a bar …

Never heard that one before? Well, to be fair it wasn’t a bar, it was a happy hour taking place at a THRIVE | Coworking space in Greenville, SC. This interaction may not be the source of comic relief, but for those who are intrigued by the new hybrid-work reality — or are already knee-deep in it — it should at least spark some curiosity … and hope.

Because while the water-cooler conversation may be dwindling as increasing numbers of people are working remote or hybrid schedules, it is not extinct. In fact, it’s being resurrected in completely new and inspiring ways in coworking spaces around the world. People working side by side in different industries and walks of life are re-creating the type of small talk that used to be a given in daily office life. Whether it’s in shared kitchens, at sponsored “lunch and learns,” or catered happy hours, these interactions may seem inconsequential on the surface but they have the power to strike at the flint of inspiration and innovation. And you never know which one will spark a flame.

Community-building starts right from the get-go at THRIVE | Greenville’s grand-opening celebration.

Loose ties are actually ties that bind

In a recent episode of The New York Times podcast The Daily, titled “Hybrid Workers Malaise,” business reporter Emma Goldberg touches on the importance of these interactions. “There’s been another study about the effect of remote work on what we call loose ties,” she says, “which is people you actually don’t know that well and maybe don’t work with that closely, but who actually could end up having a big effect on your career through some little idea they give you or an introduction they make for you or just a little bit of unsolicited help.”

What is often underestimated in these exchanges, she says, is their power to affect career growth. Goldberg defines these ties as “random people who end up being, unexpectedly, pretty important to your career.” How many conversations have you had that have led to new ideas, collaboration, or general insight that impacted your path? How many of these opportunities do we shut ourselves off from by limiting our exposure to these daily interactions?

The loss of loose ties has not only — or even primarily — affected professional development. According to Dr. Samantha Madhosingh, a psychologist and professional coach, “As humans, we need social connection, as it significantly influences our health, resilience and community prosperity. Yet many Americans suffer from inadequate social connections, leading to negative health and societal outcomes.”

Things have become so bad, in fact, the United States Surgeon General has released an 82-page advisory about the devastating impacts social isolation is having in our country. “Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health,” says Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy in the report. “Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity, and substance use disorders.”

Casual interactions, like this THRIVE | Columbus happy hour, can have a big impact.

Turns out social media isn’t that social

Loose social ties also have the power to create a feeling of being known. But as social networks have increased via social media, one-sided interactions, known as parasocial relationships, have proliferated (think online interactions with celebrities, bloggers and sports teams). Unfortunately, this kind of communication doesn’t have the same physiological power as an engaged interaction. That effect cannot be manufactured artificially, at least not yet — there is no substitute for the good that can be done by consistent connection in the form of shared jokes among officemates, a handshake, or even someone lighting up with a smile when they see you walk by. In a fully remote world, these loose ties can become completely lost.

For some of us the fear may lie in the first conversation that leads to these connections. What to even say to someone? Was deodorant sufficiently applied this morning? What about stranger danger? Well, according to an article on by Joe Keohane, the author of The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World, stranger danger may be slightly overrated. According to Keohane, talking to strangers can “teach you things, deepen you, make you a better citizen, a better thinker, and a better person.”

Everybody say “hi”

In a world where isolation has become the new norm, it can feel anxiety-producing, or even against social norms to connect with people around you, especially those who are seemingly different from you. But expert advice makes it clear: Just say hello and see what happens — never underestimate the small, mundane moments and interactions. In such a fast-paced world where people feel like they must keep their head down to get work done, there is merit in keeping it up long enough to see who is around you and what they may have for you, not only professionally but personally, as well.

So, who are these loose ties in your coworking space? It may be your office neighbor, who you greet every morning as you both start a new day working side by side, in what could be completely different industries. It may be the marketing agency a few doors down from your small startup. It could be someone you meet at an event, like a THRIVE happy hour. It could even be the community manager brewing the coffee every morning. Regardless, there’s one thing that’s for sure: There is always connection and inspiration to be found around you in a coworking space, it’s just a matter of whether or not you’ll look for it.

Written by Thrive Editorial

February 23, 2024

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