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Is friendship fading?

That’s one conclusion from recent research on loneliness. (TL/dr – there are a lot of lonely Americans these days.) And it’s not just because of the pandemic-related restrictions on gathering that kept us from getting together the past year and a half or so. This sense of isolation has been accelerating for a long time.

So much so that at this point, fifteen percent of men and ten percent of women report having no close friends. That’s a huge increase in the all-alone in the past 30 years.

And get this. The Survey Center on American Life says at the other end of the sociability scale, the percentage of men with ten or more friends dropped from 40 to 15 percent! For women it fell from 28 to 11 percent.

How does all that affect our work and our business?

The Week’s Damon Linker says this lack of friends is bad, first of all, for those lonely people. Having close emotional ties contributes to physical and mental well-being. Conversely, the dearth of relationships tends to make us unhealthy and unhappy.

It has an impact on the country and our society, too. As Americans become lonelier and more isolated, discontent with the way we live is likely to deepen. And political polarization is certain to increase even more than it already has.

That can’t be good for business, can it?

The author of Divided We Fall points to the “factional friendships” that arise from this disconnection. David French says these are the online relationships we form based on a shared hobby, geography, or health concern. Or a shared political belief. Often a passionate political belief.

Those Facebook friends and Parler pals can be fun, for sure. And yet, there’s something missing in these online groups and virtual relationships. It’s no wonder Linker calls them “a digital facsimile of friendship.”

They fill the void created by real-life relationships we don’t have, but they’re at best incomplete. And at worst, toxic.

They’re also fragile. As French points out, these virtual connections “depend on an extraordinary degree of agreement and conformity. Friendships built up through years of engagement in politics and activism vanish in the blink of a tweet.” 

That brings us to our business connections.

The pandemic accelerated a trend already underway—more of us working with our minds than our hands. Technology was already making remote work more practical—and much more common.

Nothing wrong with that. It’s progress, after all. It’s also convenient! Huge numbers of professionals are resisting a return to that daily commute. Some are threatening to quit if working at work is required.

They’re demanding continued WFH policies. Or at least a hybrid plan that allows them to spend fewer days in the office than they did before COVID-19 upended the old way of doing things.

Likewise, professional associations, business organizations, and networking groups have found remote meetings convenient. And sometimes lucrative.

Meeting virtually appeals to people who might not take the time to drive to a hotel or conference center, sit through a program that may not interest them that much, shake a few hands, and head back to the office.

On the other hand …

The extent to which we’ve come to rely on Slack and LinkedIn and Zooming into our business meetings … that has consequences, don’t you think?

Corporate bigwigs are all over the map when it comes to closing this chapter and bringing people back to the office.

Some are saying it’s time to return, no matter how employees feel about it. That’s how work gets done, dammit!

Most still seem pretty squishy. They’re setting soft deadlines for coming back to work at work, typically sometime after Labor Day. And many allow for the possibility of a hybrid arrangement, with the exact ratio of office time to remote work as yet undetermined.

I’m guessing the hybrid option is where most organizations will wind up. And I’m proposing that we treat all of it as an experiment for now, rather than digging in on “this is how it has to be.”

Personally, I work in a home office, regardless. Have for years now. I prefer to meet my clients in person though, now that it’s possible again. And although speaking engagements on virtual platforms sustained me this past year, I’d rather be in a room with an audience when I can.

Listen, I understand the resistance to dressing up and commuting and spending hours every day away from home. Working in the den, at the kitchen table, or out on the deck has definite advantages.

I keep coming back, though, to that phrase Damon Linker used: digital facsimiles of friendship.

What about our digital facsimiles of working relationships? Can they ever be as valuable as the real thing? Or does the “facsimile” part have a negative impact on the organization … and on each of us as an individual contributor to it?

Those aren’t rhetorical questions. I guess over the long term, the answers will emerge as we shift to working partly or mostly or 100% in-person with other human beings again.

Until then, I’m curious about your take. Can these digital facsimiles, with all their pitfalls, sustain a real effort to work together?

Tell me what you think in a comment here.