In 1942, in the midst of World War II, William Beveridge published one of the most influential reports of the 20th century in the UK. Beveridge identified five challenges, Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness, which together would form the rationale for the most far reaching proposals for the future of Britain. Many commentators think that, like the 1940s, we might be in the middle of another major transformation as we fully enter the age of connection, or what is often described as the post-industrial era. If that is true, what are the new challenges we are facing at a societal level and why should it matter to HR leaders?

Beveridge’s report was aimed at policy makers in local and national government, the powerhouses for social change.  Most would argue that today’s powerhouses are our large corporate organisations, which makes today’s HR executives collectively the key leaders of people strategy for UK plc. If this sounds like a big responsibility, that’s because it is! There are plenty of rational reasons for discounting this responsibility:

We’re accountable only to our shareholders

We’ve got enough on our plate without this

It’s not my role

In the age of connection, however, that argument is going to be increasingly less sustainable.

Let’s explore an example. Over the last few months I have been asking colleagues, clients and families what they believe are the great challenges of our time. One of the most surprising answers has been loneliness. It seems that paradoxically, in an age where we have never been more mobile or connected to each other, we feel increasingly isolated.

I have yet to hear of a strategy for loneliness in any organisation I have worked with and the idea sounds bizarre. It would be easy to lump loneliness into mental health and assume it is covered by a wellbeing strategy but what would that miss?

  • Flexible working policies, including home working, job sharing and hot desking have brought many benefits to businesses and to employees. They have also loosened some of the ties that bind people together – shared space, intimacy and a sense of the collective.
  • Technology and an ‘always on 24/7’ world means the way we are relating has changed. We spend more time on our own with only our gadgets and virtual online hugs for company. Social networks and on line communities are great and are not enough. We are biologically programmed to form groups and be in community – to have a physical connection not just a cerebral one and we know that communication is more non-verbal than verbal, so technology can only picks up a small percentage of what we might be communicating. Emoticons will never quite compensate for the depth of connection we gain from real presence in a real room with real people.
  • The pace of business life has increased markedly. The busier we are, the faster we go and the less relational we become, sacrificing the most precious time of all  – hanging out with no agenda because we can’t afford the time. And yet this is often where the emotional capital is put in the bank in building and deepening relationships – creating a sense of community and forming strong bonds.

I’ve worked with a number of executives who are suffering from acute loneliness. Many organisations reward strong leaders and so the further people progress, the stronger they are expected to be. This means by the time they become senior executives they are often put in a single office and denied any outlet for their vulnerability or insecurity, whilst the people around them become more distant and tentative.

How much time do we spend on hope and ambition in organisations? I don’t mean vision and strategy in the establishment sense. Within the book written by Khurshed Dehnugara and Claire Genkai Breeze entitled ‘The Challenger Spirit – organisations that disturb the status quo’ (2011, Lid Publishing) they talk about hope and ambition being about knowing what you want to cause as an individual and finding others who feel the same. It is about your team, function and organisation being a place you want to be part of.

So what might an organisational, HR led response to loneliness include?  Would you contemplate including a question on loneliness in the engagement survey and using it as a KPI to drive action change in your business? Could Health and Safety reviews for remote workers include loneliness? How about drop-in sessions on connectivity and hope?

This article doesn’t attempt to find the answers or design a blueprint. The intention here is to recognise that the challenges facing us in the age of connection are different to those of the industrial era; to suggest that large business is best placed to respond to these challenges; to propose that HR leaders are, therefore, strongly positioned as a potent force for change and finally to offer some practical suggestions for getting started.

Nick Mabey is a Partner at Relume Ltd