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Ep9: Why company leaders are taking a stand on loneliness - with Simone Heng, author, Let's Talk About Loneliness and Nathan Sri, human experience expert, Work Dynamics, JLL
Episode 99th May 2024 • JLL Perspectives • JLL Australia
00:00:00 00:28:38

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Loneliness is a crisis of climate change proportions.

That is the assessment of Simone Heng, a human connection specialist and author of the book ‘Let’s Talk About Loneliness’. She chats to Nathan Sri, a human experience expert with JLL’s Work Dynamics team, and Perspectives podcast host, Rebecca Kent about why workplace managers can’t afford for their workers to feel disconnected.

There’s US$154 billion dollars at stake if they do.

Music: Fresh Apple Lesfm/Pixabay


Rebecca Kent

Loneliness is a crisis of climate change proportions. That is the assessment of Simone Heng, who is a human connection specialist and author of the book ‘Let’s Talk About Loneliness’. She joins us on this episode with Nathan Sri, a human experience expert with JLL’s Work Dynamics team. What you’ll discover over the next 25 minutes or so is why in workplaces, managers simply can’t afford for their workers to feel disconnected from their teams. And they’ve got to act pretty fast to create moments where they can get together to have a chat, a laugh and problem solve a little. There’s $154 billion US dollars at stake if they don’t.

I’m Rebecca Kent, content director at JLL. You’re listening to the Perspectives podcast. I hope you enjoy the chat.

Rebecca Kent

Hello, Nathan Sri and Simone Heng. Welcome to JLL's perspectives podcast.

Thanks for joining us.

Simone Heng

Thank you so much for having me.

Nathan Sri

Yeah, very excited to have Simone here. A long time coming, but we got there in the end.

Rebecca Kent

Exactly. So to be clear, Nathan and Simone, you're sitting in our Singapore office, I am meanwhile sitting in my lounge room. And this is relevant actually, because we're here to talk about human connection and loneliness. It's not relevant because I'm feeling particularly lonely.

But I am alone here in my house.

Simone Heng

But that's okay if you are. It's okay if you are.

Rebecca Kent

We will get into that.

So look, Simone, you’re a champion of human connection. You're travelling around the world speaking about this topic. Just give us a bit of an idea of how you came to be a voice for human connection and what your background is please.

Simone Heng

Yeah. So I spent almost 20 years in traditional media and I got to the point where I realised traditional media, not only was it dying, it wasn’t engaging people anymore. It had taught me to communicate, but not to connect. And I saw this rise in disconnection because of obviously technology and the conditions of modernity.

And I started researching.

I was on air one night on the radio and a young Singaporean girl, Gen Z, phoned up for a competition where I was giving away tickets for to a superhero movie. And I asked people: ‘Tell me what the superpower is that you'd want and why to win the tickets’.

And she rang up and she said, ‘I want to be able to really connect with people one-on-one. It doesn't sound like an extraordinary superpower but I think people are just really cold to each other in this day and age.’

And that for me sounded the alarm.

This is:

The further I researched, the deeper I went, I wrote books, and then of course the pandemic. It took over my life. It's taken over my life.

And now, with polarisation, it's taken on another lens. Now, with hybrid work, there's another lens. So global loneliness is now an existential crisis of the level of the climate change concern.

Rebecca Kent

I've never heard the two concepts mentioned: climate change and loneliness in the same paragraph before, so that's fascinating.

And Nathan, you're an absolute workplace guru.

So maybe give us a bit more about your background.

Nathan Sri

I started off as an accountant, funnily enough. Not the career for me, after a few years on the job. But you know, it's one of those ethnically progressive things where your dad's an accountant, I became an account and then realised I had way too much personality for that.

I actually stumbled into real estate about eight years ago and just haven't looked back since.

For a long time when I started in this industry, I noticed real estate was often an island on its own. These real estate functions that manage offices like this, where you’re sat in this corner or a bunker of a building completely disconnected to how work was happening, but the business needed it. And I think we're seeing, definitely today, more of that alignment. But there is a lot of disconnect at the same time.

But from accounting to change and transformation and now into real estate, it's been fantastic and the time I've had at JLL and the exposure to clients that we work with has been quite amazing.

But everyone's at that point where we're facing the same challenges around return to work, engagement, culture and organisations, and how we're even fostering that and how does workplace have a role in that? I think they're all fascinating topics that I'm looking forward to exploring.

Simone Heng

Do you wonder whether the conversation is improving or whether you or I are both so close to our topics that we just think the conversation is amplifying?

Nathan Sri

I feel that clients are asking questions more openly now than ever before. But I don't know that there is necessarily a straightforward answer and I think that's where the conversation becomes a bit of a standstill.

I was doing the numbers the other day, and with the average occupancy of 30% of your total population walking to the office, it only equates to something like 15% of your total population in the office. That means 85% of your staff are not even here for the week. That's a huge amount of your population not to be connecting. And I think that's a massive risk to productivity, to engagement, and I'm sure there's a lot of ramifications as a result of that.

Rebecca Kent

Simone, what do you know of the impact of that, or the prevalence of that on human connection? What are you seeing at the moment?

Simone Heng

So there's a global loneliness epidemic, but specifically workplace loneliness is now a huge problem.

They did a recent study in the States that said with people in the c-suite level, the number one problem that they're worried about is disconnection amongst their workforce.

The U.S. surgeon general's report cited something like 154 U.S. billion dollars a year being lost to absenteeism related to the stress of loneliness.

So this also doesn't take into account absenteeism that's related to illness, anxiety, depression that can also stem from loneliness. So that figure could essentially be a lot more.

And I think it's the:

So what you find in these lonely workplaces where people feel disconnected and unengaged is that they're much more transactional with their employer and also their team. So it's much more about, ‘I'm part of the 85% doesn't go in (or whatever that percentage is) and I am just here for a salary. I'm not invested in what my team is trying to achieve and therefore I'm not invested in the larger mission of the organization.’

So this is obviously a huge crisis in terms of the workforce globally and these are just stats from Australia and the States. But you can look globally and it's pretty consistent.

Rebecca Kent

Wow. So it’s a financial issue, it’s a productivity issue, it’s a human issue. You’ve both thrown out some pretty staggering numbers there.

Nathan, what’s your take on the impact on human connection and loneliness of changes in the workplace? And there have been so many changes. It’s not just changes in workplace behaviours and patterns, it’s business changes: mergers and acquisitions are going nuts right now. Companies sort of starting up, closing down. What’s your take?

Nathan Sri

It’s one of those things where we have an environment, again, where real estate is saying, ‘I'm going to reduce the size of the property because no one wants to come in’.

We've got organizations post-pandemic taking a remote-first type approach.

So you came in when you wanted to, but almost the default was you work from where you want to and you come into the office when you like rather than office first.

And we're dealing with a number of clients who at the same time are merging or buying other companies out and trying to integrate those functions into your functions when half your teams aren't even in the office. So people that need to be connecting aren't connecting to actually bring this issue together or to deliver an outcome.

One of the things that I'm really focused in on at the moment is the disconnection between what businesses want, what real estate is driving, and then what I think our staff want. And I think they're very disparate and I think they're completely disconnected at the moment.

Real estate, it's easy, right? Probably the second largest cost for any organisation, people being first. So post-pandemic, when people wanted to get costs down, it was an easy win, right? So we've got clients on average that would take 60% of their real estate and say they no longer need it. But then you have, let's say, 1,000 people that belong to this office, you've now downsized the office and you have ratios of three-to-one, which means there's probably only like 300 seats for 1,000 people. And then you have 30% of people coming in, so only, like, 60 people are in. And those numbers are really crazy, right? You just think about what that's doing for people, their happiness, their sense of community, connection.

I think there is a big issue there that organisations are grappling with and I think we're seeing organisations start to say, ‘Well, I want you to come in three days a week’, or now, in some cases, companies like Nike are saying four days back in the office. But there's a disconnect because that does not marry up with real estate because real estate has gone so low in their space that we can't actually bring that many people back in four days a week. There's not enough space.

So I think there's a big tipping point that's coming where again, what business want,

what real estate is doing what people ultimately are looking for are all kind of just not aligned.

Simone Heng

Yeah, I think it is very much like a no-man's land of, it's per-organization of how they want to work. But I do think the tipping point is coming.

Connection is the antidote to loneliness.

If you can't connect, how do you get out of loneliness?

Nathan Sri

So what are those elements or what are the recipes or the environments that foster human connection? And what can organizations do when they're thinking about designing their new spaces and things like that?

What is going to foster that human connection back in, in real estate?

Simone Heng

So I went to a forum on this and listened to some people.

And one of them was saying, if you have an office that has a green space, they make sure when they invite their people into in-office days, it is with specific views that it's to do things that cannot be done in virtual conference. And specifically, the connection piece is, if you're having that check-in that you might in a remote team, you know, the weekly check-in, and you're checking-in with your people, you're doing that in the green space of the office, and you're doing it as a walk and talk.

Or when you're getting the team in, the things that are best done, creative tasks, maybe brainstorming in person versus on Zoom, where each person has to wait to chime with an idea. You know, that kind of, the speed of the in-person brainstorm for creative things. But invite everyone to have a brown bag lunch.

If your team doesn't have the budget to go to a nice lunch, brown bag lunch it, get some connection cards to facilitate questions that don't revolve around work. And the really important thing here, which I loved, , don't tag on as the manager. That is,

‘Oh, and by the way, that email we're having about something else …’ as they're leaving the door. Leave it just with the purpose of connection.

Simone Heng

Actually the stats show, the studies show, that a lot of people stay in a job longer than they normally would because they have a workplace best buddy.

And it's just so cool to come into work and hang out with your best buddy.

But what we're seeing if you on-board remotely and you have no best buddy, you're like, ‘See ya’. First sign of adversity. First sign of corporate culture you don't like, ‘See ya, I'm out’.

And that costs so much money to organizations in terms of retraining people, going through the recruitment process again and the time that it clogs up to onboarding.

Nathan Sri

I remember back in the day when I was working in the banks in Australia, some of the best high performing teams I worked in was because we were in the trenches together. We worked late nights, but we partied hard and we were just this team that looked after each other. And every time a job came up, I didn't want to go because I didn't want to lose that.

And I don't know that you could ever build that online.

Simone Heng

Yeah, I wanted to blow some human connection science to just support that. It might actually surprise a lot of people.

You know, we're not wired as human beings to connect via the camera and video. So this technology, yes, it's incredible because you can get the best talent pool you want. They just might not be on your time zone.

But we evolved as early humans in tribes and in these tribes there was safety in numbers. And literally there are so many social cues that happen in-person that you don't even notice. they help to build rapport and trust. And trust is the cornerstone of connection.

You cannot have a connected team if they don't feel there's an element of trust and that's why toxic work culture just doesn't work for productivity. Because no-one trusts each other.

So you can imagine from a corporation’s point of view the emotional leverage of saying‘, We have a highly connected culture (like your banks that you worked for in Australia). Come and work with us. You'll love it.’

You're going to keep people there. It's a basic human need.

No one says, ‘Yes, I would like to be lonely this week at work’. Have you ever? Said no-one ever.

Nathan Sri

There is that disassociation between purpose of an organization and why people want to work, and a lot of that manifested in the physical environment because it really espoused what you stood for.

You now take people away from that and they're four days a week or whatever outside, it becomes harder to really connect them into that purpose and value that you as a leader on behalf of the organization is really trying to drive.

And I think that's a big, missed opportunity at the moment.

But what I'm seeing at the grassroots, Bec, is we've got a situation where I am very sure that next generation or cohort of staff actually want to be in the office, but they come in and their leaders aren't there.

So there's no intention behind how this is being curated. So they're coming in because everyone is self-driven.

So, ‘I'm going to choose to work Monday, Tuesday in the office, and then Wednesday, Friday I might be somewhere else. My colleague decides actually Monday, Tuesday is not great for me and I'm going to come in Wednesdays and Thursdays.’

Where is that coming in and sitting together as a team and going for a coffee and going and understanding someone and what they're about? Because it's very hard to do that like online.

Simone Heng

Yeah, Zoom coffees aren't great.

We need five types of human connection to be happy and this is in chapter two of my book, Let's Talk About Loneliness.

So one of those is self-connection. So obviously we'll talk about that later, but that's self-awareness. You need your intimate connections. This is the five people closest to you, often the people you cohabitate with. These are not people … you could meet these people in the office. I think in the old days, where dating in the office was allowed, people were, but this is largely your friends who see you warts and all and still love you. You can call on them in a crisis. They're the real, real close team.

The next is relational connection and the office can provide this, but this is normally 15 people, like your kin and your community.

And then you have micro connections which the office does really well. This is the nod to your barista. Those small dopamine, oxytocin-filled positively polarized moments like me at reception with the girls at Capita Spring signing in to get up here, that small smile.

We missed that in the pandemic. We do need that and for really lonely people maybe the office was giving them that, and that was their only lifeline.

And then the last – and this is where offices can really do this – is collective connection. Collective connection is where you have a group of people – they're not necessarily best buddies, but they have a central mission. And this is why for eons organizations have had a corporate mission.

The reason I'm sharing this is it's my reasoning why we'll never go back to the office fully, Nathan. It’s because hybrid work allows that mother, who's a working mum, to have that extra day week for her intimate connections.

And the truth is, human beings will always choose their intimate connections, their five closest, and essentially their self-connection – that time to be on their own and to have some rest – they're going to choose that over collective connection. They're going to choose that over relational connection. So I think that's important.

That's from the research I've done. I think that's why we'll never fully be back to five days a week.

Rebecca Kent

And it's a delicate balancing act, I think, for managers and company leaders who are torn between wanting to impose mandates for teams to come in for that collective connection, but also allowing workers the freedom and flexibility to work in the best way and in the best environment that they can.

I love the idea of your connecting cards, your paper bag lunches and cards and asking each other questions.

And I know there's a strategy in our office when we have internal events that they're not always done virtually. They are always in-person because that's trying to encourage people to come in and get the benefit of shared knowledge.

Simone Heng

I have a good activity that I think might add value to team members or leaders listening to this, they can suggest it.

Firstly, renaming the weekly check in ‘the huddle’. And you can do this online or in- person and you go ‘round robin’ and you ask three questions and the leader starts and the first thing they say is, ‘What went really well last week?

What do I need to do this week and what do I need from the team to achieve this?’

And this is an act of what I call corporate vulnerability because we know vulnerability is the route to really authentic connection.

But there's a level of intimacy you can't bring into the office, right? There's a level of professionalism.

This is a great way for a manager to show a little vulnerability, but show what we call dependent care, interdependent care. That is, ‘I need your help. We need each other's help. Safety in numbers. That's how we survive.’ It actually taps into something very primal.

The other thing is, always meet your people where they're at.

So if you don't know how many days, you can use some anonymous survey software. Because here in Asia our work culture is that people are not going to put up their hand and say, ‘I want to come in three days’. We as Asians we don't do that very well. So the anonymous survey works really well in our market and then different members of the team can say how many days they feel comfortable with, which rooms they want to work from, how they want to use the space. Ask your team then aggregate the results that you get.

You're never going to make everyone perfectly happy, but maybe you can meet people closer to where they're at. And that's how you build great rapport and connection. It’s not connecting with people how you like, but actually how it makes them the most comfortable. We should be having an others-driven approach. So there are a couple of tips.

Nathan Sri

I couldn't agree with you more. I think they're fantastic tips.

One of the things that I’d like to add to the story is being very purposeful, as you say, when leaders are in the office. So, actually supporting them.

So at JLL, we're trying to spend less focused on the lights and the air con and these things that just should work, and more time with the people who actually reside in these offices.

So we want to spend time with the leaders to understand when you are bringing your teams in, what is it that you want to be doing?

Because right now we have the scenario where leaders go, ‘Tuesday, Wednesday, it's our team day, come into the office’. But then you watch them and they’re all at their desk glued to their screen because they're in seven hours of hybrid meetings because not everyone has come in. So you've defeated the purpose of trying to bring everyone back in.

So what we're trying to do is actually say, ‘Well, you've got to help us because we can create the space, we can organize the coffees, we can run some events, we can organize games.’

In fact, one of the simplest things we did for a tech company was we became the birthday people. So we realized that people were coming into the office to celebrate birthdays. So all we did was buy the supplies. We brought the cake stand, the candles, the knife, and now people love coming in because they know that we'll set it up. We have it all ready, they just bring the cake. And guess what? Their teams come in and it's just seamless and it's such a simple thing, but it's made a profound impact.

I think this is what I would say: That everything doesn't need to be about the latest tech or this crazy expensive thing that you need to do to create that human connection. It's simple things like a cake stand and a knife, and the fact that someone … all you have to do is tell them and they'll bring it and set it up at the time you want in the social space and off you go, and then we'll get that all cleaned up for you at the end.

Hey, I now have a very simple and easy way to bring my team in and get them connected. I think that is a missed opportunity for many organizations.

Simone Heng

I love when you talk about, ‘Tt's not about the new gadgets’. It's like, ‘We don’t need more tech for something that our biology tells us we want in person’. And you know, if you ever have a leader who is like, ‘I'm coming in, I've got seven hours back-to-back hybrid meetings, I cannot afford to take an hour out to connect my team.’ Tell him 154 billion U.S. Dollars per year on absenteeism related to the stress of loneliness in the workplace. And that is some big emotional leverage to go, ‘You know what? One hour is okay. Let's take that hour out to connect on those in-office days.

Rebecca Kent

Simone, you spoke about self-awareness, that was one of your tips. To what extent is it the responsibility of ourselves to check in to our own loneliness and do something about it?

Simone Heng

This is huge. You can't connect well with other people if you're not connecting well with yourself. So every single moment where you've had a bad interaction with someone, there was maybe in that moment a glimpse where you lost yourself.

One of my friends said she remembers the first moment she commented via an emoji to a message, but it wasn't reflected on her face, so it was like, it's like a smiley face, but her face wasn't smiling.

So you can see how being that busy, that overstimulated, in a way that we weren't in our analogue childhood, could mean as a leader that you're missing checking in with your own state.

So I get leaders, when I speak, we do a 4-4-8 breathing technique: We breathe in for four (seconds), hold it in our mouth for four (seconds), we exhale for eight (seconds). We do this for two minutes. It releases happy hormones into the body, one of which is oxytocin, the hormone that builds trust in relationships.

So if you ever have met someone and they feel so open to connect with you, so present, it’s because they're in a calm state. You can't even detect your own loneliness if you are that busy and that run away with yourself.

And the lonely brain also is not rational. So an expert called Doctor James Cohen from Virginia University, he talks about the lonely brain spiralling. So what it actually does is, even though you're lonely – and we see this a lot with Gen Z, you can watch any Tik Tok on this – you feel lonely, but then you're like, ‘Oh, no, I'm not going to go out. I'm just going to isolate myself further.’

So even though the one thing you really need is connection, the lonely brain is wiring to keep you safe. It's a flight or flight response. So it's saying, ‘Okay, stay in more.

Stay in more, even though connection is actually what you need’.

Leader, employee. We've heard the saying as well: Leadership is lonely.

It's lonely at the top. So I want to just speak to the leaders who are listening to this.

What I know from coaching some of the biggest leaders in Asia is that when you run a company, that vulnerability piece, that vulnerability leads to connection, it starts to go missing because you're connecting with your subordinates and you want to be friends. But if you tell them, ‘I'm worried at night because we've done really badly this quarter’, that then starts to worry the subordinate: ‘Is my job at risk? Are they going to downsize? What's going happen?’

You can no longer do that. So you're keeping that all to yourself. You don't tell your wife or your husband about it because you don't want them to worry that we're going to have to leave Singapore because the company is going. So you just start keeping more and more of it all to yourself.

This is why they say it's lonely at the top. It truly is for this reason. The vulnerability piece goes out the window.

Rebecca Kent

Who do they talk to then? Who do they share all their woes with?

Simone Heng

So that's why they hire a coach or a therapist who's paid to listen and never reveal it.

In the conscious living community there has become this mushrooming of men's groups where men can go and talk to each other in a safe space of men who are not in their same industry, but maybe they're at the same level.

A lot of male leaders join masterminds with men, similar earning level, similar issues, similar amount of people they're leading in a team, and they can share that information amongst themselves. But we need that. We shouldn't just be paying people to listen, you know. And this goes of course for high-achieving women as well. And women in leadership.

But we've got to find those spaces where we can be vulnerable. It's the only way to have real connection that isn't transactional.

Rebecca Kent

Be vulnerable. Nathan, anything to add to that?

Nathan Sri

I mean, it's really fascinating because if I'm kind of introspecting on conversations I have with clients, I always see return-to-office and engagement as a leadership issue. And I always say we shouldn't be focused on the on the real estate, we should be focused on the leaders in helping them bring people back.

But what dawned on me as you were speaking, is we're asking people who are at the top of the food chain who themselves might be feeling lonely or disconnected, or don't know how to engage because they spend the majority of their life looking through a digital screen to come in and try and be this feeder of energy that others can latch on to. Maybe we need to think that through a bit more.

And it's not just leaders. It's, ‘How do I help leaders do that and not just expect leaders to do that.’ Do you know what I mean?

Simone Heng

That's why I have a job, Nathan!

Nathan Sri

It's really kind of opened my mind to the fact that it is a leadership challenge, but we're asking leaders who are potentially going through everything you talked about to try and do something that they just don't feel capable of because they need the support or otherwise.

So now I'm like, ‘Okay, it's not real estate’s issue, it's a leadership issue. Then how do we support leaders and people like you?’

Simone Heng

And above that, it’s a human issue.

Nathan Sri


Rebecca Kent

Definitely. And I think that's a wonderful note to finish on there, too. Thank you so much. It's been a really fascinating conversation and I hope there's plenty there that resonated with a lot of people.

So, Simone Heng, thanks so much. And Nathan Sri, as always, coming up with the goods. You've been great.

I'm Rebecca Kent, just for the record. I'm content director at JLL, just sitting over here in Sydney. Hopefully talk to you again sometime soon down the line. Take care.




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