Culture is Feeling Part of Something
ALSO: Scroll down for a stunning surge in firms demanding a return to the office
This week I saw huge parallels for workplace culture in two stories from the world of sport.
I’m a huge tennis fan, a passion that has been substantially enhanced by the internet allowing me to feel connected to other enthusiasts. There is nothing as isolating as realising that you’re the only person you know who cares about Holger Rune, and social media has transformed fandom for me. For my interest in tennis swap in any interest or passion and you realise social media gets a bad rep.
Last week I was moved by the story of a rising star of the game, Amanda Amisimova who announced that she was taking a break from the sport at the age of 21.
It was the language Anisimova used that made the story hit so hard, the player said that it had ‘become unbearable being at tennis tournaments’. Of course, the first rule of the internet is to ‘never read the comments’ but I made the mistake of venturing into the replies, which of course included armchair experts expounding that players today ‘are made of glass’.
Anisimova is still living in the aftermath of the death of her father who had also acted as her coach. Konstantin Anisimov passed away three years ago at the age of 52. His absence has left a huge gap in her life, not least on the endless weeks on the road. Anisimova isn’t the only tennis player who has talked of mental health challenges, recency bias might tempt us to think of Naomi Osaka, the former world number 1 who stepped away from the sport for a while before she announced her pregnancy. But in the past the likes Andre Agassi and Jennifer Capriati both confessed that they took drugs to deal with the stresses of the sport.
While we might image the life of a professional sports star to be filled with luxury and joy, for many it’s in fact a life of rootless isolation. A recent study of top golfers reported that they ‘increasingly spend large periods away from any friends and family, and struggle to form anything but superficial relationships with others on tour’. In the case of these individualistic sports the people who do follow the same itinerant lives as them are generally in competition with them:
"The result is that players tended to keep their personal problems to themselves, particularly within the golfing fraternity, in order not to give others an advantage and to also guard against being viewed as a moaner. Such attitudes can also serve to increase and reinforce the perceived levels of loneliness that particular players may harbour."
A life surrounded with employees and rivals isn’t a happy one. Author Johann Hari suggests that we might better understand mental health challenges by thinking of them as disconnection. Time and time again research shows that our mental health and wellbeing is impacted by feeling part of something - and suffers when we feel isolated.
Today’s podcast guest, Michael Banissy helps illustrate one expression of connection - touch. A remarkable study into basketball players found that ‘that in group competition, physical touch would predict increases in both individual and group performance’. Touching each other helped create or reinforce a sense of connection, leading to better results.
And it wasn’t just that teams who were successful then started touching more: ‘Additional analyses confirmed that touch predicted improved performance even after accounting for player status, preseason expectations, and early season performance’.
Some non-human primates spend 20% of their day grooming each other and sharing a connection, for humans we’ve increasingly reduced connection to (silenced) pings on a screen.
In Fortitude I cite some stunning evidence of people who were recovering from hospitalisation for heart operations. The biggest predictor of whether those who had been admitted would experience post-operative depression was how many (social) groups they reported being part of. Touching and being in a group aren’t the same, but both speak to the importance of connecting with others.
‘The correlations were both fascinating and revealing: 10 per cent of participants reported being depressed at the outset of the study. At the end of it, those who said they didn’t belong to a group were 41 per cent more likely to have fallen into depression. Those who reported being involved with three or more groups were only 15 per cent more likely to have become depressed. The measurable effects were most striking among those who had a previous history of depression. Here, membership of one group reduced the risk of a relapse into depression by 24 per cent; membership of three groups involved a 63 per cent reduction’.
In the UK Jurgen Klopp became famous for his commitment to hugging his players at the end of matches:
“I enjoy it more… I’m really demanding to be honest, and I really want a lot of them. When you can really see how they fight, with the last drop of fuel in their machine … that’s the most easy thing to do [to hug them].
The plight of Amanda Anisimova is just a reflection of the environment many of recognise in our own lives, we’ve created a world where many of us feel a sense of individual isolation. We shouldn’t be afraid to challenge ourselves in seeking the collective answer to it, even in the form of a hug.
Are you touch starved? Do you feel a touch hunger in your life?
Michael Banissy is a psychologist whose work focusses on the importance of physical connection between people, he styles himself as part of a group of ‘scientists who stroke’. Touch has become sigmatised by the actions of those who have misused it, to the extent that many of us have become fearful of touching the arm or shoulder of others. Banissy gives a compelling case for appropriate touch, and asks us to rethink the role it plays in our lives.
Listen: website / Apple / Spotify
His book Why We Touch is out now. (It’s called Touch Matters in the US).
Read more: How touch changes our decision making
Free event: Join me on 25th May at 12.30pm when I’ll be speaking at Microsoft’s Employee Experience event. The event is focussed on developments in emerging workplace technologies, such as AI, and how we can optimise employee experience to help balance productivity, engagement, and wellbeing of employees.
I’ll be delivering a keynote speech and taking part in a fireside chat with Microsoft’s Alexia Cambon and Nick Hedderman about how we can implement AI in the workplace to build the future of work. To register for your free seat, click the link here
Productivity concerns are scaring bosses…
Worker productivity has fallen for five quarters in a row in the US (but the causes of this aren’t clear yet - is it the RTO push that’s causing it? is it fatigue?)
Microsoft data says that workers are spending two full days a week doing emails and meetings (I think this is a underestimate - what do you think?)
…and they want you back in the office
I mentioned in the last post that there is a growing movement to try force a return to the office and there were a couple of big stories this week:
Not happy with just creating the technology that is going to run wild destroying your children’s jobs, Sam Altman also wants you to sit at your desk while you await your fate. Open AI boss says remote work is over
CEOs see the falling productivity as the reason to demand everyone return to the office
The Wall Street Journal published an immensely elaborate piece of work (tracking mobile phones and their proximity to other people’s phones who work at rival companies) that suggests that face-to-face encounters spawned more innovative collaborations between firms
Irascible owner of social network (who works remotely) says ‘get off your work-from-home BS’
Despite this office space is in declining demand
A bleak read about commercial real estate values collapsing: huge amounts of unused offices are becoming 'stranded assets'. One half empty block that sold for £55m in 2015 is being marketed for £16m for example
Manhattan has 26 Empire State Buildings worth of empty office space - office occupancy is at 50%
The cost of property in London is so high that it’s no longer affordable to bring up kids there. 20 state nursery and primary schools closed between 2017 and 2022. 25-39 year olds are actively leaving the city
Yes, like everyone I’d started watching (and loved) Jury Duty but I’d not finished it. Please finish it, the last episode and a half are the best TV of the year. Right up there with the third episodes of The Last of Us and Succession. (Free to watch on Amazon Prime)
Greetings from Tasmania Bruce! Great newsletter, as always. Loved what you wrote about touch, isolation and connection. I've got a memoir coming out next month which follows my journey (and my family's) through three psych ward admissions after severe workplace trauma (I covered the Bali bombings, the Boxing Day tsunami and the Iraq War for Reuters). My headline conclusion after seven years of writing the book: human connection underpins recovery. https://www.deanyates.com.au/praise-for-line-in-the-sand
Physical touch is such an important topic. From the work I do with children, I see the impact of a reduction in physical touch. It's no longer acceptable for professionals to hug children (even in a safe way), and children are encouraged not to have too much physical contact with each other. This, despite everything we know.