Is "Social / Solitude" the new "Work / Life" balance?
A Conflicting Message
Does your office have a pingpong table, an Xbox, bean bag chairs, a beer keg, or any other perq that encourages social interaction? And at the same time, have you ever had a boss who complains that too many people are congregating in the kitchen, at the water cooler, at the pingpong table, etc? Maybe you have been that boss. It can be challenging to feel like you're hard at work and other people are seemingly shirking their responsibilities. There is a temptation to scold folks for being too social and not focused enough.
This is of course a conflicting message and an interpretation issue. Leadership wants their employees to utilize these social office features, but they want them to be used at an unspecified time period for and unspecified amount of time. They'll often have difficulty explaining the right time and duration as well. You'll get an answer like "if we're well ahead on our work and meeting commitments and ahead of pace, or just need a quick mental break, etc." The problem is that the employee may be at a different place from a progress perspective or mental capacity perspective than the manager. So it's impossible for the manager to know if the time is right for the employee without micromanaging and time stalking.
What's Really Important
What's lost in the debate between shirking and working, productivity and wasted time is the impact these socially based escapes can have on our physical well being. In fact, the University of Washington has summarized that "loneliness and poor social connections increase your risk of death as much as excessive cigarette smoking, and more than excessive drinking, obesity, and being chronically exposed to air pollution". And according to a study by Kuczynski, Kanter, & Robinaugh (2019), "interpersonal factors in general, and loneliness in particular, are strongly associated with quality-of-life." So while companies assess the best ways to aid in the physical well being of their employees, the best thing they may be able to do is to give them the opportunity to form relationships and engage with each other socially.
Reconciling Social / Solitude
On a personal level, I get energized when I am with friends or colleagues and we're enjoying some casual social time. The present and pressing stresses of the moment are relaxed and I can focus on something positive or exciting. But it's important to remember that the social relationship building time doesn't mean that we need to be surrounded by people or interacting with people at all time. It's perfectly healthy and normal for people to have time of solitude to focus on their work and gain as much productivity as possible. Some call it, "in the flow", and during that time, people can achieve some of their best results and/or output. After these moments of extreme productivity, companies would benefit from encouraging the social relationship building time to ensure they're doing all they can to promote wellness and a healthy social / solitude balance.