The way how work is structured has substantially changed and many employees work in physical distance from their team (i.e., alone). While working alone has become the new normal, it creates a particularly interesting tension for managers who could both lose and gain form working alone. Aloneness may emphasise formal differences, making managers prone to feel lonely. At the same time, aloneness may offer possibilities to take a step back and experience a positive state of solitude.
This Small Project thus addresses the questions: Which social aspects inform if managers experience daily aloneness at work as an aversive (loneliness) or pleasurable (solitude) state? What are the consequences for managers’ daily leader identity and well-being beyond work?
The project brings together Durham academics from Psychology, Management, and Sociology who apply both individual and socially focused perspectives. Via a daily diary design, data will be collected from UK managers in remote work settings, and analysed both quantitatively (i.e., multilevel path modelling) and qualitatively (i.e., linguistic test analysis). The project will result in scientific output (conference presentations, journal publication), and immediate recommendations for organizations (practitioner publication, engagement with consulting).
The number of employees who work alone (i.e., in physical distance from their team) has dramatically increased (Lund et al., 2021). However, working alone does not automatically mean feeling alone at work. Rather, two different experiences may emerge: loneliness or solitude. While loneliness describes an unpleasant and aversive state of lacking social companionship (Perlman & Peplau, 1981), solitude represents a “pleasant, desirable, and freely chosen state” (Ozcelik & Barsade, 2018). Although both experiences have received attention in various disciplines (e.g., psychology, sociology, philosophy), most research focused on adolescents (e.g., transitions to college; Nguyen et al., 2019) or late adults (e.g., retirement; Pinquart & Sorensen, 2001). In contrast, loneliness during middle adulthood, and particularly at work, has received less attention. This is problematic because loneliness is a realistic threat for employees of this life stage, especially for those with managerial responsibility as their role sets them apart from their team (e.g., high responsibilities, possession of confidential information; Zumaeta, 2019).
The project team argue that for managers, daily work alone is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it provides opportunities for solitude that were not possible in traditional office-work (i.e., days were over-saturated with in-person meetings plus the various informal encounters in the physical workspaces). On the other hand, working alone puts them under the threat of loneliness, as it emphasizes their different role and makes their work interactions less personal and satisfying. Thus, our first research question is: Which conditions explain the extent to which managers experience their daily work alone (i.e., in physical distance from the team) more as a state of loneliness or solitude? To address this question, we draw on the sociological perspective that the origins of individuals’ loneliness are social in nature (Yang, 2019). We argue that managers’ embeddedness in social networks both within and outside of work will help to understand if daily aloneness results in loneliness. That is, managers with strong social networks (i.e., multiple and densely connected networks) will experience less detrimental and more positive daily states when working alone.
The second research question is: What are the consequences of daily loneliness and solitude for managers’ leader identity and well-being beyond work? Loneliness links to negative self- and other perceptions (Ozcelik & Barsade, 2018), and reduced job-related well-being (Erdil & Ertosun, 2011). In contrast, solitude can generate benefits such as enhanced concentration, creativity, and identity formation (Heinrich & Gullone, 2006). We argue that managers’ daily experience of solitude and loneliness has differential consequences for their leader identity and well-being. A leader identity describes the extent to which ‘being a leader’ is salient to an individuals’ momentary sense of who they are and is a key motivator for leadership behaviour (Epitropaki et al., 2017). Individuals’ leader identity varies in response to strong daily events (Nieberle et al., 2022), and is construed based on momentary and meaningful relational interactions with others (DeRue & Ashford, 2010). We argue that daily loneliness will decrease managers’ momentary leader identity due to their experienced lack of meaningful social connections, subsequently reducing their job-related well-being and satisfaction with both their work and private lives. Contrarywise, daily experience of solitude will strengthen managers’ leader identity and subsequently their well-being at work and home, as it allows self-reflection (Jennings et al., 2021).
Methodological approach: The Project Team will collect data from managers in remote work settings (target N = 250) via Prolific Academic. Participants will complete a baseline survey to assess their social network characteristics and general social-demographic differences, followed by ten days of two daily surveys, respectively. While the surveys predominantly rely on quantitative scales (e.g., daily loneliness and leader identity) we further assess short qualitative description of the days to be analysed via linguistic text analysis. By doing this we will gain an additional implicit assessment of managers’ daily leadership self-perceptions.
Targeted outcomes: As scholarly outcomes, this project will produce one academic article targeted at the Journal of Applied Psychology and presentations at two interdisciplinary conferences.
As practitioner-focused outcomes, the Project Team will produce an article with best practice recommendations to be disseminated to MBA students and Durham University Alumni, as well as collaboration with the UK based consultancy The Learning and Development Consortium to conduct a workshop that discusses the implications of this research with UK managers.