According to former Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, America is in the midst of a loneliness epidemic. At least 40 percent of the country reports feeling lonely (and significantly more people might just be too embarrassed to admit their feelings). That's not just a bummer, it's also deadly.

Science shows loneliness is as bad for your life expectancy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And before it kills you, it will destroy your happiness and your productivity.

So what should we do about it? That's obviously a complex question, but Murthy suggests that one of the underlying drivers of the problem - our disconnected, tech-obsessed work culture - can also be a big part of the solution. One startup is taking that to heart with a simple intervention other companies concerned about the toll loneliness is taking on employees could easily learn from.

Blind dates... for the office

Loneliness might have multiple causes on the national level, but for accounting software company FreshBooks (full disclosure: I'm a happy customer), the root of their concern about employee disconnection was a happy fact of startup life - their head count was growing wildly.

When Grace Antonio, manager of support operations, joined the company nine years ago, it consisted of all of 20 people. Today the team is up to more than 280. Seeing this growth trajectory, Antonio was concerned about maintaining the supportive, close-knit feel of a smaller team, and came up with radically simple idea. Why not set employees from different departments up on friendly "blind dates" where they'd go grab lunch or coffee together and get to know each other as human beings?

"I realized some of the people I worked with didn't know each other's names. This was unimaginable to me and I was determined to try and change it," Antonio explained in an email. "There's something really compelling about the concept of a 'blind date' -- leaving things to chance and being open to new connections. That was the inspiration for the experiment."

You might have awkward associations with romantic first dates, but the office version proved surprisingly popular. A quarter of the company participated in the first round of the program. A second round drew in another quarter, including CEO and co-founder Mike McDerment. When surveyed after the experience, every single person who participated said they'd do it again.

A fourth round is now being planned that specifically matches people looking for mentors, working parents interested in sharing tips, those in search of a wingman (or woman) for events, or sports fan hoping to connect with fellow enthusiasts. 

A less lonely, more connected company

Getting to know a co-worker isn't a bad way to while away your lunch hour, but according to FreshBooks the program has actually had a deeper impact on company culture and inter-team connection. By facilitating serendipitous introductions, the program not only alleviates loneliness, but also stirs the pot of new ideas and brings together employees to support each other.

It also probably makes FreshBooks a much more pleasant place to work. After all, decades of research suggests that having work friends is one of the pillars of workplace happiness, and that happier employees are more productive, more loyal, and more engaged.

No wonder CEO Mike McDerment recommends other companies consider giving similar experiments a try. "Culture is the responsibility of everyone in the organization - not the mandate of one person or the HR department," he commented. "Be prepared to experiment and keep an open mind as your team grows. What works at 20, 60, 150, and 300 employees will be different, so be ready to shake it up and try new things."

Published on: Nov 2, 2017