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Be Honest: You Miss Your Co-Workers

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September 29, 2020 7 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

This article was written by Mitchell Terpstra, a member of the Entrepreneur NEXT powered by Assemble content team. Entrepreneur NEXT is our Expert solutions division leading the future of work and skills-based economy. If you’re struggling to find, vet, and hire the right Experts for your business, Entrepreneur NEXT is a platform to help you hire the experts you need, exactly when you need them. From business to marketing, sales, design, finance, and technology, we have the top 3 percent of Experts ready to work for you.

Sure, working from home (WFH) has its benefits: increased flexibility, a non-existent commute with consequent savings on gas or public-transport fare, and a lot more meetings that could have been emails are finally becoming those emails we always wanted them to be.

But at the same time, working remotely can feel too remote—almost like being stranded on a deserted island.

It’s no surprise then that in a number of studies conducted on the wellbeing of remote workers, loneliness was a leading reason remote workers wanted to return to working in the company office. 

Particularly in Western culture, our professions are synonymous with how we identify ourselves. Even with this outsized importance placed on only one aspect of our lives, we still fail to recognize just how important those other people in our profession are to our mental and emotional wellbeing. Love them or hate them, your co-workers do you a great service in helping you meet one of your basic human needs: social interaction.

Now that many have switched to working from home for some months now, the sting of loneliness stemming from isolation is becoming more palpable. Loneliness can hurt your job performance, and, what’s worse, it’s been linked to early mortality

Dealing with this fresh brand of loneliness just takes some proactive strategizing where there was little to none before. Here are tactics you can employ to upgrade your social life sans the workplace.

Leave your home.

Sounds simple, right? Lockdown orders in various places turned many of us into de facto shut-ins, only venturing out for the occasional grocery run. On a large scale, human movement slowed way down in 2020. As just one indicator, the use of public transport in the U.S. was down 50 percent in April. For some, these temporary changes in daily life have become new habit.

While a boon for the environment, staying confined to your home can be a bust for your emotional wellbeing, as chance social encounters and new relationships become impossible. Now that public health guidelines are in place, look for safe, socially distant activities to counterbalance the isolation of WFH.

Whether it’s just walking around your neighborhood, hiking through a nearby nature area or running errands, getting outside your home creates the opportunity for informal social encounters. Add to that the psychological boosts of light exercise and being in nature, and you’ve got yourself an instant mental upgrade.

You could take this a step further by picking up a new hobby with a likeminded friend. What’s something you’ve always wanted to learn? Find an accountability buddy and learn that thing together—baking sourdough, gardening, a foreign language, those “wine and watercolors” painting nights, whatever gives a reason to share time with someone else.

The number one problem shared among entrepreneurs today is finding, vetting, hiring, and retaining expertise

Dedicate at least one of your mealtimes to being social.

Take advantage of your lunch hour (or whichever meal you prefer). Reserve a mealtime every weekday for catching up with family members, close friends or a favorite colleague while you eat.

It might be grabbing breakfast or coffee together before the workday begins. Or maybe it’s a Zoom chat, Facetime session or just having the phone on speaker while you eat your respective lunches at your respective homes.

Chances are, if your loved ones are also adjusting to the WFH life, they’re in the same boat as you, and hungry for social interaction. And mealtime is the best time to socialize because, when you think about it, meals were the original social platform.

Opt for real connection over social media.

Speaking of social media, limit your time spent there. 

While scrolling through your Facebook timeline or Instagram feed may help you keep tabs on what your friends are up to—and give you the semblance of connecting with others—in reality it’s a cheap substitute and often just adds to feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression.

Establish a COVID work cohort.

If the WFH grind is feeling especially isolating for you, and if you have the extra space in your home, consider assembling your own WFH team of local friends going through the same experience. Though you’ll be working different jobs, the opportunity to bounce ideas off one another, vent about wearisome clients, or celebrate little victories throughout the day can mimic the type of social interactions you’re used to having with colleagues. 

If making your home into a sort of WFH open-office concept isn’t feasible, look into renting a desk at a co-working space or even setting up shop in a library or café once or twice a week. For some, just the prospect of being seen by others can be motivating and help boost your productivity. If you decide to go this route, be sure to practice social distancing and wear a mask.

Adopt a pet.

There’s good reason why the number of dog-friendly workplaces has nearly doubled in the past few years. The presence of dogs, like that of many pet animals, can decrease feelings of stress, loneliness, anxiety and depression, not to mention encourage more conversations between coworkers and more exercise in the life of the pet owner.

If you’ve been thinking about getting a pet before, there’s no better time to follow through. Prior to WFH, you bring a new dog into your home and on Monday morning, you might have had to leave it behind, home alone. Remote work gives you the opportunity to better acculturate a new pet into your household.

And, if you adopt a new pet during COVID, you’d be in good company: pet adoptions have surged since the pandemic started, but that doesn’t mean your new best friend isn’t still out there, waiting.

Dear Managers: Please check on your WFH employees.

Lastly, it’s important that managers, supervisors and other team leaders do regular check-ins on those employees under their leadership—and not only because loneliness can negatively affect job performance. It’s easy for a newly remote worker to feel thrown by the dramatic shift in work life, and to feel suddenly peripheral to the company’s mission. 

Get a pulse check on your individual team member’s well-being by doing quick informal check-ins via video conference or phone call, or by arranging a “work” zoom meeting that’s meant to be social in nature, like a Zoom Happy Hour, during which you can gauge if anyone’s not adjusting well to the “new work-life normal.”

To hire the Experts you need, exactly when you need them, visit next.entrepreneur.com to schedule a meeting with our Expert solutions team.

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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