Remote work has been on the rise for years now, and everything indicates that it’s set to surge more than ever in the years to come. Trailblazing companies like Twitter, Facebook, Quora and Shopify have announced they will become either full remote, remote-optional, or remote-by-default for the foreseeable future. As it happens, this innovative spirit will surely trickle down to both smaller and more traditional companies.
There are clear reasons behind the office exodus of the 21st century: Remote work eliminates many overhead expenses related to office spaces, allows workers more flexibility while increasing productivity, and can work as an important ally in the fight against climate change. But there’s also a slew of challenges that come with pivoting to a remote work model.
At GroWrk, we’re dedicated to understanding and addressing them, to help companies thrive as they navigate this new normal.
One of the main concerns that working from home raises is the topic of isolation, and rightfully so; a 2018 Cigna study found that loneliness has reached epidemic levels in America, with nearly half of the 20,000 adults surveyed reporting that they sometimes or always feel alone, and left out. It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that eliminating an office — the space where many people carry out the majority of their social interactions during weekdays — can help combat the negative feelings that arise from a lack of human connection, but bear with us, we’ll discuss how further down.
First, it’s important to make a distinction between loneliness and isolation. Isolation refers to a structural ailment that stems from a lack of access to people and situations. Loneliness, on the other hand, is an emotion, and one can feel just as lonely at home as they do in an office, surrounded by others. So, while loneliness can be addressed by the worker, it’s up to management to avoid creating situations in which a worker can feel isolated from their team, the larger tasks at hand, and the overall company mission.
Combat isolation from the top, down
When pivoting to a full-remote or remote-friendly work model, it’s important that leaders take no form of communication for granted. You must be assertive, ensuring everyone is well-connected and setting up as many software tools as necessary. Task management software such as Monday will help keep track of and give visibility to assignments across the company, communication software such as Slack will allow workers to communicate via channels specific to certain areas, as opposed to via text messages on their personal phones, and Zoom offers high-quality video conference calls and allows you to record meetings. Once your digital work environment is in place, it’s important to ensure that there are clear policies for how and when to use these tools, and gently enforce them until they’ve become second nature, across the company.
In addition to these productivity-related measures, however, it’s crucial that you can count on a department (ideally consultants specialized in managing remote workers) that carries out periodic check-ins with your remote workforce, not only regarding workplace safety and physical wellbeing, but to scope out how they’re faring from home, if they’re having trouble communicating, or if they are experiencing any feelings of isolation that can be addressed by higher-up management. This process is a small price to pay for having healthy, well-adjusted workers.
“Humans are biopsychosocial beings,” says Yesica Astorga, a psychologist who has treated loneliness in a wide variety of patients. “Both introverts and extroverts can find a way to thrive when working from home, and the situation must be assessed on an individual level to ensure that they’re being given the tools they need to put their best work forward.” By leaving it in the hands of remote work experts, management can focus on bigger-picture business matters, knowing their team is being taken care of.
Finding your personal, remote work sweet spot
Once a worker is set up with the proper tools to avoid isolation, there’s still the matter of loneliness to deal with. Lina Abascal, a writer and creative strategist who’s been working from home since 2018, recalls feeling suddenly cut off from the daily social interactions she had become accustomed to in the office once she made the switch to remote work. “There’s always an adjustment period for any change in your workplace or style,” she says, adding that “when I started working from home a few years ago, to combat feeling lonely, I began to schedule my days out more than I did prior, cashing in on the newfound freedom I had over my day.”
Abascal first focused on spending quality time with herself, taking noon yoga classes, preparing more elaborate breakfasts than she was able to when she had to rush to beat morning traffic, and going on 10 min walks a few times a day. In addition to helping avoid burnout, this allowed her to forge a deeper, more meaningful approach to social interactions. “Instead of spontaneous lunches or happy hour with coworkers, I had to be more intentional with my social planning,” she says, “but that led to me appreciating it more and spending time with people I really wanted to be with.”
Because feelings of loneliness can arise even in a room full of people, assuming that remote work will exacerbate them is oversimplifying the problem, and fails to address its root cause. As with so many other things, combating loneliness is a matter of quality, not quantity. Romina Cenisio, a designer focused on travel and environmental conservation, agrees. “When I stopped working at an office and set up my home workspace, I was already part of a network of like-minded people that also worked remotely,” she recalls. By coordinating quick coffee breaks or lunch hours with nearby remote friends, she’s come to feel that working remotely helps her be more connected to the people she cares about. “I no longer feel the pressure to participate in the meaningless small talk of an office,” she says, “and have more time to dedicate to strategic networking, or even just catching up with friends and family.”
For some people, meeting with others face-to-face is important, even when working remotely. And though the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily eliminated that possibility, it should be kept in mind as good practice for once the situation subsides. “When it was possible, I would often set in-person meetings vs. video calls to splice up my day,” says Abascal, who’s based in Los Angeles. However, it’s important to remember that everyone is different, and luckily, the flexibility that remote work offers allows for a period of trial and error.
Perhaps someone will find that mid-day, in-person meetings are too much work, and they’d rather stay inside to unlock long periods of productivity. A quick FaceTime with a coworker or loved one can be squeezed into a 15-minute break now and then. “My key has been to be diligent about making room to keep constant contact with other humans, maybe not every day because I personally don’t need it, but a couple of times a week,” says Cenisio. “Everyone needs to find their sweet spot of how much interaction they need with people,” she concludes.
Once you’ve figured out your personal quota, you’ll find that remote work gives you more free time to enjoy the activities and people that matter to you most, outside of work. This is a key to achieving work-life balance, which staves off stress and, consequently, improves general quality of life. “After I began working remotely, I started hobbies outside of work because I felt so much less drained than when I was in an office, especially without a commute,” says Abascal, “now I’m in 2 book clubs and even have time to volunteer, which makes me so happy.”
The truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for keeping loneliness and isolation at bay when working remotely. “You can reach certain conclusions after analyzing a specific scenario, and create routines and habits that adapt to the needs that arise,” says psychologist Yesica Astorga. “After that, it’s important to actively engage in the routine, while remaining open to modifying anything that could be improved.” As always, seeking the help of a professional — whether it be an expert remote work manager for your company, or a therapist specialized in addressing feelings of loneliness and social inadequacy for individuals — is the best bet. …
Learn more about how GroWrk’s platform for remote office management can be tailored to your company’s specific needs, here!