Working from home from the comfort of our bed was a dream for most of us. Now, post-pandemic, people are longing for watercooler chats and coffee breaks with the team. Most people are feeling lonely and missing these interactions. But why is that?
Olivia is sitting on her couch in her tiny apartment that she shares with three others. She is dressed in pajamas and a Zoom-ready t-shirt. She works from her living room, and the two most visited places are her bed and the couch. The most interactive space in her apartment is the kitchen, where the four flat-mates gather for breakfast. They, too, like millions of other people, are working from home.
Olivia, who is 28, is a product designer working for an e-commerce company. Earlier, she used to commute to her office five days a week by bus or cab. Her office conducted interactions, quizzes, and games to keep everyone engaged and lively.
The first few weeks of remote work were easy and relaxing for Olivia (just like for most of us). The option to lay in bed to work and the accessibility of the kitchen for munches seemed exciting. Now, after endless weeks spent staring at the screen in a closed room is no more fun but isolating. It is a lonely existence.
Her state of mind is similar to 20% of remote workers who are struggling with loneliness.
That’s not limited to remote employees only. In a survey by Vikings involving 1,500 people, two-thirds (64%) of freelancers admitted loneliness was their primary struggle.
In short, the pandemic has given rise to a loneliness epidemic.
Pros and Cons of Remote Work
When companies announced remote work to cope with the pandemic, employees welcomed the move as it gave them a chance to work within the comfort of their home space. The ability to have a flexible schedule, no commuting, and spending time with the family emerged as the major benefits of remote work.
But, after many months of working away from the office, a different picture emerged. It turned out, remote work as a concept is good, but the actual application is somewhat difficult. The hasty adoption of this work system did not give companies and workers enough time to understand the major challenges.
As a result, people started to struggle with remote work. A State of Remote Work survey found that loneliness and collaboration were evenly cited as challenges of remote work settings.
The major struggles of remote work are:
- Collaboration and Communication: As per the Buffer report, communication is the top challenge of remote workers (20%). When the whole company went remote, communication didn’t translate well. Offices were a collaborative space where you could reach out to any teammate by moving your chair. This is not the case when the entire team is working from their home across the globe.
- Loneliness: It’s not like remote work caused loneliness. It was already there, but the pandemic exacerbated the situation. In fact, in the UK, almost one-fifth of the population said that they’re often or always lonely. In the US, Harvard termed loneliness as an epidemic. When people are locked into their rooms with only a machine and no human interaction, the situation becomes grueling.
- Blurring Work-Life Balance: The main benefit of remote working, as per the survey, is the ability to have a flexible schedule. But these pros turn into a con if the boundary between work and life gets blurry. That’s why 18% of remote workers struggle with work-life balance.
- Distractions at Home: When you work from home, it’s very.... Sorry, what was I saying? Yes, it’s easy to get distracted while working from home. Be it your pet, daily chores, or an inquisitive grandpa, all of these distractions make it harder to stay focused on the task.
Why Should Remote Work Loneliness be Addressed?
It’s important to understand what loneliness is.
According to Psychology Today:
“Loneliness is the state of distress or discomfort that results when one perceives a gap between one’s desires for social connection and actual experiences of it.”
NCBI defines loneliness as “the perception of being alone” or “A subjective, negative feeling related to the deficient social relations.”
In short, loneliness is an emotional response to the feeling of disconnection. And people can feel lonely even while at the office; however, with remote work, feeling lonely increases due to zero face-to-face interaction.
It’s worth noting that loneliness is different from isolation. As per the Heart journal:
“Social isolation denotes few social connections or interactions, whereas loneliness involves the subjective perception of isolation — the discrepancy between one’s desired and actual level of social connection.”
In conclusion, you can choose social isolation, but loneliness creeps in without notice.
The number of remote workers has increased steeply due to the pandemic. But the physical separation between colleagues has led to more people feeling they don’t have friends at work. Or that they’re insignificant to the company.
Loneliness often leads to poor outcomes in mental health and productivity for remote workers.
- Loneliness leads to decreased work satisfaction, which in turn reduces the quality of work. Employees who feel lonely don’t feel motivated to work and derive no happiness from work.
- It affects interpersonal relationships as workers withdraw from peer-to-peer communication. When workers feel lonely, they start to step back from participating in events and communication.
- Feeling disconnected affects mental health and can fester self-doubt and stress. As per NCBI, loneliness is the primary cause of mental illnesses.
- It reduces employee engagement, which in turn downgrades the organization’s progress. Loneliness can cause remote workers to detach from peers, the organization, and its success. As a result, they rarely get involved in decision-making processes.
- It increases employee turnover as workers who struggle with loneliness have a shallow sense of belonging with the organization. That makes them feel they don’t have any purpose and thus decide to leave the organization.
Clearly, remote loneliness, if left unaddressed, impacts individuals and organizations alike.
But there are ways to prevent this epidemic.
How To Combat Remote Work Loneliness?
Remote work loneliness is a complex issue because it involves human emotions. But applying strategies at different levels helps target the root of the problem. Here’s how management and individuals can fight this remote struggle.
Management Strategies to Combat Loneliness
1. Understand the Difference Between Isolation and Loneliness
Isolation and loneliness often mislead managers into thinking both are the same. Loneliness is the feeling of social disconnect, whereas isolation is the lack of access to information.
Employees who deal with isolation at work struggle with access to information and material they need. They feel their contribution and development are not appreciated.
In short, isolation is a technical issue that can lead to loneliness, finds Gallup. Managers should prioritize providing the materials and information needed to boost employee engagement. If a remote worker can’t access the materials, managers should work with departments such as IT, legal, or cybersecurity to address the issue.
2. Align Solution as per Worker’s Personality
It’s critical for the managers to prescribe a solution as per the worker’s personality. If the employee is lonely because he’s shy, then turning him into a social butterfly is a waste of time.
Instead, a better way is to provide little-stake opportunities, e.g., introducing the person to colleagues, initiating small talks, and pairing him with other project partners.
3. Offer Remote Workers a Co-Working Space Stipend
Every company has perks like unlimited snacks, gym membership, or free coffee for on-site employees. Why not offer some perks to remote workers too? Create a stipend structure to cover the cost of co-working spaces or coffee houses for remote employees.
Another way is to allocate allowance to set up their own home office with the necessary equipment to be fully prepared to work and connect.
These small proactive steps help employees combat loneliness. If you think only on-site employees should receive perks, you might need to reconsider. The world has progressed to remote work, and developing a positive remote culture starts with equality.
4. Deploy Virtual Icebreakers in Meetings
"Good morning! How are you?"
"I’m fine. What about you?"
"I’m fine too."
"Okay, let’s start with the current project progress..."
What you just saw is a daily scenario of meetings with awkward silences. Dead formal meetings are history now. Today, companies are focusing on informal communication that builds relationships. But igniting a conversation is hard, especially for remote workers.
That’s where virtual icebreakers come into play.
Virtual icebreakers are activities in a meeting that start a healthy conversation. They boost employee engagement and make teammates feel inclusive, thus reducing loneliness.
Here are some activities that take up a little time and make the entire team inclusive to the discussion.
5. Organize Team-wide Virtual Meetings
Weekly or monthly in-person meetings aren't possible with remote workers as they might have to travel long distances. But leaders and managers can take advantage of the technology and bring the whole team under one virtual roof. Video conferencing tools are a perfect solution to connect and engage with every team member.
Virtual meetings are a great way to uplift remote workers’ spirits and remove their loneliness. Virtual engagement can be as simple as sharing a coffee time together and or allotting time to have lunch together while everyone is on the video call.
6. Schedule Team Visits to HQ or a Common Location
Monthly or quarterly meetups are a great way to foster relationships within teams. Managers should allocate a budget to bring in remote employees to the office semi-regularly. It’ll help remote workers network with teammates and develop a sense of community.
If the remote workers are distributed worldwide, managers can organize travel or meetups for employees in the same country or continent. This type of mini-retreat is an effective way to create a sense of belonging in the employees. Teammates can gain refreshing experiences and get time to unplug.
It also gives opportunities to build relationships among peers. In short, quarterly visits connect employees to everyone who otherwise would be sitting behind a laptop.
7. Central Recognition and Appreciation
Appreciation is much more powerful than we might assume. To put things into perspective, a study by Harvard Medical School involving university fundraisers found that ‘the university employees who heard the message of gratitude made 50% more fund-raising calls than those who did not.’
Recognition and appreciation are responsible for increased morale and engagement of the entire team. They also impact outcomes as well. But in work from home, efforts made by remote workers may go unnoticed and unseen by managers.
Thus, it’s critical to create a company-wide recognition and appreciation system to bring forward these hidden efforts in the digital workspace.
Appreciation can be as simple as a simple message of “Thanks” or “Keep it up” which positively impacts workplace performance and helps combat remote work loneliness.
8. Create a Loneliness-Resistant Culture
Challenges in remote work will continue to rise, and managers must address them. Rather than solving the problem only when it arises, it’s better to devise preventive strategies. In short, create a loneliness-resistant culture where employees can thrive.
A Harvard study suggests that a culture of “compassionate love” filled with affection, caring, empathy among employees “weakens the negative relationship between workplace loneliness and effective commitment to the organization.”
Thus, for companies to succeed, they must build a culture of companionship that tackles isolation and loneliness.
Individual Strategies to Combat Loneliness
9. Work At Least One Day Per Week Outside of your Home
Choose between a local library, coffee shop, or a co-working space to work outside at least once a week. This is the first step to fight loneliness. Working from a co-space can boost your mood and dispel the feeling of loneliness that you get when trapped at home.
This strategy will be more effective if you work with your friend or project partner. Or, you can schedule a meet-up with a friend who lives in the same city. Working from a coffee shop also makes you feel lighter and inclusive.
10. Discover Yourself and Your Needs
“I hate working from home.”
Please calm down and know that you’re not the only one. There are many remote workers (including me) who sometimes hate working alone. For your comfort, it’s completely fine to feel that.
There is no sense in ignoring this feeling and suffering in silence. Instead, pause a little bit and reflect. Understand your personality and the associated attitude. For your aid, you can take this 16personalities test. It’ll give you insights into who you really are.
For instance, you might be an INFJ (introverted type personality) who’s shy to speak in video meetings and thus feel lonely. One way out is to chat with your teammates to build connections. It’ll help you gain confidence in talking with teammates.
Once you start tuning with others, you’ll feel connected and included. And then, you can hop on video calls to share ideas and collaborate confidently.
11. Take Advantage of Your Flexible Work Schedule
Loneliness can be kept at bay if you really leverage the benefits of remote work. If you’re working alone from home or in a co-working space, make use of your flexible time to socialize.
Take some time off to catch breakfast with a friend. Or, plan a lunch together with your family. Taking your dog for a walk in the garden is a great way to kick out boredom.
12. Plan After-Work Hours When you're Feeling Lonely
Working remotely often leads to burnout and overwork. This feeling can grow in you and make you feel cut-off from others. If you don’t have time to socialize during work hours, it’s best to make plans with friends or family for after-work hours.
13. Make Friends
Having a friend at work brings mental peace. Gallup research says, having a best friend at work can make you seven times more likely to be engaged in work. Further, it makes you “better at engaging customers, produce higher quality work, have higher well-being, and are less likely to get injured on the job.”
But only 30% of employees admitted having a best friend at work, Gallup survey reveals. Making a friend at work doesn’t have to be hard if you remember the basics. Most friendships are built on common topics. So be open while sharing your interests and hobbies with other teammates. Active communication will help you attract like-minded people who will turn to your buddies.
Virtual icebreakers like Two Truths and One Lie, Team Quiz, and Questions of Curiosity are some best ways to break the ice with colleagues during virtual meetings. These icebreakers will lighten the atmosphere and relax your nervousness.
Don’t Suffer in Silence
You are not alone.
Millions of other remote workers feel isolated, lonely, and burned out at some point in their life. Remote working is unique because of its challenges. But with good strategies, you can ensure that your mental peace does not take a hit.
Remote working can be tough on many people because you can’t physically meet people. So, don’t suffer in silence. Speak up and share your emotions with friends, family, or colleagues. Often, sharing your thoughts can lighten the burden and lessen the mental troubles.