There is one undeniable aspect of remote working and that is often a lonely life.
While working in person means you can walk up to a manager’s desk with a question, bounce ideas off peers and grab a quick team lunch, remote workers are stuck in virtual meetings and Slack emojis to communicate feelings.
A study before the pandemic showed that full-time remote work was found to increase loneliness by 67% compared to office work, according to research by organizational psychologist Lynn Holdsworth.
“Feeling lonely can be debilitating,” said Dr. Sébastien Fernandez, a professor of organizational behavior at the EHL Hospitality Business School, who noted that employees who report higher levels of loneliness are more likely to suffer from depression, burnout, sleep problems and abuse of substance.
Since the pandemic forced organizations to close their doors and send their workers home three years ago, remote work technology has experienced decades worth of development.
But even so, tech giants and businesses still haven’t figured out how to replicate real-life interactions through a screen — and isolation and loneliness have become increasingly important health concerns in public, according to the American Psychological Association.
Here are ways businesses and workers can make the remote work experience less lonely and more productive, according to career, workplace and psychology experts who spoke to luck.
Struggling to connect
Although remote working is generally proven to improve work-life balance and happiness, research consistently shows that isolation is one of the biggest drawbacks.
More than a third of those who work remotely say the setup makes them feel lonely, in Glassdoor’s 2022 survey of people in full-time jobs.
Not only do remote employees struggle with a lack of in-person interaction, but they also struggle to connect with peers online; Around 40% of remote workers told Glassdoor that the virtual setup makes it difficult to connect with colleagues, and 31% struggle to build a relationship with their line manager or senior colleagues.
In addition RESEARCH REVEALS found that working remotely more than 3 days a week led to lower quality relationships with colleagues.
Meanwhile, a study commissioned by Gallup also showed that employees who work remotely full-time are less happy overall than those who only work remotely one day per week.
And new employees are likely to be hit hardest by the shift to online onboarding.
Unlike seasoned employees who had well-established connections prior to the pandemic, “for new employees, it can be more difficult to form bonds with coworkers when working remotely,” warns James Berry, director of the UCL MBA.
“A lot of people’s social networks are formed around the people they work with and so this is something that their company’s leadership teams need to be aware of,” he added.
The negative effects of loneliness
Loneliness is more than just feeling a little deprived of interaction. Experts say it seriously affects the health of workers—as well as their ability to do their job effectively—and consequently, has an impact on business.
Unfortunately, unlike depression, loneliness does not like to be socialized.
“The state of loneliness acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Fernandez, the EHL professor. “People who feel lonely crave social interactions, but these feelings make them less likely to receive support from partners because they appear more distant.”
This lack of support and distance from peers can lead to unhappiness and poor productivity—which can affect career advancement. Engaged employees receive better evaluations from their supervisors, said Fernandez.
“Career development is important for employee satisfaction, but your motivation to stay in your role is diminished if you feel isolated at work,” echoes Jill Cotton, Glassdoor’s career advice expert.
“Decreased social interaction among team members means that a worker’s successes and failures can be hidden; thus, congratulations or support are not forthcoming. This creates a negative cycle that can affect the ability of employees to perform their duties.
Additionally, Cotton warns that long-term lonely workers will resent their role and their employer for making them this way and consider quitting.
How business can reduce loneliness caused by distance
Armed with the knowledge that working remotely more than 3 days a week prevents workers from nurturing meaningful relationships and leads to feelings of loneliness, businesses should explore hybrid working arrangements.
“These results should alarm employers about the importance of carefully designing remote work,” Fernandez said.
He advises leaders to sit down with HR and line managers to find out how remote work is currently being done in each department and then establish policies that set out how many hours employees should work remotely—with lonely mind.
This is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach, as roles and individuals vary and so does their suitability for remote working.
That’s why Fernandez suggests getting managers to dedicate a part of job interviews to talk about remote work including business and the candidate’s preferences in this regard.
“Following this process will increase the chance of finding a candidate that fits the company,” he added.
How employees can overcome loneliness
“Remote work doesn’t offer the same opportunity for social interaction as in the office, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to have a social connection with your team,” says Cotton.
Remote workers can connect with their peers by volunteering to participate in company projects or groups, organizing a virtual coffee with remote team members, or even arranging to meet colleagues who live in the same city for lunch.
Not sure how to ask? Mainly the fact that you crave real-life interaction, says Fernandez.
It’s likely to get a positive response because your co-workers may also feel lonely, and being honest about your feelings makes you friendly—as opposed to weird, as you fear. .
Meanwhile, Cotton suggests getting more personal and asking colleagues non-work related questions like, “How was your weekend?”. He says that “showing a few minutes of interest in others will encourage others to do the same to you and help build real connections.”
But if after several attempts to strike up a conversation, your colleagues aren’t meeting your social needs, “look outside the workplace to fill the gap”, advises Cotton.
“Spend more time with family and friends or find new groups to join to compensate for the lack of interaction at work.”