Ashley is a smart, hardworking lawyer. She works for a big international company, but the nature of her job is causing her to work alone most of the time. She has a set of responsibilities that only she can fulfill as no one else at the company is qualified enough. The workload keeps increasing, and there is no help coming. She sits in the office with other people, but they do different functions, and she doesn’t feel as being a part of a team. Yet all these other people rely on her work. If she doesn’t get the job done, others will be stuck and waiting for her input. The pressure is mounting. The more she works, the more she is isolated. She often works from home so she can focus and get things done fast. So now, she is isolated from the rest of the team also physically. She is mentally drained. Before long, she will burn out completely.
I have talked with Ashley and many others like her. Their problem is not necessarily about the workload. Many people have lots of things to do. Ashley is hardworking and doesn’t mind that there is more work to do than she can comfortably handle. It is the feeling that she is alone that is getting to her. There is no one to ask for help, no one to just chat about life.
Because of her brilliance, people learned to rely on her. They are taking what she does for granted. No one even seems to acknowledge the sacrifices she is making. She doesn’t have a team. She doesn’t have anyone sitting next to her who would be in the same situation. She might have a global team on the other side of the globe, but that is a poor substitute for a couple of real human beings she could interact with face to face every day. The sense of loneliness is exacerbated by the fact that she has recently moved to a new city. She will eventually find some friends and become part of the community, but not yet. It is going to take time, especially since she is so focused on her work.
The death spiral of loneliness
Loneliness is painful, and it is more and more prevalent even in the workplace. It is not just the mental state of the person. Sooner or later, it is going to impact their performance, the person is seen as less approachable, and less committed to the organization.
The lonelier you get, the more difficult it is for you to change that. Even though you desire to connect more with others, you are making it difficult for others to connect with you. Research suggests that loneliness is associated with hypervigilance to social threats. It leads to increased attention and surveillance of the social world and an unwitting focus on self-preservation. You are increasing your loneliness. Once this happens, you are in a death spiral. You are less likely to reach out to others and collaborate. You are less likely to be seen as committed to the organization. And you are more likely to become even more isolated.
Hakan Ozcelik and Sigal G. Barsade focused their research on the impact of loneliness on job performance. There is a correlation between being lonely and lower job performance caused by a lack of social connections at work. Loneliness is a social construct, and it impacts not only how people feel, but also how they interact with others, and how others interact with them. Lonely employees have a lesser emotional commitment to the organization.
Because loneliness is very personal and based on a perception of each individual, two people can be in the same role, in the same environment, interacting with each other, and yet one can feel lonely while the other can feel fine. Whether someone feels lonely depends on the expectations, they have from social interactions and their level of security. For some, it may take longer to see the negative impact on their productivity. Still, sooner or later, loneliness gets to everyone.
And then there are the health considerations. According to a meta-analysis of 23 papers focused on social isolation as a risk for coronary heart disease, there is a clear correlation. Poor social relationships were associated with a 29% increase in the risk of incident coronary heart disease and a 32% increase in the risk of stroke.
Pros and cons of remote work
The meta-analysis of 46 studies done by Ravi S. Gajendran and David A. Harrison showed clearly that remote work is not all roses. Overall, telecommuting does seem to have mainly positive aspects. It increases the perception of autonomy and lessens work-family conflict. Surprisingly it doesn’t seem to damage social ties with direct manager. It leads to increased job satisfaction and doesn’t seem to have a direct negative effect on employee career prospects. Of course, it works only when it is done right. For example, employees can perceive having less autonomy when they are held to KPIs (key performance indicators) and SLAs (service level agreements) they were not held to when working in the office.
Where the telecommuting seems to have the most negative effect is the relationship with coworkers. The loss of face time has a noticeable negative impact on the depth and quality of relationships a remote worker has with colleagues.
This reduction in face to face interactions leads to a lower frequency of interactions and poor communication. That has a negative impact on interpersonal bonds with coworkers, though not with bosses where communication is more formalized. Physical distance translates directly to psychological distance. It is challenging to build a close friendship without face to face interactions.
Get at least some face time
Telecommuting gave rise to coworking spaces. The idea that you don’t need a permanent office but can rent a seat as needed in an office space that hosts like-minded individuals makes sense. It gives you flexibility and has even economic benefits as you don’t need to pay for what you are not using. For remote workers, the biggest advantage is psychological. It is the social benefit, the fact that you can meet people, that matters. This concept of working alone together can reduce the feeling of isolation.
A survey of coworking space members run in 2015 by Emergent Research had some interesting results. 84% of respondents working in coworking spaces said they were more engaged and motivated when coworking. 87% reported they met other members for social reasons. 79% said coworking had expanded their social networks. 89% reported they were happier, 83% reported they were less lonely, and 78% reported that coworking helped keep them sane. Physically coming to office is not only about work, but it is also about social interactions. When you work full-time from home, you are missing those opportunities.
What you can do about it
Don’t get seduced by the prospect of working from home unless you have a plan. Make sure that you have enough facetime with others in the company or the industry. Make sure you have a friend or colleague you trust and with whom you can build deep emotional bonds. Find ways how to feel that you are part of something bigger, that you are part of a tribe, of a group of people who care about you and you care about them.
Don’t be afraid to build emotional attachments to others on the team even if they are remote. Make sure you regularly find time to connect with them daily and talk more than just business.
Introduce peer coaching or a buddy system that will allow you to get to know others at the team more. Systems like these help create psychological safety within the team. They encourage people to have more meaningful conversations. They create a sense of belonging and the feeling that others are here to help us.
And if you truly can’t get out of your room in situations like the coronavirus pandemic then do you best to stay connected over phone and video. Give frequent calls to those close to you, like your family. Make sure your interactions with colleagues from work are, if possible, over video. Talk with them not only about work but also about what’s on your collective minds. Use every opportunity to laugh and have at least a bit of fun. And above all, behave responsibly as a good citizen. Ignoring rules, for example, getting out of quarantine, can feel like an expression of freedom. It is not. It is an irresponsible behavior of a selfish person. It will be quickly followed by depression when your consciousness kicks in, and you realize you may have hurt others by transmitting a dangerous disease. Regret can be a potent depressant.
Work from home can be a very satisfying experience when done the right way. It can make you more productive and can remove some of the hassles of a daily commute. Just make an extra effort to keep the social aspects of work alive.
What are your thoughts on the topic? Do you believe that loneliness when working remote or from home is a problem? What is your personal experience? How do you mitigate feeling lonely when working from home?
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