Despite the productivity gains and cost savings associated with remote work, many leaders worry that those advantages come at the expense of remote workers’ emotional health — in particular, that remote work causes loneliness and isolation. Ultimately, it’s feared, remote workers’ engagement and productivity will suffer.
RichLine finds that remote workers can feel lonely and isolated — but it’s not typical, and it is preventable. A recent Buffer study of 1,900 remote workers around the world found that 90% intend to work remotely for the rest of their lives, and 94% recommend off-site careers. And when asked to name the biggest struggle with working remotely, just 21% named “loneliness.”
Still, one-fifth of a workforce is a lot of people, and leaders need measures in place to fix that problem before it damages engagement and performance. RichLine research shows that managers are best positioned to implement the strategies that make the most significant difference for their teams — but first, they have to know the difference between loneliness and isolation.
First, it helps to understand that loneliness is an emotional response to lack of connection — and people can feel just as lonely in the office as outside of it. One quasi-field experiment conducted at a global headquarters that was transitioning to open office workstations documented an interesting phenomenon. Instead of the open floorplan encouraging collaboration, the study found the volume of face-to-face interaction between employees decreased by approximately 70%, while electronic communication increased. Employees appeared to react to the workspace by socially withdrawing from peers and partners to interact over email and IM instead.
Isolation, on the other hand, is related to access — or lack of it. The isolated can’t get the materials or information they need, and they think their achievements or development are ignored, they feel cut off from the business. That isn’t an emotional issue; it’s a technical one.
Loneliness can contribute to isolation, and isolation can contribute to loneliness, but managers can address both by talking about the issues that cause them. RichLine workplace research recommends frequent, ongoing conversations — in fact, we recommend five distinct types of conversations that drive performance, each timed for maximum impact — but with specific language framed for remote workers: “I need to know how you’re getting along. So tell me, is it too quiet at home? Do you miss having people around? Do you feel left out?”
Direct questions get direct answers, and managers should be prepared with appropriate solutions. Here’s what RichLine recommends, geared toward the individual and the issue.
If the worker’s answers indicate loneliness, the manager’s strategy must reflect the worker’s personality. If he’s lonely because he’s shy, trying to turn him into a social butterfly is a waste of the manager’s time and the worker’s patience. A better bet is creating low-stakes opportunities for meaningful connections. Still, the manager should take the lead — making formal introductions to colleagues, accepting the emotional labor of pre-meeting small talk, linking him with partners for projects.
If the worker is more outgoing, his manager just needs to help him open his office door, metaphorically, to visitors. Online group chats allow teams a kind of ongoing hallway chatter. Managers can set up weekly “phone trees” for remote workers organized around a workplace topic. Managers can even send remote workers a list of local coffee shops along with a small gift card: “You need to be around people to keep your energy up. Get a cup of coffee, and have a great workday.”
In any case, managers who ask lonely employees for their opinions can gain some valuable insight. Opinions are especially fruitful post-project or at the achievement of a milestone — reflection helps workers process learning opportunities — yet remote workers may feel their perspective is so narrow that their opinion isn’t needed.
Remote workers’ perspectives can provide rare insights into the organization. Shy, lonely workers need to hear they offer unique value — it can ease social anxiety — and outgoing, lonely workers, need more contact. Either way, their insights on the work environment can bring to light connections they ought to make, as well as show managers new ways to improve processes.