How to Avoid Loneliness and Isolation in Remote Work
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, many companies, and most officer workers for that matter, felt that a return to the corporate office was only a matter of time. However, as time went on many employees questioned the need to return to the office at all.
In fact, data suggests employees have decided to quit their jobs and search for alternative employment rather than return to the office. A survey by Bloomberg showed that 39% of employees would leave rather than return to office life. Despite the eagerness of many to continue working remotely, some psychologists have argued that the need for humans to interact with each other will in fact make many of us crave a return to office life.
The conflict between the desire to work remotely and flexibly with the isolation and loneliness that can result looks set to continue for some time. Here's what executives had to say about how to stay connected while working apart.
Remote Work Is Here to Stay
One argument for a return to the office is that humans crave social interactions and are suffering isolation while working remotely. However, from a company perspective, a primary concern is whether remote work has a negative or positive impact on employees productivity and work output.
The truth is that remote work isn’t new. It’s just now being done on a much larger scale. “There are several very successful, very large companies that have been utilizing a WFH model for years, long before the pandemic,” said Rebecca Gazda, managing director at Pittsburgh, Pa.-based Data Ideology, a data and analytics consulting firm.
With some companies being remote-first and opting for a work-from-home model for some time, it’s clear that being physically close to each other isn’t a requirement for work to get done. “I believe that by utilizing technology, we can increase employee engagement and coworker involvement without being in the same physical location,” Gazda said.
Businesses and employees alike should consider that remote work is here to stay, and the traditional 9-to-5 office may be a thing of the past. “A hybrid workforce of remote, frontline and in-office workers is now a given, and there are many ways in which this new digital workplace offers a better experience,” said Gary Nakamura, CEO of Firstup, the San Francisco-based digital employee experience company born from the merger of Social Chorus and Dynamic Signal.
The benefits of remote working have allowed companies to expand their workforce and give employees more flexibility than ever before. Because of digital tools that let people work from almost anywhere, at almost anytime, the workforce now includes gig workers, remote consultants and seasonal workers of diverse backgrounds, Nakamura said.
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Creating a Social Atmosphere in the Remote Environment
While getting work done will likely be the primary focus of any office, remote or otherwise, there are still ways that companies can boost camaraderie and increase engagement in the remote workplace.
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While Zoom fatigue is real, seeing co-workers' faces during meetings can make employees more comfortable and less isolated. Sue Hirst, co-founder and chief financial officer at Sydney, Australia-based CFO On-Call, is an advocate, suggesting that businesses “use video chats for meetings to help your team feel more connected with each other.”
Hirst also encourages employees to post profile photos in places like Slack, Trello and other collaboration tools so team members put a face to a name and feel more connection with their co-workers.
“There are tons of ways to increase camaraderie in a remote work environment: team update meetings, virtual happy hours, and lunch and learn meetings are all great ideas,” said Gazda.
While employees may seem disengaged and need to socialize more, the cause might not be the fact that they aren’t physically around their coworkers, she added. It's important to remember they may be dealing with other personal issues and their disengagement may have nothing to do with whether they are in an office or not.
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Tips for Avoiding Loneliness
The work environment doesn’t necessarily have to be the cure for people who might feel lonely or need more social interaction. However, our experts offered some tips to avoid loneliness.
- Get Outside: If employees are stuck inside all day working, they are likely to develop feelings of loneliness. “Go out to grab a bite during your lunch breaks to change your environment,” Hirst said. This can also be combined with changing the work environment once a week to a cafe or co-working space if you usually work from home.
- Reach Out to Coworkers: During your regular office hours, it can be a good idea to reach out to coworkers to combat feelings of isolation that might creep in. “If you just need to talk to people, try a virtual happy hour or a meetup group," Gazda said. "If you are OK with digital communication, start a virtual water cooler chat on Skype, Teams, etc."
"Find what works best for you and keep trying until you find something that resonates,” Gazda concluded.