Is remote work lonely? Side effects on productivity, engagement and progression
There is one undeniable aspect of remote working and that is it’s usually a lonely existence.
While in-person working means you can walk to a manager’s desk with a question, bounce ideas off peers and grab a quick impromptu team lunch, remote workers are stuck with virtual meetings and Slack emojis to communicate feelings.
One pre-pandemic study showed that full-time remote work was found to increase loneliness by 67% when compared to in-office work, according to research by organizational psychologist Lynn Holdsworth.
“The feeling of loneliness can be debilitating,” says Dr. Sébastien Fernandez, an organizational behavior professor at EHL Hospitality Business School, who noted that employees who report a higher amount of loneliness are more likely to suffer from depression, burnout, sleep problems and substance abuse.
Since the pandemic forced organizations to shut their doors and send their workers home three years ago, remote working technology has experienced decades’ worth of advancement.
But even so, tech giants and businesses still haven’t figured out how to emulate real-life interaction through a screen—and isolation and loneliness have become even greater public health concerns, according to the American Psychological Association.
Here are ways that businesses and workers can make the remote work experience less lonely and more productive, according to career, workplace and psychology experts who spoke to Fortune.
Struggling to connect
Although remote working has generally been proven to improve work-life balance and happiness, research consistently shows isolation is one of its biggest drawbacks.
Over a third of those working remotely said the setup made them feel lonely, in Glassdoor’s 2022 survey of people in full-time employment.
Not only do remote employees struggle with the 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 made it harder to connect with colleagues, and 31% struggled to build a relationship with their line manager or senior colleagues.
Further research has found that working remotely for more than 3 days a week leads to lower-quality relationships with colleagues.
Meanwhile, a study commissioned by Gallup has also shown that employees who work remotely full-time are less happy overall than those who only work remotely one day per week.
And new hires are most likely to be the worst hit by the shift to online onboarding.
Unlike seasoned staffers who have well-established connections that pre-date the pandemic, “for new employees, it can be more difficult to create those bonds with colleagues at work when working remotely,” warns James Berry, director of the UCL MBA.
“Many people’s social networks are formed around the people they work with and so it is something leadership teams need to be aware of across their company,” he adds.
The negative impacts of loneliness
Loneliness is much more than simply feeling slightly deprived of interaction. Experts say that it seriously impacts workers’ health—as well as their ability to get their job done effectively—and consequently, has a ripple effect on business.
Unfortunately, unlike misery, loneliness does not love company.
“The condition of loneliness acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Fernandez, the EHL professor. “People who feel lonely crave social interactions, but these feelings make them less likely to receive support from colleagues because they appear more distant.”
This lack of support and distance from peers can lead to disengagement and poor productivity—which in turn impacts career progression. Engaged employees receive better evaluations from their supervisors, Fernandez notes.
“Career progression is crucial for employee satisfaction, but your drive to further your role diminishes if you feel lonely at work,” echoes Jill Cotton, careers advice expert at Glassdoor.
“Reduced social interaction with team members means that a worker’s successes and failures can be hidden; as such, congratulations or support isn’t forthcoming. This can create a negative cycle that may impact employees’ ability to perform their roles.”
What’s more, Cotton warns that in the long-run lonely workers will resent their role and their employer for making them feel this way and consider quitting.
How business can reduce remote-induced loneliness
Equipped with the knowledge that working remotely for more than 3 days a week can prevent workers from nurturing meaningful relationships and lead to feelings of loneliness, businesses should explore hybrid working arrangements.
“These results should alarm employers about the importance of carefully designing remote work,” Fernandez says.
He advises leaders to sit with HR and line managers to assess how remote work is currently done in each department and then establish policies that set out how much time employees should be working remotely—with loneliness in mind.
This doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all approach, as roles and individuals differ and so does their suitability for remote working.
That’s why Fernandez suggests hiring managers dedicate a portion of job interviews to talking about remote working including both the business and the candidate’s preference on the matter.
“Following this process will increase the chance of finding a candidate that fits with the company,” he adds.
How employees can combat loneliness
“Remote work doesn’t offer the same opportunity for social interaction as being in-office, but this 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 join company projects or groups, organizing a virtual coffee with remote team members, or even arranging to meet colleagues that live in the same city for lunch.
Not sure how to ask? Lead with the fact that you are craving real-life interaction, Fernandez says.
It’s likely to elicit a positive response because your co-workers probably also feel lonely, and being honest about your feelings makes you come across as friendly—as opposed to weird, as you may fear.
Meanwhile, Cotton suggests being more personal and asking colleagues non-work-related questions like, “How was your weekend?”. She says that “showing a few minutes of interest in others will prompt others to do the same to you and help build genuine connections.”
But if after multiple attempts at striking up a conversation, your colleagues aren’t meeting your social needs, “look outside the workplace to fill the gap”, Cotton advises.
“Spend more time with family and friends or find new groups to join to balance the lack of interaction at work.”