In 2020, we no longer have to wonder whether remote work is a good idea. This option has provable benefits over on-site work, and the number of employers who prefer remote workers is on the rise. The main question now is — what are the unsolved issues that employees have to deal with when working from home?
The American Psychological Association recently shared a comprehensive article on the future of remote work (Greenbaum 2019). This article covers studies where “telecommuting increased job satisfaction, performance and feelings of commitment to an organization among employees. People who teleworked also tended to experience less work stress or exhaustion.”
But according to the same studies, isolation is a widespread problem among remote employees. It is one of the top drawbacks of this way of working, and it can disrupt people’s personal and professional lives. So, let’s look into why working from home can be isolating, and what we can do to combat the problem.
Isolation Can Creep Up on You
When we change the way we work, it’s normal to get disoriented for a while — this is why the first few weeks of working from home can be rough.
As time goes on, remote work becomes a part of employees’ everyday routine. Many people flourish and actually become more sociable, making full use of their flexible schedule to regularly meet up with friends and family.
But working from home can grow into a problem. Some people stop leaving the house, as they no longer need to commute to work. Even if they weren’t particularly close with their coworkers, some workers miss the simple, everyday conversations they used to have at the office.
The problem is that social isolation is difficult to talk about. There’s some shame attached to it, as nobody wants to be perceived as a loner or a shut-in. This prompts people to try to pretend that everything is fine (Berning Sawa 2019).
Professional Isolation — The Toll of Being Left Out of the Loop
In addition to plain old loneliness, there’s a professional aspect to consider here. Working from home can increase your productivity, but you may find that your professional advancement has slowed down anyway.
Unfortunately, some managers fall victim to an “out of sight, out of mind” way of thinking about their remote employees. If you’re not physically present at the office, it’s harder to grab new opportunities, and networking becomes more complicated too.
The good news is that all of this can be avoided, as long as you are committed to combating isolation in every part of your personal and professional life.
4 Ways to Become Less Isolated
If you’ve realized that you’re in danger of isolation, you are already on the right track. Here are some ways you can change your life around.
1. Think About How Much You Work (and Why)
“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including You.” — Anne Lamott
Working too much can leave us too tired to form or maintain close relationships. If we never make time for the people we care about, they will eventually stop having time for us. When this happens, we may try to take on even more work to fill up the void of loneliness.
This vicious cycle is difficult to leave. It’s difficult to admit that our dedication to work could be a coping strategy — it is easier to just see ourselves as dedicated and work-driven.
Anyone can become isolated in this way, but the danger is heightened for those doing remote work. It can start as a need to prove yourself, to show everyone that you’re just as dedicated to the job as any on-site employee. It can even grow out of a selfless need to take on a bigger share of the work now that you’re not wasting time on commuting.
If you’ve fallen down one of these rabbit holes, the first step is to think carefully about your daily routine. How often do you meet people and interact with them in a meaningful way? How often do you call your loved ones? Question whether your workday is spent productively and look into how much time you spend on procrastination.
When doing this kind of self-reflection, it helps to use a timer and write everything down. Sometimes, the feeling of being constantly busy is enough to make people unsociable — in other words, you might have more time than you tend to think.
If there are truly no gaps in your calendar to meet with people, you need to make a big change, even if it means looking for a new job.
2. Prioritize Your Health and Happiness
“I thought that to thrive in the world of technology and entrepreneurship, I must work around the clock, eat lunch at my desk… There seemed to be a high degree of human doing-ness and I felt a complete void of human being-ness” — Amber Rae
Remember that isolation can impact your health — in fact, studies show that its effects are comparable to those of obesity or smoking (Holt-Lunstad et al. 2015). It also has a big negative impact on our mental health, making workers less flexible, more anxious, and ultimately less productive.
When you take that into account, the way forward is clear. You should find the things that make you happy and make them a priority. Create time for your hobby, try volunteering, or discover new passions. In the process of doing so, you’ll spend time with people who share your interests, and this makes it easy to have meaningful interactions with them.
It’s also a great idea to dedicate time to improving your physical health. For example, you could start going to the gym, attend a dance class, or join a hiking club. You can always invite some of your friends (or your romantic partner) to work out with you, but it can be just as rewarding to attend these activities alone and engage in conversations with the people who are there.
3. Try a Change of Scenery
Part of the problem with working from home is the monotony of spending all day indoors. But this has some easy fixes, such as the following:
- When taking breaks, go out for a walk.
- Once or twice a week, work at a café instead of your home office.
- Look up shared workspaces in your area — working alongside other remote employees could be just what you need to get out of your social funk.
- Consider working outdoors from time to time.
Simply coming into contact with lots of people is a good place to start if you’ve become isolated. Although these aren’t necessarily meaningful interactions, they can make it easier for you to get used to having a social life again.
There’s another option you can consider, and this one could help with the professional drawbacks of remote work too. You can organize an official or unofficial meetup with coworkers who live in your area. While the organization process may seem daunting, the connections you form will be worth it.
4. Use Tech to Your Advantage
One of the best ways to stay connected while working from home is to talk to people online. But not every form of online interaction is equally useful.
At work, it’s a good idea to initiate video calls whenever possible. It’s easier to make your point when talking to people face-to-face. You can make a lasting impression on your coworkers, superiors, and business contacts, which decreases your professional isolation too.
In our company, we schedule regular team meetings using Google Hangouts.
Outside of work, technology can be a double-edged sword. Psychologists warn that social media may actually make us more isolated — it all depends on the way we use it (Ali 2018). The main danger comes from feeling left out when we scroll past photos of people having fun without us.
But if you use online platforms in the right way, they can help you find like-minded people. Writer Jonny Sun gave an inspiring TED Talk about the topic here:
Back in his student days, Sun started using the internet as an outlet for his creativity. The confessional comics he posted resonated with many people — and this gave him a sense of belonging and a micro-community that helped him grow as a person. You can create that kind of experience if you approach your online interactions mindfully and with intent.
Sincerity Helps You Fight Loneliness
Another interesting part of Sun’s talk is that his comics spoke openly about his feelings of isolation, and the feedback he got made him feel less lonely.
It can be hard to admit we are isolated. But being honest about it lets us reach out to our loved ones, or even to total strangers in a similar situation. If we are willing to ask for help and make changes, isolation doesn’t have to be a part of our lives.
As a remote worker, you have more power than most people to determine your own schedule and priorities. Keeping that in mind, don’t downplay the danger of isolation or let yourself be held back by shame. Start building a life that is full of relationships you value and cherish.