Social isolation of remote work

How to Overcome the Social Isolation of Remote Work

March 18, 2020

One of the most robust studies of the value of remote work split call center representatives in a Chinese company into two groups: work from home and work from the office. At the end of nine months, researchers found that the remote work group had been 13.5% more productive, were 50% less likely to leave the company, and reported higher job satisfaction than their in-office peers.

While these staggering differences were surprising to the researchers, perhaps the most surprising finding was that half of those who experienced the benefits of remote work wanted to return to the office. They primarily chose to forego those benefits to alleviate one consequence of working remotely: social isolation.

Social isolation is one of the most common drawbacks of remote work arrangements. In Buffer’s “State of Remote” from 2019, loneliness ranked as the second most common drawback with 19% saying it’s their biggest struggle.

Remote work downsides

Amir Shahzeidi, a digital marketing manager at the “remote-first” company, Uscreen explains the consequences of loneliness:

“By far the biggest challenge with a remote-first culture is mental health. In the past year we worked hard to create an environment where no one feels anxious and isolated and everyone feels connected and in the loop with all the changes.”

The CEO of Doist, the fully remote company behind popular to-do list app Todoist, affirms this challenge:

“We need to acknowledge that isolation, anxiety, and depression are significant problems when working remotely, and we must figure out ways and systems to resolve these complex issues.”

Social isolation doesn’t just hamper the mental and emotional well-being of remote workers. It can lead to reduced work performance as well.

Social Isolation is Not Inevitable for Remote Workers

Despite the challenge, remote work doesn’t have to be isolating. Jeanne Wilson, a professor of organizational behavior at the College of William & Mary and researcher of remote work, says that “geographic distance is not destiny.” In a study of 733 work relationships, Wilson and her colleagues found that relationship quality was more closely tied to “perceived proximity”—or relational closeness—than it was to physical proximity. Gallup agrees: “Remote workers can feel lonely and isolated – but it’s not typical and it is preventable.”

Oftentimes, social isolation results from work-at-home policies because companies allow employees to work from home without making other changes. “Companies should never just implement telecommuting without changing anything else. They also need to shift their culture and norms to support the new arrangement,” recommends Kristin Shockley, a I/O psychologist and associate professor at the University of Georgia.

Remote work is not void of challenges, but the challenge of social isolation, like the blurring of lines between life and work, can be overcome with intentional and research-based action.

5 Dimensions of Social Isolation

Social isolation is not a one-dimensional issue. It is caused by a lack of communication and connection on several fronts. Gallup describes isolation as the lack of access to the materials and information needed. Five dimensions seem to have the greatest impact on remote workers’ experience of isolation:

  • Employee performance
  • Employee impact
  • Employee development
  • Employee resources
  • Company activity

While lack of access underlies each of these dimensions, they express themselves in different ways, prompting the need for different actions by individuals, managers, and companies.

Employee Performance

Employees need to know how they are performing. According to one study, 74% of millennials feel “in the dark” about their performance. While this is problematic for those in the office, it has more serious consequences for those working from home. Those in the office can make judgements about their performance based on their managers’ casual interactions with them and non-verbal cues during both casual and formal exchanges. Remote workers don’t have this opportunity, making it even more difficult for them to predict how they are doing.  

This is important because self-efficacy – the belief that you are effective – is one of the most powerful antidotes to social isolation. When you feel like you’re doing a good job and that you are capable, you’re less likely to feel isolated. Without regular feedback, you’re likely to worry that you aren’t doing well, reducing your sense of self-efficacy and increasing your risk for social isolation.

Managers should share what we call performance feedback – an overall assessment of how the team member is doing relative to expectations –informally weekly and formally monthly. However, if you have team members who have just gone remote, you may want to try giving them little doses of performance feedback twice a week.

Employee Impact

Research shows that people feel isolated from an organization when they don’t feel valued by the organization. Respect is the perception of how included and valued you are as a member of an organization. The research cited in the previous sentence found that respect reduces the effect of isolation felt by remote workers.

Recognition is a powerful, yet underutilized way to make people feel valuable. Employees who don’t receive recognition for their work weekly are 2 times more likely to say they would leave their company than those who do. Recognition can involve praising people for their contributions but can also be as simple as thanking them for their contribution.

Beyond receiving recognition and praise for specific tasks, you feel valuable to an entity when you are confident that your work is having an impact. The challenge is that it’s generally hard to see the impact of your work because it frequently occurs later in time or in a different context. The rock doesn’t see the wave it started with one small ripple. For example, you may do an analysis that finds ways your company can save 10% on its cost of goods next quarter, but never know if leadership implemented your recommendations and if they worked.

Great leaders circle back to their employees to share stories of impact their people have created. When you see that your work is influencing and advancing the broader organization, you feel respected and connected to its mission.

Employee Development

According to the 70/20/10 leadership development model, 70% of development happens on-the-job and another 20% through coaching and mentorship. Much of what you learn on-the-job comes from modeling those more senior to you or high-performing peers who do their work with excellence. You watch and replicate.

When you’re working remotely, you have far fewer opportunities to watch others. You may find it more difficult to tackle new and challenging tasks and feel more left on your own to figure out how to get your work done. Recognizing this, managers can be proactive about offering support to team members tackling new or challenging tasks and offer to schedule time to walk team members through how to complete a task in order to replace what may have happened organically.

Employee Resources

Perhaps the most fundamental cause of isolation is the lack of access to the tools, resources, and information you need to do your job. If no one shares with you notes from the site visit the team conducted that you couldn’t attend, you will feel isolated and frustrated.

While this is obvious, information, resources, and awareness of tools flow more naturally and organically among people in the same physical space who are engaging in regular physical interactions. What happened rather effortlessly in the office, must be done intentionally and proactively when working remotely. If you’re a team manager, consider discussing team norms and systems for sharing information and resources.

Company Activity

While every employee doesn’t expect to know everything that is happening within the company, they do expect to know as much as those at the same level of proximity to the leadership as they are. For example, if you’re an associate, you expect to know as much about what is happening in the company as other associates, and you would expect to hear about a major update before the update goes public.

A good portion of the news of company activity is communicated visually (i.e., you see the changes taking place in front of you) or informally (e.g., your manager sees you in the office kitchen and asks if you’ve heard about the vacation policy changes under consideration). Remote workers don’t have the opportunity to absorb information in these ways, so managers and leaders must be more deliberate about sharing them with all employees.

How You Can Ward Off Social Isolation

The five dimensions above can serve as a helpful framework for assessing whether you’re headed toward social isolation. By proactively monitoring and working to improve each, you can enjoy the benefits of remote work without one of its major consequences. Here is a synthesis of the key steps you can take to avoid isolation:

  • Your performance: Ask your manager how you’re doing and request regular, scheduled feedback conversations
  • Your impact: Keep a list of work you have done and make reminders to follow up with your manager or other leaders one to two months out to hear what impact resulted from your work
  • Your development: Ask for help when you need it and seek out and consult external resources that equip you to do your job when applicable
  • Your resources: Schedule semi-regular conversations with peers to ask what tools they use and how they access resources
  • Company activity: Make sure you are signed up to get relevant internal newsletters and schedule occasional conversations with colleagues working in other departments or regions

How Managers Can Keep Their Teams from Social Isolation

Managers can adjust and apply many of the same recommendations offered to individual contributors above. In addition, research shows that the following practices can also reduce social isolation in your teams:

  • Be a “considerate leader” who works to build interpersonal trust and employs a more collaborative or transformational leadership style.
  • Be in regular communication with your remote workers. ‘Regular’ will mean something different to each manager-team member relationship, but a good rule of thumb is to make a daily habit of asking yourself two questions: “Do I have a good sense of how this person’s work is going?” and “Do I have a good sense of how this person is doing as a person?” If your answer to either question is “no,” then reach out.
  • Connect deeply with your team members. For team members to feel connected to a person or organization, they need to experience what psychologists call a social exchange. Psychologists define a social exchange as “a two-sided, mutually dependent, and mutually gratifying exchange.” Jeanne Wilson, who we mentioned above, found that when people disclose personal information, such as a favorite television show or the birth of a child, they build stronger connections and more trust. In your conversations with team members, go beyond the work.
  • Foster a strong group identity by unifying the team toward a common vision or against a single challenge.

Social isolation is a real threat to the wellbeing and performance of remote workers, but fortunately, it is preventable. Everyone has a part of play in avoiding it. You can’t expect what happened effortlessly in the office to happen without deliberate action virtually. This is particularly true because even many in-office workers feel lonely. Compile a list of action steps from this article and begin schedule times and reminders to do them.