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Why Do So Many Teleworkers Feel Lonely and Disengaged?

Working from home has many upsides. The downsides, however, have gotten less attention.
By: | June 24, 2019 • 3 min read

Dan Schawbel works from his Manhattan studio apartment every day during the work week, throughout the year. Not long ago, he realized he was feeling miserable.

“People only talk about the upside of working from home; no one talks about the dark side of it,” says Schawbel, research director of Future Workplace.

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The “dark side” includes less, if any, human contact, feelings of isolation and loneliness and disengagement from the organization.

“When people feel like that, they’re less productive, happy and fulfilled,” he says.

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Schawbel has some numbers to back him up. Last year his firm published a study of remote workers based on interviews with more than 2,000 employees and managers. It found that two-thirds of remote workers do not feel engaged and over one third said they never get any facetime with their team members. Remote workers also feel less attached to their employer: Only 5% said they always or very often see themselves working at their company for their entire career, compared to one-third of employees who do not work remotely.

In his book Back to Human, Shawbel explored ideas for bridging the gap between telecommuters and the home office. These included having leaders travel to meet with their direct reports in-person and letting remote workers lead group meetings.

“People don’t want extremes,” says Schawbel. “The research shows that they need time for collaborating and time alone.”

And yet, he says, “We have an inherent need to be around other people. It helps us brainstorm and collaborate and reminds us we’re a part of something bigger than just ourselves.”

Telework remains very popular. Nearly half (47%) of jobseekers polled by Indeed last year said having a telecommuting option is “an important factor” in choosing a job. Telecommuting has been on the rise since 2005, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census. The BLS’ 2017 American Time Use Survey revealed that 23 percent of U.S. employees did some or all of their work at home.

A new survey from Citrix Systems finds that the high cost of housing in some of the nation’s largest employment centers is also an impetus for telework. The survey of 5,000 workers from across the U.S. finds that 70 percent would move from major cities if they could perform their jobs at the same level elsewhere. However, despite 85% of respondents saying they believe they could do their jobs effectively from anywhere and 69% saying remote work would enable them to be more productive and focused, only 35% of companies say they’re introducing better flexible/remote work policies.

Such shortsightedness could hinder companies’ access to talent.

“People today want to work where they want to work,” says Tim Minahan, vice president of strategy for Citrix.

Yet teleworkers often feel forgotten and left out of important company events. Technology—specifically, video conference calls—can help compensate, although it’s not the only solution, say experts.

At OperationsInc, an HR outsourcing and consulting firm, 30 of its 100 employees work remotely. President and CEO David Lewis says he works to keep those employees in the loop by using technology to try and simulate the same experience they’d have if they worked on-site.

“We do Skype video calls with them instead of voice-only conference calls,” he says. “The face-to-face contact cannot be overestimated in terms of its value.”

Christina Andrade, director of operations at Metis Communications, says the firm—whose employees are dispersed across the U.S.—uses technology to help employees understand their colleagues’ workflow, quirks and preferences. It schedules company video chats that are intended to give team members time to get to know one another on a personal level. At the video meetings, employees show one another where they work from, talk about their pets during “bring your pet to lunch” meetings and have “water cooler chats” where the only rule is that there’s no talk about work for 20 minutes.

“The more we learn about each other’s hopes, fears and stories, the easier it is for us to create a strong team dynamic,” she says.

A master Google calendar helps employees know the status of each other’s schedules so it’s easy for them to know the best times to ask their colleagues questions or just to check in and say hello, says Andrade.

Major company get-togethers are opportune moments for helping remote workers get some valuable face time with their colleagues, says Lewis.

“Company meetings tend to have big social components, such as going out bowling or to happy hour,” he says. “Look for ways to include teleworkers on that level and budget for it—it’s well worth the cost.”

At Chili Piper, a software firm that automates scheduling for sales and marketing professionals, every one of its 31 employees work remotely, including CEO Nicolas Vandenberghe.

“We’ve committed to hiring talent without regard to their physical location,” he says.

The company makes heavy use of tools such as Slack and Zoom for collaboration and keeping employees connected, says Vandenberghe. All 31 employees participate in weekly video meetings via Zoom to get the latest company updates.

To help employees avoid feeling isolated, Chili Piper also rents employees space in coworking offices such as those operated by WeWork.

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“At coworking spaces, you have access to a second set of colleagues you can talk to and go to happy hour with,” says Vandenberghe. “For us, it’s become a strong point for recruitment.”

Lewis says the challenges remote workers face are often exacerbated by managers who haven’t been trained in managing people from a distance. Often, these managers may be skeptical that teleworkers are actually working.

“Some managers still believe teleworking is really a dodge for taking care of kids or goofing off,” he says.

This level of distrust can end up doing real harm to the relationship between remote workers and the company, says Lewis. Trained managers, in comparison, understand how to give remote workers the opportunity to demonstrate that they’re productive and successful, he says.

“It’s not about having creepy webcams to spy on these employees, but helping managers successfully lead remote teams,” says Lewis.

Remote workers should also be prepared to make changes on their own to combat feelings of isolation. Schawbel says he learned to build in face-to-face meetups during each workday to ensure he wasn’t spending all of his hours alone in front of a screen.

“I started scheduling my days so I was regularly meeting other people, whether it was coffee with friends, lunches with clients or business partners, what-have-you,” he says. “I got very strict about blocking off time for those meetups, because it’s very easy to fall into that trap of working all the time without realizing you’re shutting yourself off from the outside world.”

Andrew R. McIlvaine is senior editor at Human Resource Executive®. A Penn State graduate, Andy also spent two years in the U.S. Army prior to attending college and attained the rank of sergeant while serving in the Army Reserves. He can be reached at [email protected]

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