Scotland isn’t exactly known for its burritos. But there I was, at a candle-lit dinner with my colleagues eating the finest Mexican cuisine Edinburgh could offer. The only difference from any other work dinner was that I was the only person in the room.
You see, I work at a fully-remote, distributed company, so we have to go about things a little differently. Like any other ethical business that recognizes humans as beings and not workhorses, we want to foster a positive company culture. But as our employees are scattered across countries like Scotland, Spain, and the United States, it’s not possible to meet up in-person.
That’s why, on October 2nd, 2019, we had our first company-wide remote dinner – one of the latest initiatives to facilitate cross-company interaction. And as I narrowly avoided spilling guacamole all over myself (white shirt + Mexican food = recipe for disaster), I realized that I really did feel closer to my colleagues. I gained a glimpse into the lives of those I work with but do not work alongside. To boot, it helped offset the loneliness that comes with remote work.
Let’s not waffle, weasel, or beat around the proverbial bush here: loneliness is a very real part of working remotely. No matter if you’re a freelancer or somebody who’s working full-time at a remote company, loneliness, at some point, can creep in. I am well aware of this, as are most of the 4+ million people that work remotely.
So, why does loneliness occur when remote companies require a vast amount of communication to operate? And, more importantly, how can this kind of loneliness be tackled effectively?
Why is loneliness even a problem when we have video calls?
As remote-workers, we don’t have access to the level of socialization that normally occurs within a physical office. Sure, there’s Slack for text-based messages and Zoom for audiovisual communication, but it’s harder for non-work related chat to happen. Until friendships begin to bloom, and space is made for personal conversations, digital tools just don’t feel like a natural place for shooting the breeze. And there’s no water cooler or lunchroom or any of the other usual venues for casual chit-chat.
Despite my own introverted character, I yearned for social interactions. After I’d had my nose burrowed in the icy glow of a computer screen for hours upon hours, a post-work, non-work related conversation with colleagues (or better yet, a beer at the pub with them) wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Subtly, but palpably, it eventually hits: the yearning develops into loneliness. The work-related chat doesn’t cut it, and isn’t enough to keep negative feelings at bay. This wasn’t just my experience. It was, and still is, the reality of many others, too.
“Loneliness is one of the negatives of working on your own,” says David Alexander, a polymath freelancer, “I like isolation and quiet. Perhaps having ADHD and Dyslexia plays a part. But I still need human interaction.”
A study by Viking found that, among freelancers, loneliness is a common theme. 64 percent of people surveyed reported feeling lonely on a daily basis, and 54 percent cited loneliness as being one of the worst aspects of working remotely. As people who don’t work in an office, if we want to thwart these feelings of loneliness, a concerted effort has to be made to connect with others. Of course, this is easier said than done, but there are ways.
How remote workers can beat isolation and loneliness
On an individual level, the actions taken to combat loneliness require a certain level of proactivity. This means reaching out. Opening up a little. Offering parts of ourselves. And, sometimes, being vulnerable. Which is scary.
But the payoff is worth it.
When I started at Process Street, I worked myself to the ground and was on the precipice of burnout (another all-too-common phenomenon for people working at home). I knew I needed to talk about it with my director, Andrew. Not only did he give me stellar advice on tackling burnout, but it paved the way for more conversations like that and I now regard Andrew as a friend.
The lesson? Reach out for help whenever you need it. Don’t wait until you’ve got a nascent crisis on your hands as I did. And remember that those conversations don’t have to revolve exclusively around work, even if they start out being about work.
Now, as I write this, the world is getting familiar with the term “social distancing”. But, fingers crossed, this won’t last forever. And when we’re back to our regularly-scheduled lives, those of us who work from home have these additional avenues for loneliness relief:
- Spending quality time with partners, friends, or family on a regular basis. E.g., every Tuesday evening, even if you’re lethargic after your workday.
- Going to the gym or a group exercise class regularly. Classes are especially good because they offer a chance to get to know new people, and in any case, it’s nice to be surrounded by humans (however sweaty).
- Working in public places that aren’t co-working spaces. Think: cafés, bars, open green spaces during summertime. We’ve got the freedom to roam, after all!
- Speaking of roaming, joining a group like WiFi Tribe can help you explore and work with other digital nomads in cities all across the globe.
And in the meantime….
- Try shooting messages to people you enjoy conversing with over iMessage or WhatsApp. Check-in with them, and they’ll most likely check-in with you, too.
- Developing friendships digitally through Twitter (where the remote working community is huge) or sites like Reddit.
- Look for virtual exercise classes that take place via video conferencing.
Now, these are what us regular folk can do to facilitate conversation, friendship, and openness with colleagues and non-colleagues alike. Managers, meanwhile, have a duty to make an effort to bring teammates together.
- Hosting remote dinners. Eating burritos alone brought me closer to my colleagues (who I’ve never met before), and could be a novel way for your remote organization to combat loneliness, too. The dinner itself can be in real-time via Zoom, if the different time-zones allow it. Alternatively, employees could take photos of themselves with their dinners and write about it, which then facilitates conversation between team members. Both variations work, and both have value.
- Introducing hobby-based group chats. An incentive we’re trying at Process Street is ‘Social Street’. A Social Street event, essentially, is a real-time group discussion (via Zoom) on a certain topic (the events themselves can be one-offs or recurring happenings). For instance, my colleague Ben created one for general nerdery, while Ellie created one on mountain biking. Basically, it helps employees who have similar hobbies or interests to explore them with like-minded colleagues.
- Allowing space for non-work conversation in meetings. Little things really do make a difference. Before undergoing each virtual meeting, ten minutes could be taken at the beginning to pose a question that helps team members get to know each other a little better. They don’t have to be dreaded icebreakers such as “Tell us 3 facts about yourself!” Instead, ask what songs people haven’t been able to get out their heads this week, or what fun/interesting/weird things they’ve seen on the internet recently.
What works and what doesn’t work for remote organizations differs wildly. That’s why, in addition to the ideas, methods, and initiatives listed above, think of your own initiatives for your organization. Ask your colleagues what they think would work. Implement those ideas. See how they go by a trial-and-error process. Eventually, something will stick and everyone will benefit.
Remote work can work (with a little extra effort!)
Despite loneliness being a potential factor, remote work isn’t all doom-and-gloom. On the contrary, it’s full of positives and, quite frankly, is the future of work.
Take these findings from FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics. They discovered that from 2015 to 2020, the population of remote workers grew by 44 percent. Due to the positives that come with remote working – being able to hire from a more diverse talent pool, reduced operational costs, and increased business efficiency, to name just a few – there’s no reason why companies should stop adopting remote practices, either partly or fully.
Plus, it’s clearly working for employees themselves.
According to FYI’s The Remote Work Report, 96 percent of people said they’d recommend working remotely to a friend, while 91 percent said remote work was a good fit for them. I, too, would be a part of both those groups. Now that I’m past the hurdle of remote work loneliness, I’m not sure if I could step foot in an office again.
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