Remote work is the new normal for many of us. Before COVID, the percentage of people working remotely was just 7%. However, it’s now predicted that 40% of employees will stay remote. And some of the biggest names in business like Amazon, American Express, Twitter, and Ford are moving to adopt some sort of hybrid model for the long term. It makes sense to offload overhead if employees can do the same job at home as they did in the office. And this is welcome news for a lot of folks because remote work not only offers more flexibility but also slashes gas, lunch and clothing budgets. Business on the top, party on the bottom!

However, there is a downside to working remotely. It’s harder to connect with coworkers which can lead to all sorts of issues. But for now we will tackle three of the biggies: feelings of isolation, a lack of belonging, and poor team dynamics.

Remote Work and Isolation

Working from home definitely has its perks. You can sweep, do the dishes, change a diaper, feed a kid or the dog, or go for a walk while taking a business call. You aren’t required to physically be around people that you don’t like, and you’re able to lessen your exposure to office gossip and politics. But the reality is that working by yourself can leave you feeling lonely. In an office setting, it’s common to develop friendships with the people we work with. And some of us just enjoy being surrounded by other people, even if we aren’t interacting with them on a personal level. To most, it just feels good to know that you belong to or are a part of something.

Our relationships at work can also be especially helpful if we aren’t all that crazy about our particular role or job within an organization. The daily interactions with others at work reinforce our sense of well-being and belonging in the community. And when these interactions aren’t available, isolation can begin to wear on us. This is especially true for 

And when isolation begins to wear on us, it can lead to poor mental health. There is now a large body of research that links social isolation and loneliness to poor mental health.

Remote Work Can Cause A Lack Of Belonging

Working remotely day in and day out, makes it harder to connect to the people you work with. It’s just not the same as being with someone in person. Yes, you can see and hear them speaking, but you don’t get the full effect of their presence. When you’re physically around people for a period of time you have the opportunity to pick up on their behaviors. And those are clues to a person’s personality. For instance, you may realize that Sam is grumpy until his 10 am coffee break, Lindsay has 4 kids who’s pictures are plastered all over her cubicle, and Trina has country music blasting through her Air Pods all day. Being in the office also presents the opportunity to walk by a coworker’s desk or office to see if they want to go to lunch or happy hour. And these informal get togethers outside the office allow you to get to know each other even better.

Because it’s difficult to recreate these same opportunities virtually, the result is often a feeling of not belonging at work. This is a big deal because we all want to belong on some level. And if we feel that we don’t, it causes us to feel pain. The pain from a lack of belonging is recognized by our brains as something very similar to actual physical pain. And research has shown that this is damaging to our mental health. Whereas, high belonging is linked to a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days!

The Challenges of Remote Teams

For those working remotely but as a part of a team, there are other issues to deal with. Teams rely on collaboration and communication to achieve their shared goals, both of which are more difficult to do through a computer screen. Communication, in particular, can be challenging when a high volume of it is done through text and email. We discussed this in more detail here. But basically, when you rely on written messaging, you miss out on the bulk of what the other person is saying to you. And this often leads to miscommunication.

In addition, intact teams who migrated from an office setting to a remote setting, may have done so with unresolved people issues. It’s easier to not address issues when you aren’t physically with the other person on a regular basis. Basically, working from home allows you to avoid them indefinitely, or at least until the next Zoom meeting. The reality is that whether you are working remotely or in the office, people issues require people skills. And as we’ve mentioned before, a lot of us don’t have said skills.

The New Normal

Remote work is here to stay. In fact, very soon 2 out of 5 employees will be working remotely. This is great news for a lot of individuals and business owners alike. However, we should all be aware of the potential dangers of isolation, a lack of belonging and poor team dynamics. To head them off at the pass, organizations should proactively put measures in place. First of all, soft skills development is a must, especially for managers, in order to improve communication. Secondly, it’s crucial that in person opportunities are available for people to get to know each other better and for regular collaboration. And lastly, organizations must encourage employees to safeguard their mental health with appropriate measures, and then provide them with the resources to do so. Organizations that appropriately prepare for the emotional challenges of remote work, will be rewarded with higher retention and productivity. It’s a win-win strategy.

The culture (r)evolution starts with you. Let’s Talk.

Part of this post was originally published on 6/11/20

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