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  April 22, 2019

The role of isolation in a remote workplace.

Each year remote work takes up a larger and larger share of the global workplace. It’s grown 115% in the last decade alone, and about 70% of the global workforce works remotely at least some of the time. Employers everywhere are learning what it takes to offer a fulfilling employee experience in the absence of in-person interaction, but a lot of discussions on remote working’s downsides cite isolation as a detractor. A recent article in Reuters, for example, says remote workers feel less committed to their job compared to their on-site compatriots due to isolation. I think the blame is misplaced.

While isolation is likely more common in a remote workplace, in and of itself, it isn’t a bad thing. In fact, according to my all-remote team members, isolation is an important ingredient in making remote working successful. The increased time to focus leads to more efficient work hours which, in turn, lead to more time for life beyond work.

Below are a few remarks from a recent Slack discussion with my team:

“Be it freelance or working remote you’re either okay with being alone outside an office or you’re not. It’s something you find out pretty quickly. Generally it seems far easier to be a remote employee when the majority, ideally everyone, is fully remote.” – Anthony, Chicago/Denver

“Leaning into being fully-remote means that you have to learn how to make up for the lack of physicality and be a little more self-sufficient, but you get to make each day be the right mix of interaction and isolation that you need to get your work done.” – Reid, Chicago

“If you don’t treat your employees like real, intelligent and complex human beings then it doesn’t matter if they are across the room or across the country, they will be looking across the internet for a new job.” – Molly, Pennsylvania

“Maybe because I’ve had the opportunity to get a blend of past situations, I know that physicality isn’t what makes [work] isolating.” – Roti, Baltimore

So, if there’s inherently more isolation in remote working, what does an employer do to make it the good kind, rather than the kind that drives employees out the proverbial door? A few core tenets of our remote workplace culture come to mind:

Core work hours

Our team spans all timezones in the U.S., which makes it easier to share core working hours (ours are 10 AM – 4 pm Central time). Lots of our work can be done asynchronously but human relationships are inherently synchronous – we want to, we need to, work together with other people.

There is no other place

We’re 100% remote. There is no office where the preferred staff works, so there is no exclusion so long as we remember that, in a remote work setting, out of sight is out of mind, which puts the onus is on us to be proactively inclusive at discussions and meetings. Even when we had an office in Chicago, we made the remote employee experience just as good (and fast!) as our experience on site.

Work isn’t everything. It shouldn’t be.

Our team is a gabby bunch online, so we have a pretty fertile social community going on, but we don’t grab lunch and coffee together, or hit the bar after work on Thursdays. Put more plainly, we don’t fill the physical community need that most people have. To fill that gap, it’s important that every team member embrace life beyond work with family, friends, and hobbies. Our work environment aids that by doing whatever we can to respect core work hours, weekends, and generous vacation and personal time off. Equally important is that we don’t just share our work when we’re online, rather we all make strides to share what’s going on beyond our screens in life. 

Loneliness at work is real.

Work can be lonely if a job is the only thing we have going in life or if a workplace culture isn’t inclusive enough to pull is into it  – but that’s true regardless of working remotely or not. It’s entirely possible that negative feelings of isolation and loneliness are compounded when working for a company that offers remote work but doesn’t fully embrace it, but I view that entirely as an organizational problem, rather than the fault of remote work itself.  Like any community though, feeling engaged and fulfilled is equal parts giving to and taking from others around us, coupled with a strong organizational design to support it all.

Oh, and one more thing about remote working, from Reid:

“The other perk of working from home is that no one has to see me awkwardly rolling around the floor on a tennis ball trying to work the knot out of my back.”

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