There is no way to get around it – we’re evolving into lone wolves when it comes to work.
From telecommuting at the home office to the trend toward highly dispersed workforces, we are doing more and more of our daily work with less and less human interaction.
And that raises an important question: Is solitary work good for us?
First, let’s consider just how many people are working away from the traditional office setting. A Gallup survey of 15,000 American workers released earlier this year found that 43 percent were spending at least some of their time working remotely, a bump of four points since 2012.
In addition, those working away from the office are increasingly doing so for longer periods of time. Gallup found the number of people working remotely for one day or less per week was shrinking, while those working virtually four to five days a week was rising steadily. Gallup reported that nearly a third of its respondents claimed to work from home or away from the main office for at least four days a week.
Gallup found that employers are increasingly likely to offer “flexible scheduling and work-from-home opportunities” as a way of attracting top talent. Employers seem happy to make the offer, and employees seem eager to accept.
Proponents believe that remote work involves fewer distractions and thus makes people generally more productive. Others point out that allowing people to work somewhere else other than an office helps create opportunities for women that have been traditionally drummed out of the working world when they decided to have a child.
We want more opportunities to work away from the office but in doing so we actually might be making ourselves more unhappy and less productive in the long run.
That does not mean it’s all good news for the remote employee. In fact, a separate stream of research notes that working without human interaction – particularly without contact with a good friend – ultimately makes us unhappy and less engaged.
Surveys by the O.C. Tanner Institute, an employee engagement consultant, found that having a best friend at work makes people much more likely to be happy with their lives overall. They are also much more likely to volunteer to take on new challenges and are generally much happier with their jobs.
The data from the two surveys creates quite a dilemma for the average worker: we want more opportunities to work away from the office but in doing so we actually might be making ourselves more unhappy and less productive in the long run.
There is hope, however. Consider these simple best practices for mitigating the isolation of remote work:
- Don't rely solely on email or texts. It’s so easy to reduce your interaction with co-workers or managers to emails and other forms of digital communication. Pick up the phone once in a while to connect live with your work colleagues. Having a simple phone conversation can help build a sense of common purpose, a key for engagement. Phone calls can also help you to get to know people’s style and build an internal network that is crucial for long-term success in any career.
- Use technology to shrink the distance between you and co-workers. Set up regular WebEx or videoconference calls to get everyone on a team in the virtual “room” at the same time. And don’t reduce these interactions to work; spend a little time at the beginning of each videoconference for each person to “check in” and provide an update on what’s going on in their lives. Beyond videoconferencing, see if virtual collaboration platforms can be used to create a shared workspace. This helps teams collaborate, set goals and provide each other with timely feedback.
- Look for opportunities to create actual face-to-face interaction. It’s expensive to bring a remote team together for a meeting, but the benefits of getting people together in one room far outweigh the costs. These connections will pay off in greater collaboration and creativity throughout the rest of the work year. And look for occasions to get outside the home office and meet colleagues or key networking contacts for lunch. This is a great way to build rapport and strengthen relationships.
Remember that you have an equal responsibility to sustain your engagement at work. Yes, our employers have a role to play in keeping us fully engaged. And top employers do take steps to make sure that managers keep in regular contact with remote employees to ensure they aren’t failing behind or feeling left out.
However, in the end, you have to take the steps to ensure that you are happy and productive in your working life. And that means making the effort – through whatever means necessary – to keep some human contact in your remote working life.