Back in May, we published a blog called The Pros & Cons of Working Remotely. It gave equal weight to the advantages and disadvantages of flexible working from a business standpoint, but what about the effects of remote working on remote workers themselves?
On the surface, it’s a no-brainer. You instantly cut out a soul-destroying commute, you can spend more than 30 seconds a day with your kids, you’re more productive and at lunch you can catch up on last night’s EastEnders or Match of the Day or whatever your bag is.
While there are plenty of advantages to working remotely, is it, as Dr Dhruv Khullar of Massachusetts General Hospital suggests ‘as bad for your health as obesity or smoking?’
The fascinating paradox here is that while we’ve never had more ways to connect with each other, as a society we’ve never felt more isolated from each other.
Technology has largely replaced face-to-face interaction and we are dispensing with the traditional community pillars – fewer people go to religious institutions, community centres, even to the shops – but one of the major factors why we are feeling so isolated (and it’s potentially affecting our health) is the growing trend for remote working.
Dr Khullar says, ‘As people grow more isolated in their work, which comprises more than half of most people’s day, that is in many cases a missed opportunity to interact.’ He continues, ‘Over time I think we will see negative effects of working remotely, working alone, working digitally, on people’s health.’
In a recent report called The Cost of Loneliness To UK Employers, jointly launched by the Co-op and the New Economics Foundation (and issued in conjunction with the Jo Cox National Commission on Loneliness), it puts the annual cost of loneliness to UK employers at a staggering £2.5 billion in absenteeism, productivity losses, employee care-giving obligations and turnover.
Loneliness – You’re Not Alone
Tremendous word play there but what we mean is that loneliness for remote workers is very common (and it’s worth noting here that by remote workers, we are referring to both those employed by a company who work at home rather than at HQ, full-time digital nomads and the self-employed who work wherever they want.)
However it remains the elephant in the room. No-one likes to admit they’re lonely, be it personally or professionally.
Loneliness is the dark side of remote working and unlike many of the issues we face today, this particular offline problem can’t be fixed with an online solution. The irony is that at a base level we are social creatures and while the invitation to work from home is one that’s hard to turn down, we may not realise how much we draw on external stimulation until it’s not there anymore.
The benefits of instant gratification are evident – working from home gives you certain freedoms you wouldn’t otherwise get at HQ, it’s great for short bursts of concentration and you don’t get mixed up in office politics or caught up in middle-management agendas but the process of becoming lonely is as insidious as it is serious.
The problem of loneliness is further compounded by the fact that when we talk to clients, prospects or stakeholders, we freely discuss what we do but hardly ever how we do it. What would the person on the end of the phone think if in response to ‘hey, how are you’, you said ‘I think I’m going slowly mad working from my spare bedroom because I haven’t had any human contact for two days…’
What Can You Do To Combat Remote Working Loneliness?
The research is this area is still very much in its infancy and it’s too early to show direct causal relationships between loneliness and associated health problems but according to Judy Heminsley, founder of the Work From Home Wisdom blog, there are some very simple steps you can take to vary your routine and get the mental and physical stimulation you need.
‘Over the many years I’ve been working from home, I’ve come to believe that the most important priority is to plan in your diary, every week, the contact you need with other people and the outside world.’
Use the Phone Make business calls first thing in the morning so you’re immediately hooked into life outside the house. It can also help you plan priorities for the day.
Use Social Media A brilliant way to connect with likeminded people all over the world, but do use it in a disciplined way with an goal in mind and log off when you need to concentrate.
Get Out of the House Do it at least once a day, even if it’s just a walk to the shops or around the block, and enjoy the time out instead of rushing back. Stop for a chat with a neighbour, do some window shopping, or take a different route home.
Work Outside Take your laptop, tablet or a notebook and spend time outside the house. This could be in your local park, a coffee shop, hotel lobby, library or any public space with free wi-fi*.
*NB: While we are full-throated advocates of getting out the house, we aren’t ones to play fast and loose with internet security. If you absolutely must work via a publicly available wi-fi, use a VPN to encrypt traffic to or tether to your phone.
Notwithstanding the fact that these seemingly nondescript activities can prevent the slippery slide towards isolation and loneliness, they break up the routine. They stop you thinking that if you were in the office you’d be more visible and therefore more relevant and they also stop the guilt of ‘I don’t have time for all that, I need to be getting my work done’ because by doing these things you’re doing more than you realise to get the work done.
In part two of this working from home mini-series next week, we’ll be asking ‘ do you have a right to disconnect?’
Have a good week.