Sounding Board: The isolation risks of remote working

The employment landscape has changed drastically in recent years. With new technologies frequently being introduced into the workplace and older systems slowly being phased out, there has been a transformation of both the type of jobs available and the way we interact within them.

New technologies have created more efficient methods of communication and provided employees with new opportunities, including the ability to work remotely. Through video conferencing, instant messaging, screen sharing and more, employees are able to maintain good working relationships with colleagues, regardless of whether or not they are physically in the office.

The advantage of technology is that it offers options. Location is no longer a limiting factor in being able to offer or accept a job. A one-person business can compete globally. While the availability of these options are positive, any change has potential effects on employees, and they need to be understood and addressed. Other changes in society can also affect any new risk.

Read: Is loneliness the next employee wellness frontier? 

In society overall, feelings of loneliness and isolation have increased over previous years. Morneau Shepell Ltd.’s latest research found one in four working Canadians indicated feeling more personal isolation than they did five years ago. The same proportion said they feel more workplace isolation.

The impact of this increase is staggering. The research found 45 per cent of respondents are affected by personal isolation, while 41 per cent of employees and 38 per cent of managers said they’re affected by workplace isolation. Moreover, among those who experienced workplace isolation, 40 per cent described it as extreme.

Isolation is the state of feeling alone and without friends, support or help. It’s a lack of connection and sense of belonging. While those who work in more traditional spaces and those in shared workspaces aren’t immune, the risk of workplace isolation for those who work remotely needs particular attention given the growing number of individuals who have this work structure.

Advantages of working from home

Working from home has a proven track record of success for many employers and employees. For employers, it allows them to stay competitive when seeking talent. Today, many organizations are having a difficult time finding the right talent for their business, which is even more challenging if there are restrictions in place, such as requiring employees to work at a particular location. An organization’s ability to expand quickly is compromised if there are any limitations that narrow the pool of candidates. Remote work takes away these restrictions, allowing employees to work from any location and making it easier to attract talent that may be located elsewhere.

Read: Majority of Canadian organizations offer flexible working options: survey

For employees, there are a number of benefits that contribute to a productive workday, including saving time on their commute and having the comfort and security of working from their own home. One of the most interesting findings of our research is that those who work remotely are more likely to feel valued and trusted by their employers. Providing employees with an added sense of responsibility to remain productive demonstrates that an employer has confidence in their ability to accomplish tasks outside of the office, ultimately promoting a mentally healthy workplace.

The working from home blues

While all of this is positive, the research also found workplace isolation correlates with workplace stress. It found employees (64 per cent) and managers (73 per cent) who reported high levels of workplace isolation were likely to say they also have a high level of workplace stress.

The isolation has been found to have a number of adverse effects on individuals’ physiological and mental health, ranging from depression and anxiety to sleep issues and physical pain, among others. In some cases, isolation’s damaging effect has even been linked to cardiovascular and immune system disease. Health concerns can also translate to the workplace as productivity declines and in some more severe cases, employees may need time off work.

Setting employees up for success

Employers and employees both play an important role in the success of a remote workplace. While all remote workplace policies are different — with some employees having the option to work away from the office part time and others working remotely all the time — there needs to be two-way accountability.

Read: Editorial: Employers, flex your flexible working muscles 

Employers have a level of responsibility to manage the culture of the workplace and provide the resources for employees to be successful, stay connected and feel a sense of belonging, while employees are responsible for setting boundaries, seeking connections and managing their own mental health by reaching out for support, if necessary.

The sense of connection is paramount. For employers, this includes providing effective technology and resources to ensure people are connected, but it also must include a supportive workplace. It’s easy to get caught up in an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality, but in reality, employees outside of the traditional workspace often need more touch points and the feeling that they haven’t been forgotten as people, versus only hearing from colleagues in followup to work-related deliverables.

The responsibility for employees can be even more important. Oftentimes, employees who are working remotely the majority of the time find themselves blurring the lines of their work and personal lives. They will often feel a sense of guilt from being away from the office. And to compensate, they may work longer hours or go throughout the day without taking a break. It’s critical that employees find a balance and proactively take opportunities to step away from work by scheduling time for hobbies, exercise or meeting with a friend for coffee.

Read: Isolation, missing out on team environment top downsides of remote working: survey

Maintaining outside relationships and finding ways to interact with others face to face throughout the day is essential in preventing workplace isolation. Co-working spaces are also great options for those that run their business from home or work in a fully digital environment in which all employees work remotely. Co-working spaces bridge the gap between an office environment and remote work by providing a hybrid space that individuals can use to work in the presence of others in similar scenarios.

Given that people are social by nature and crave human interaction and connections, the ability to be a part of a community — whether it’s an office space or shared work environment — allows for the creation of social networks that connect people together.

Communication is essential

While remote work sounds great in theory, there are a lot of challenges that people have to overcome in order to have a successful experience. It comes down to communication and an openness between employers and employees. Employees need to feel comfortable speaking to their manager about their experience and needs, and managers need to be proactive in checking in on employees and providing alternate options if required. Doing this will lead to a better experience, and a better relationship for all.

Paula Allen is vice-president of research, analytics and innovation at Morneau Shepell Ltd.