Splendid isolation or lonely hell? The dual reality of working remotely


I’ve been working from home for almost 20 years as a technology and healthcare writer/editor. While it’s second nature to me now, at first I struggled with the isolation.

Granted, you can isolate yourself in many workplaces, at least if you have headphones or an office with a door. But you still can walk down the hall and see other people who also made the trek into this shared space, where they work alongside colleagues in pursuit of a common goal. You can look these people in the eye, smile, and say “good morning” or “I can’t believe the Eagles beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl.”

It’s that face-to-face interaction, and the sense of unity and belonging, I quickly realized I missed, along with the feeling of being in the loop regarding workplace power struggles, intrigues and opportunities. I still sometimes can even be (slightly) envious when I’m driving during commuting hours and I see all those other people going somewhere to be part of something.

All that being said, working from home has been a great deal for me because I’ve been able to remain productive, eliminate wasted commuting time and keep up on my laundry. It’s just that every once in awhile I feel the urge to go to a local coffee shop so I can interact with something other than a chat bot or fellow Slack user.

I’m hardly alone; nearly 4 million U.S. employees, or 2.9% of the total U.S. workforce, worked from home at least half the time in 2017, more than double the 1.8 million in 2005, according to an annual telecommuting survey from FlexJobs.

As the workforce continues to transition toward telecommuting, how will employees and enterprises adjust? What will be gained and lost? BBC Capital’s Bryan Lufkin explores these questions and more with several experts who highlight the potential telecommuting challenges for workers and enterprises.

“For some people, (telecommuting) is not a good fit – the lack of informal interactions with co-workers throughout the day wears on them,” David Ballard, a doctor at the American Psychological Association, tells Lufkin. “Or the lack of structure, when they’re left to their own devices at home or in a remote setting. It’s harder to stay organised.”

The combination is a recipe for lack of productivity — and detachment. “It certainly makes it more challenging to build camaraderie when you’re not physically there sharing meals at a lunch room,” Ballard says.

Both IBM and Yahoo in recent years have sharply curtailed the number of employees allowed to telecommute because decision makers at those companies felt they were losing opportunities for collaborative innovation. The trend toward telecommuting, however, is clear, fueled by a desire among enterprises to save money and by younger employees who highly value the option to “work anywhere and at any time.”

So that means telecommuters of today and tomorrow, along with their employers/clients, need to be prepared to ensure they remain connected, united in purpose and productive. To that end, Harvard Business Review offers advice to enterprises on ways to keep remote workers engaged and invested in the organization’s goals.

For those people who currently are telecommuting or someday will be, Inc. has a nice list of crowd-sourced advice on keeping it real, ranging from identifying tasks that have to be done every day (and then doing them) to using cloud storage to establishing boundaries with friends and family. To this list I would add:

Get up early. Those quiet morning hours can be among the most productive. It’s a great feeling to know that a priority task for the day is done before 9 a.m.

Take a shower. They wake you up and shift your mind into action mode.

Do little bursts of exercise. Knocking off 30 push-ups or walking lunges gives your body and mind an adrenaline rush that can help offset the narcotizing effect of staring at a computer screen. Plus, how many showers can you take in one day?

Take a long break. If you’re getting burnt out in front of your computer, go on a walk, play with your dog, pick up a guitar — whatever helps clear your mind, which will make you more effective when you get back to work.

Talk to real people. Exchanging texts and emails is all well and good, but for a remote worker nothing makes you feel more connected to your colleagues than talking on the phone. You pick up nuances you’d miss in texts, you might hear information someone wouldn’t want to put in writing and you remind colleagues and supervisors that you are still alive and part of the team.

Generate good karma (while networking!). Reach out to people you know who might have lost a job, who also are working remotely or who are otherwise dealing with some sort of stress. They will genuinely appreciate it and remember you for it.

If anyone has more advice not listed above or in the Inc. article, feel free to leave a note below. Remote or not, we’re in this together.


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