by Chuck Chapman, Content Strategy Coordinator
I’m over a year now into my career as a remote worker, and I have to admit: sometimes it feels a little lonely. Spending each day in front of a screen in my basement office can leave me feeling a little bit like Tom Hanks in Castaway. But thanks to my dog, a relational work culture fostered by leadership, and some “people-centric” daily habits, I haven’t yet befriended any sporting equipment or other inanimate objects.
Isolation is a real concern for remote workers and those who lead them. A recent study from Harvard Business Review of 1153 remote workers found that those who work remotely are far more likely to feel disconnected from their co-workers than those who work in traditional office settings. So while working remotely offers tremendous freedom and flexibility on many levels, that can come at a price…if remote leaders and remote workers aren’t intentionally working to combat feelings of isolation.
What remote leaders can do
When remote leaders are intentional about promoting connectedness, the results are increases quality of work, productivity and retention rates. Here are few actions remote leaders can take:
- Check in frequently. This is isn’t about micromanaging, it’s about staying connected. Regularly schedule periodic check-ins, not just to monitor project progress, but to develop a relationship. These don’t have to be long conversations, but allow for some time for “small talk” in addition to any business concerns.
- Communicate using voice and video. Texts and emails make much of our communication more efficient and convenient, but those text-based systems aren’t the basis for human relationships. When you schedule these check-ins, do so using phone or video. Just hearing another voice can help break that feeling of isolation, and if there’s a face with it, even more so.
- Promote relationships among team members. It’s not just you, the leader, that needs to have a relationship. Remote team members need to relate to each other as people, not just co-workers on a project. Most of the feelings of isolation cited in the HBR survey involved feeling disconnected from colleagues, not bosses. We’ve mentioned this before in this space, but a good example is Kevin Eikenberry’s practice of intentionally starting group video conferences a few minutes late so team members can engage in non-work conversation with each other. This is also extra-important for hybrid teams (those who employ both office-based and remote workers).
These practices won’t just happen organically. They have to be intentionally guided and practice by long-distance leaders.
What remote workers can do
Battling isolation isn’t all on the long-distance leader, though. If you’ve chosen a career working remotely, it’s your responsibility to engage in some self-care to make sure you don’t end up feeling like you’re stranded on a desert island. As with the leader’s activities, these things won’t come naturally. They have to be intentionally planned and consistently practiced.
- Be proactive with communication. Don’t wait for your boss or colleagues to contact you, especially if there’s a problem or conflict. Don’t be reluctant to pick up the phone or ask for a “face to face” via video. This will usually nip any problems in the bud and also communicates to everyone on the team that you care.
- Take breaks. Yes, you need to get your work done, but one of the perks of working remotely is the flexibility in your schedule. Unfortunately, many remote workers end up working more actual hours than they would if they were in a co-located setting where everyone consistently “knocks off” at a given time for breaks, lunches and the end of the day. As a remote worker, you have to allow yourself some time to refresh your mind so that the hours you are spending are productive. Take five or ten minutes here and there to refocus your attention somewhere else if you’re starting to feel burned out. And if you’re an “internet worker” like me, try to make that something offline. Make a snack, take the dog for a walk, do some brief exercise…anything to break up the monotony.
- Have “people time” when you’re not working. Remote work tends to attract introverted people. I know, I am one. We’re the kind of people who don’t need constant interaction with other people. We derive our energy from solitary pursuits. Even so, everyone needs some degree of human connection. Intentionally plan some people time to compensate for all the time during the workday you spend alone. I like to regularly sit down and talk with my kids when they get home from school. Sometimes that’s the first actual “in person” conversation I have during the day. Join a local community group that meets regularly, get active in your church or some other group you belong to. You don’t want to compound the lack of human interaction during the work week with little or no interaction when you’re away from work.
Working remotely definitely has its benefits, both for the company and for the employee. When both of those are working together and cognizant of the threat of isolation, it can become a wonderful relationship that produces great work and great people.
Learn more about leading remotely with The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership, the definitive guide for anyone leading remote or hybrid teams.