Laurel Farrer for Forbes| September 15, 2019
| 5 MIN READ
Beware: Professional Isolation Is More Than Loneliness
Being forgotten or neglected is a fundamental human fear for anyone. But for the nearly 20% of the global workforce that regularly works remotely, it’s a constant threat.
According to Buffer’s 2018 State of Remote Work and Cigna’s Loneliness Index, feeling alone is becoming an increasingly common physical and behavioral health concern for which remote workers are acutely at risk. Understandably, employees converting to a virtual role are afraid that they won’t get the social stimulation they need to stay motivated and engaged at work. However, if you are considering making the switch to remote work, you may be surprised to learn that a lack of social interaction isn’t the primary contributor to mobile professionals feeling “cut off.”
Thinking that remote work is isolating because you don’t get to spend time with friends is grossly underestimating the magnitude of the problem.
To combat feelings of loneliness within distributed teams, many virtual managers schedule interactivities like virtual parties and coffee chats. While these are fun and are crucial tools for building interpersonal trust over distance, it’s not solving the problem. Why? The answer is in the State of Remote Work statistic that is tied with loneliness: 21% of remote workers also have concerns about communication and collaboration. This means the danger of remote isolation isn’t just social, it’s informational.
When telecommuting independently from home or mobile offices, workers aren’t just cut off from interactions that contribute to Maslow’s foundational need of love and belonging, they’re also distanced from the opportunities that being around other people provides. In other words, it’s not the break room parties and high-fives that the remote workforce misses—it’s the causes for these celebrations.
So, if you’re wary of transitioning to a mobile office in fear of feeling cut off from your professional network, or if you currently work remotely and aren’t sure why you still feel abandoned after a virtual coffee chat, it’s time to become aware of three other types of isolation in addition to social isolation. Preventing all of the forms of remote isolation will help you feel truly connected to a virtual team:
Resource Isolation – In an office, any resource that an employee needs to fulfill their role is only a short walk or elevator ride away. Need to file for paternity leave? Stop by and get the paperwork at HR. Computer crash? Call IT to come to your desk. Want to ship some materials to a client? Drop it off in the mail room for packaging and postage. Understandably, when a worker goes off-site, they suddenly are overwhelmed with the additional tasks and time it takes to find or provide resources for themselves, thus crashing their efficiency, focus and autonomy.
- How to prevent resource isolation: Managing a virtual office? Your resources will need to be virtual, too. Digitize your processes, records and supplies by searching for cloud-based alternatives. Update your infrastructure and provide “office tours” during onboarding so that employees know exactly where to find a file, or which team member to contact when looking for a solution. This way, when something goes wrong, they feel supported in finding a solution.
Opportunity Isolation – The saying “Out of sight, out of mind” is unfortunately applicable for many professionals who choose to work offsite. Without the visibility of a co-located environment, it’s hard to achieve the top-of-mind status that is so beneficial when a promotion or roundtable review is due. Many managers are giving team members the ultimatum to choose between the convenience of telecommuting or their career.
- How to prevent opportunity isolation: The success of a virtual operational model is dependent on a shift away from sensory input as a form of productivity measurement. Move away from the thought that “I can see people talking in the conference room and I can hear phones ringing on the sales floor—it must be a busy day.” Update management tools and strategies to track and measure true productivity, not just activity. This supports the fair allocation of promotions based on meaningful performance data instead of the law of recency, nullifying the worker’s proximity to their supervisor.
Development Isolation – The market position of a business is crucial to the success of the company. How does the customer experience compare in quality to its competitors? Are the products priced correctly? The same is true for individual careers. Being engaged in a workforce allows employees to continually compare output, compensation and goals with others to ensure future growth. Team members are able to silently observe the strategies and successes of others—which in turn inspires individual growth and development. When working independently and focusing only on personal productivity, remote workers run the risk of career stagnation.
- How to prevent development isolation: To gain more visibility to observe growth opportunities, workers need to build a network of points of reference. For a freelancer, this can mean joining an industry association or having more conversations at a coworking space. In a company, it means increasing the transparency of operations and allowing workers and departments to collaborate instead of keeping each role independent. Opportunities to ask questions and compare results provide professionals with a better understanding of how their performance measures up when compared to their peers.
The many-headed beast of informational isolation may sound too difficult to fight, but with the proper equipment, it’s a problem that is easily wrangled—but not just with a party or retreat. Carefully designed wikis, remote work policies, project management software, communication channels, video calls and culture-developing activities are essential to the true support, accessibility, and individual value that employees truly miss after leaving the office.
By Laurel Farrer for Forbes