The world of social isolation has highlighted the dangers of professional isolation as we are forced to embrace the suddenly accelerated trend of remote working.
Remote and at home working is nothing new. By the end of last year 40% of global companies were partially remote, an 140% increase in the last 15 years (Global Workforce Survey). Companies that successfully supported remote working were starting to see higher retention rates, increased productivity and increased happiness of employees (Forbes). The flexibility it provides is a huge pull in terms of attraction of new, especially younger, talent.
However, this was all based on remote working as an option not a necessity. As current circumstances force us to adapt to an ‘all day every day’ situation, rising anxiety reminds us of the need for employee support as we plunge into this radically different new world. Understanding and support is vital to ensure employees can reap the benefits of remote and flexible working without feeling isolated, not just socially but professionally.
It is easy to forget what a social environment the workplace is. The majority of people we come into contact with every day is at our work. The social interactions we have around the office strengthen inter team relationships creating a happy, engaged and productive work culture.
Remote workers and distributed teams miss out on these interactions. To address this highly creative ‘shared practices’ are arising. Virtual parties, virtual coffees, online group games to incorporate play and encourage collaboration. We are increasingly innovating around how to connect socially from afar. There is even a newly evolving set of behaviors around video conferencing with many companies now having a five-minute pre call window where employees can log in to have a friendly chat. One that doesn't eat into the business agenda.
But as Forbes rightly points out this doesn’t go far enough. Last year's State of Remote Work study showed that 21% of remote workers have loneliness and isolation concerns. And only part of this is social. The other part is professional.
When working independently from home or remote offices, employees aren’t just cut off from the interactions that contribute to basic needs of social esteem and belonging (Maslow), they are also distanced from information and the opportunities that being around other people provides. Word of mouth is vital to help people feel in the loop, share ideas and learn about business opportunities. Remote employees lose out on these chats. Furthermore, their lack of visibility means they can easily slip from top of mind status. Especially important when promotions or reviews are due.
As well as opportunity isolation, remote working can also lead to a developmental isolation. Being able to observe others work practices and compare their performance drives personal development. Remote workers will suffer unless there is transparency of operations, strong constant communication channels and an environment of collaboration. It is all too easy to simply consider the social challenges of remote working without understanding how it ladders up into professional challenges.
Supporting a remote worker
In order to help prevent professional isolation employers must adjust how they not only support but also value employees. No longer being able to see people physically means a shift away from visual input as a form of productivity measurement. Likewise, productivity is no longer as simple as fulfilling a 9-5 day, especially when work is becoming more creative, collaborative and global. With the whole world of work changing we must start to take a more holistic approach to productivity. Employees at the center can drive productivity by being connected and engaged with a positive sense of wellbeing and purpose. But to support this remotely there must be a strong environment of trust between employee and employer.
Trust and the psychological safety it provides is key. Cognitive trust of one’s experience and skill must be balanced with emotional trust, how much we believe in each other. The latter is harder to build remotely. But constant, positive conversation streams and giving freedom for employees to know when to work and when to switch off can promote engagement, a better work-life balance, and maintain productivity away from the workplace.
Remote But Not Forgotten
With remote working becoming a necessary new norm we are faced with not just challenges but opportunities. The opportunity for employees to learn how to work remotely. But to learn well employees need support, socially and professionally. Employers need to do all they can right now to ensure that remote working doesn’t mean social or professional isolation. Done right this new norm opens the door to potential productivity gains and a new-found flexible, happy and connected workforce.