Remote Work and Loneliness22 Aug 2015
From a previous internship and my most recent job, I have been fortunate enough to be allowed to work remotely for extended periods of time. While the benefits of remote work are widely discussed, I wanted to talk about one of the downsides I struggled with the most: loneliness. This is a really personal topic and definitely hard to write about. However, I hope the lessons I have learned can help others who are dealing with (or are worried about) loneliness in a remote setting.
Not Being Around Others
One of the most immediate hurdles is the fact that you will no longer be around your teammates. This can be especially difficult if a remote culture isn’t baked into your company, where you might feel like an outlier during in-person events such as all-hands meetings or social gatherings. To remedy this, I’ve tried a few things:
One of the easiest ways to make your teammates see the person behind your avatar in chat is to establish a method of ambient presence. This doesn’t have to be as daunting as a live stream of your workspace. Sqwiggle shines in this regard. The app takes pictures of you at regular intervals (one or five minutes, with manual override) to help your team feel more connected. I can’t recommend it enough. It is amazing how much of an effect seeing your coworkers faces each day has on your overall mood.
I actually borrowed this technique from the wonderful folks over at Buffer. Every week, I would set up 15-20 minute calls with a specific teammate. A strict rule during these calls is that we would discuss anything except work. Not only did this help tackle loneliness, it allowed me to get to know my teammates on a more personal level (works well with meeting new hires too).
Meals With Friends
Another way to get out of your typical workspace is to schedule meals with friends in the area. This is perfect for catching up with old friends and helped me avoid the trap of simply eating lunch at my desk.
Nearby coworking spaces can be a silver bullet in combatting loneliness. This is one resource I wish I had used more during my time working remotely.
Missing out on Offline Communication Channels
In both of my remote experiences, the companies were onsite by default. This leads to challenges regarding offline communication (in-person chats, impromptu meetings, etc.) that must be overcome. In handling these challenges, the goal should be to default to online communication and reach a level where there is no advantage to being in the office. Not only does this help remote employees, it helps those onsite by making all communication searchable and documented in a manner accessible to all employees. One specific difficulty I wanted to highlight is accidentally not being called into meetings. To solve this, my previous team added Google Hangout links to all calendar invites, which worked really well. Additionally, I made sure to be vocal if I wasn’t called into a meeting before it started. Don’t be shy. You won’t be rude by doing so and it will help make calling in remote employees more habitual for those in the office.
Cabin Fever and Burnout
Mental health is critical, especially when working remotely, and I wish it was discussed more openly. To help stay in check, I have used meditation, mood logging, and hour tracking.
After struggling to meditate regularly for the past couple of years, I finally hit my rhythm with Headspace. It is an amazing app that guides you through meditation and presents it in a non-spiritual manner that is approachable. Starting to meditate has honestly been one of the best decisions of my life. It has allowed me to start each day with clarity and benefitted my personal relationships in ways I couldn’t even imagine. Relating to remote work, this will help prevent your emotions from snowballing internally, in the absence of others being around you for emotional support.
One of the lessons in Headspace is that you should only treat thoughts for what they are, thoughts! In practice, this means that you should try1 not to let thoughts become larger than they really are. To do this, it is helpful to label thoughts when they arise. For example, is the thought a worry about the future, a feeling, or just thinking? After labeling the thought, I try to imagine the thought as being a glass ball floating in space. In labeling it, I’m gently pushing it away with a feather. This metaphor serves as a way to mentally separate myself from my thoughts. I recently discovered an app that encapsulates this process called Moodnotes. After a week of use, it has already earned a spot on my home row!
Shutting Down My Computer
One thing that surprised me when I initially started working remotely was that I actually worked more than I previously did onsite. I would often let work-related tasks slip into my personal life (exaggerated by time zone differences). Answering that one email after hours or getting extra development time at night. While these small occurrences may seem harmless, they quickly add up and contribute to burnout. This is when I started to become strict about shutting down my computer after work. I wouldn’t reply to non-urgent messages after signing off either. While this may require an adjustment period, it helped my previous teams rely on asynchronous communication, which plays well with time zones and honoring people’s periods of productivity.
All in all, I am a huge fan of remote work. It affords you and your team many benefits that just aren’t possible when requiring everyone to be under the same roof. However, loneliness is a hurdle that needs to be discussed openly and overcome. I hope some of the lessons and techniques I learned can help in your journey. Have any that I missed? Let me know!
1: Easier said than done, of course!