It didn’t take long for the 2020 pandemic to change just about everything. And office life was no exception.
Last March, many workplaces shuffled to a temporary remote setup. As the pandemic continued, many companies extended their work-from-home policies. This new normal expanded to hiring, too. For instance, remote job postings increased 12 percent from July to August 2020 on FlexJobs, a career website covering work-from-wherever jobs listings.
A majority of workers want remote work to stick around. A whopping 99 percent of survey respondents in Buffer’s 2021 State of Remote Work answered that they’d like to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers. Many cited flexibility and a lack of commute as big drivers for keeping a remote setup.
However, while working remotely has many benefits for both employees and managers, it’s not without its challenges. Remote work has negative aspects too. Diminished social connections at and outside of work, distractions around the house, and less organized on-the-job support can all contribute to an inefficient — and even isolating — environment.
In this article, we’ll explore the psychological risks of working outside of an office and how those risks impact employees’ sense of belonging. Then we’ll share solutions to improve inclusivity in remote and hybrid workplaces.
Issues with Remote Work Environments
While working at home has some major pluses, it’s important to consider the negative psychological risks of long-term remote work.
Researchers found that some employees reported negative health outcomes such as depression, stress and fatigue, when teleworking, according to BMC Public Health. Women, in particular, were less likely to experience better health outcomes when working at home. In general, when working outside of an office, employees may experience any of the following drawbacks.
1. Less social support
From onboarding at a new company to bouncing a question off your fellow team members, you lose a little bit of connection when working remotely. And because you can’t easily pop into your manager’s office when you run into a roadblock, it can be harder to find the social support available in physical environments.
2. Less feedback
Out of sight, out of mind? If you only see your officemates online, it may be easy to forgo regular check-ins and other meetings (Zoom fatigue is real, after all). If skipping check-ins becomes a habit, it can be hard for workers to know how they’re doing and how they can improve.
3. Greater role ambiguity (which can lead to increased exhaustion)
In a remote workplace, it can be difficult for workers to get a clear idea of their job roles. Plus, managers may lose sight of how many hours people are working. Understanding job responsibilities may be especially confusing for people whose roles may have shifted tracks during the height of the pandemic such as event planners who shifted from planning in-person to online events. An uncertain, ever-changing career path can weigh heavily on workers.
4. Loneliness or depression from lack of workplace socialization
Yes, every company has its “Office Space” moments. But birthday cake in the breakroom, happy hours, and in-person work retreats bring employees together. In one global study, 25 percent of employees experienced depression from an absence of socialization during the pandemic. It can be lonely working in front of a screen by yourself all day.
5. Lack of work-life balance
The lines of when work ends and home life begins have become more blurred than ever. Working remotely provides some flexibility. You can throw in a load of laundry during a break or pick up a prescription from the pharmacy on a random Tuesday morning, but this ambiguity can lead to overwork. After all, why not answer one more work email when you’re waiting for your dinner to cook? When you have the ability to be on at all hours, it can be hard to detach from the workday.
Many people’s home and office lives collided last year. On top of working and living in the same quarters, nearly 70 percent of workers reported taking fewer sick days, according to one study. Overworking and neglecting to rest can lead to exhaustion, negativity, and reduced productivity.
7. A disconnect from workplace culture
It’s hard to get a feel for a company’s culture when you don’t interact regularly with your coworkers, especially if you start a remote role as a new employee. Even the best efforts can feel lacking when you onboard remotely behind a computer screen.
8. Transactional relationships with managers
Less personal interaction combined with a “checklist” approach to managing can make employees feel like they're just a number. Recognition is just as essential — and maybe more so — in a remote environment.
5 Ways You Can Improve Remote Working Relationships
It’s not all bad news: If your organization has some shortcomings when it comes to your remote setup, you have the power to turn things around.
Thankfully, a number of actions can improve belonging and inclusivity for remote employees at work. Here are five you can implement in your workplace.
1. Offer training for managers who supervise work-from-home employees.
Even the best communicators could have issues connecting with employees in a virtual setting. And similarly, seasoned remote managers may need a refresher on best practices. Managers should communicate often and set expectations but also be flexible with remote workers. Consider training programs or other tools to help your managers succeed.
2. Conduct regular one-on-one calls with managers and direct reports.
You don’t need to micromanage, but it’s a good idea to keep a recurring meeting on the books. Schedule a one-on-one meeting and prepare an agenda ahead of time so you and your direct report can get the most out of it. (And if you’ve had your fill of video calls for the week, keep it audio-only).
3. Hold team-building remote social events to improve colleague support and connection.
If in-person gatherings aren’t an option, host an online retreat. Conduct lunch-and-learns and other virtual meet-and-greets to connect employees across the company. Consider wellness programs, too. Gartner found that inclusive benefits and initiatives increase feelings of inclusion in the workplace by up to 38 percent. A one-time program may pay dividends for your culture long afterward.
4. Facilitate boundary management (including clarity around working hours).
Boundaries matter. And it’s important for managers to lead by example. No one should write late-night emails or work on the weekends. Burnout is a growing issue with remote workers, and companies need to take notice. In fact, 76 percent of employees felt their company should do more to help protect workers’ mental health, according to Oracle.
Employees reported that they wanted to see mental health initiatives such as on-demand counseling services and access to meditation apps. Regardless of your budget, your workplace can find services and tools that work for everyone.
5. Have regular DE&I discussions and program reassessment.
A diverse workforce equals a strong workforce. And remote working environments can provide a safe space for workers with different needs and backgrounds to join your team.
Refine your DE&I efforts and programs regularly so you can continue to foster an inclusive organization. From hiring to onboarding, review your current setup: What are the gaps? What can be improved? Invite anonymous feedback to see where you can do better.
With effort and action, you can make your remote or hybrid workplace model successful — no matter where in the world your employees work.