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Loneliness

Preventing Loneliness in Remote Working

Are some psychological profiles more at risk?

Key points

  • Recent meta-analyses show that loneliness has significantly increased due to remote working.
  • Loneliness can lead to poor psychological, physical, and productivity outcomes.
  • Psychological factors related to remote work loneliness include need for affiliation, ability for abstract thinking, and need for recognition.

Although initially propelled by health and political constraints, remote work legitimately continues to grow and gain attention from media, companies, and politics. Recent studies demonstrate strong benefits to these new types of organizations, like reduced attrition rate, improved performance, and increased employee satisfaction.

However, these shouldn’t hide certain dangers that could befall these systems. Specifically, the loneliness some might feel while working remotely remains one of the primary justifications used by companies to advocate for a return to the office. If associating loneliness with the unique fact of being remote would be a misleading shortcut — many employees felt isolated long before, and collaborative spaces paradoxically contribute to diminishing face-to-face interaction — it would also be naive to turn a blind eye, since:

Taking action first requires understanding that loneliness is a perceived state. While isolation is an objective state of being apart from others, loneliness is a subjective perception of a gap between the relations we’d like to have and those we do have. Put simply: Loneliness is not about the number of people around you, but how you experience your social life. Addressing the question, therefore, requires considering people’s individual experiences of remote working, and the psychological factors placing some more at risk of feeling lonely when working from home.

Our research provides insights to answer this question, by identifying three categories of personality traits and motives resulting in a higher feeling of loneliness.

1. Affiliation and Belonging

The first category encompasses dimensions relating to a need for affiliation and belonging. Quite intuitively, employees with a preference for human connection or doing things together (e.g., those who go spontaneously toward others, who want to meet new people at work, and who prefer working as part of a team) report higher levels of loneliness when working from home. Other studies support this result, showing that those with a strong need for affiliation are more subject to stress, anxiety, and loneliness. At the same time, those who are more emotionally stable and who have a preference for solitude have a much more positive experience of remote work.

Managers, therefore, have every interest in proposing activities suited to employees with a strong need for affiliation and to help them build more meaningful social connections and communities:

  • Setting up new social rituals and moments to meet with others (e.g., virtual water coolers have a proven impact).
  • Entrusting the person with a relation-rich activity and encouraging them to meet with new people (e.g., co-working sessions).
  • Or creating norms in teamwork to share collective references and bring regularity (e.g., clarify the best ways for communication, the role of each team’s member, and celebrate the team’s successes).

2. Ability for Abstract Thinking

Individuals with a tendency for self-reflection, self-analysis, and mental time travel — the ability to mentally reconstruct the past or imagine the future — are more successful in managing loneliness and making it a rewarding experience. Studies demonstrate the functional usefulness of nostalgia to strengthen social bonds, increase positive self-regard, generate positive affect, and reduce loneliness. Also, the ability to think about the future is shown to contribute to developing meaning, allowing one to better manage anxiety and loneliness.

An individual's capacity for mental, temporal, and abstract reflection acts as a protective resource against the loss of meaning resulting from perceived loneliness. Managers should therefore focus on:

  • Helping employees take a step back from pure operational work and think about the purpose of their work.
  • Giving them a vision of the future and a long-term meaning.
  • Remembering how past difficult times were successfully overcome.

3. Recognition in the Workplace

The third group is composed of people with a higher need for recognition (e.g., who need to feel valued and respected within the company, need to be congratulated for their work, and need more feedback) also report higher loneliness while working remotely. Still, if recognition at work is a way to reduce loneliness, it remains a challenge for managers: In the United Kingdom, 20 percent of employees believe they've received less recognition from their peers and managers since working remotely. Identifying people for whom this need is essential (some being more detached from the opinions of others) is, therefore, necessary to propose better-suited actions:

  • Taking the time to recognize employees’ contributions.
  • Giving them positive and personalized feedback.
  • Creating rituals to celebrate successes with the team.

Remote is changing the nature of work, and we can no longer rely on the office to build high-quality connections. Overcoming loneliness urges a better understanding of people’s preferences and capacity to deal with remote loneliness.

To this end, responsibilities are twofold:

  1. Companies need to accept that managing remotely requires mastering the science of good leadership, rather than seeking revolutionary models, or proposing ineffective happy hours or team building. Science has for a long time shown that leadership is about power with people, rather than over people.
  2. Employees need to understand that they can—and must—take proactive individual action to reduce loneliness by reinforcing their social communities, showing genuine commitment to teamwork, turning to their manager for feedback by asking open-ended questions, and building resilience through self-reflection.

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