- 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:
- Loneliness remains psychologically and physiologically dangerous.
- Employees who feel lonely are less productive and more likely to quit.
- Recent meta-analyses show that, even if the effect is small — and overestimated by popular opinion — loneliness has significantly increased following periods of confinement.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
Bernstein, E. S. & Turban, S. (2018). The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B : Biological Sciences, 373(1753), 20170239. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2017.0239
Bloom, N., Liang, J., Roberts, J., & Ying, Z.J. (2015). Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment , The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 130, Issue 1, February 2015, Pages 165–218, https://doi.org/ 10.1093/qje/qju032
Bojinov, I., Choudhury, P., & Lane, J.N. (2021). Virtual Watercoolers: A Field Experiment on Virtual Synchronous Interactions and Performance of Organizational Newcomers. Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 21-125, May 2021.
Borawski, D. (2022). When you are lonely, look inside yourself : The moderating role of reflection in the relationship between loneliness and meaning in life. Personality and Individual Differences, 194, 111662. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2022.111662
Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L. C. & Thisted, R. A. (2010b). Perceived social isolation makes me sad : 5-year cross-lagged analyses of loneliness and depressive symptomatology in the Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study. Psychology and Aging, 25(2), 453‑463. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017216
Dutton, J. E. (2003b, juillet 25). Energize Your Workplace : How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work (1st ed.). Jossey-Bass.
Ernst, M., Niederer, D., Werner, A. M., Czaja, S. J., Mikton, C., Ong, A. D., Rosen, T., Brähler, E. & Beutel, M. E. (2022b, juillet). Loneliness before and during the COVID-19 pandemic : A systematic review with meta-analysis. American Psychologist, 77(5), 660‑677. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0001005
Ertosun, Z. G. & Erdil, O. (2012). The Effects of Loneliness on Employees’ Commitment and Intention to Leave. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 41, 469‑476. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2012.04.057
Faustino, B., Branco Vasco, A., Delgado, J., Farinha-Fernandes, A. & Guerreiro, J. C. (2021b, janvier 14). Exploring the impacts of COVID-19 related social distancing on loneliness, psychological needs and symptomatology. Research in Psychotherapy : Psychopathology, Process and Outcome, 23(3). https://doi.org/10.4081/ripppo.2020.492
Hawkley, L. C. & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). Loneliness Matters : A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 40(2), 218‑227. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12160-010-9210-8
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T. & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227‑237. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691614568352
Jetten, J., Reicher, S. D., Haslam, S. A., & Cruwys, T. (2020). Together apart: The psychology of COVID-19. Sage Publications Ltd.
Kim, J., Kang, P. & Choi, I. (2014). Pleasure now, meaning later : Temporal dynamics between pleasure and meaning. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 55, 262‑270. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2014.07.018
Kubiak, E., Niesner, V., & Baron, S. (2022). Prevent loneliness in remote working: are some psychological profiles more at risk? In 17th European Congress of Psychology: Book of Abstracts (pp. 264-265). Horizons of Psychology, 31(2022).
Long, C. R., Seburn, M., Averill, J. R. & More, T. A. (2003b, mai). Solitude Experiences : Varieties, Settings, and Individual Differences. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(5), 578‑583. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167203029005003
Michinov, E. & Michinov, N. (2021). Stay at home ! When personality profiles influence mental health and creativity during the COVID-19 lockdown. Current Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-021-01885-3
Ozcelik, H. & Barsade, S. (2011b, janvier). Work loneliness and employee performance. Academy of Management Proceedings, 2011(1), 1‑6. https://doi.org/10.5465/ambpp.2011.65869714
Ozdes, A. (2021). How did I do it then ? How will I do it later ? A theoretical review of the impact of mental time travel on decision-making processes. New Ideas in Psychology, 62, 100869. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.newideapsych.2021.100869
Peplau, L. A., & Perlman, D. (1982). Perspectives on loneliness. In L. A. Peplau and D. Perlman (Eds.), Loneliness: A sourcebook of current theory, research and therapy (pp. 1-18). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Sagvaag, H., Rimstad, S. L., Kinn, L. G. & Aas, R. W. (2019). Six Shades of Grey : Identifying Drinking Culture and Potentially Risky Drinking Behaviour in the Grey Zone between Work and Leisure. the Wirus Culture Study. Journal of Public Health Research, 8(2), jphr.2019.1585. https://doi.org/10.4081/jphr.2019.1585
Wang, B., Liu, Y., Qian, J., & Parker, S. K. (2021). Achieving effective remote working during the COVID‐19 pandemic: A work design perspective. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 70(1), 16–59. https://doi.org/10.1111/apps.12290
Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Arndt, J. & Routledge, C. (2006). Nostalgia : Content, triggers, functions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(5), 975‑993. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.115