Remote Work Culture and the Loneliness Problem | Bonfyre

Remote Work Culture Must Solve the Loneliness Problem | Bonfyre Breakdown

5 min

Remote work may be on the rise, but the same cannot be said of remote work culture.

The companies pushing for new remote work policies are doing so in pursuit of their numerous benefits. Perhaps the most direct impact is that when employees go remote, organizations see the savings in reduced office-related expenses. But the bottom line isn’t the only thing that improves.

Remote employees commonly report greater feelings of independence thanks to the newfound flexibility they have to do their jobs. With the freedom to work how and when you want, comes the added ability to discover how you work best. Research shows employees have the potential to be more productive when they work from home, and they also take fewer sick days and vacation days. (Plus they save thousands on gas each year).

A dilemma arises, however, when organizations implement remote and flex work policies without thinking them through. You can’t just offer remote work options without also building a remote work culture.

Unless these companies design new systems and processes to specifically support their remote employees, employee performance will suffer before it improves. The newly telecommuting staff will find it harder to connect with their teams, bringing out unique feelings of isolation that cause them to burnout quicker and disengage.

Dan Schawbel, Partner and Research Director at the executive development firm Future Workplace, recently shared his research on this phenomenon with the Harvard Business Review. Today on the Bonfyre Breakdown, we’re taking a closer look at his findings and what they mean for organizations building a remote work culture.

The cost of remote work without a remote work culture

Schawbel found that remote employees are not a very engaged bunch–two-thirds of remote workers are not engaged. Now, this doesn’t make them a uniquely unengaged bunch, they’re actually right in line with national trends. Gallup’s 2018 engagement data similarly shows that two-thirds of the U.S. workforce are not engaged.

But Schawbel does highlight a rather dire circumstance for this population: there is no remote work culture to meaningfully connect these dispersed employees to their colleagues. A third of remote employees surveyed reported not getting “any face-time” with their team, despite 40% believing it would help them build relationships.

Consequently, he adds, remote employees are less loyal than their onsite counterparts. Only 5% said they could see themselves working at their company for their entire career, compared to the one-third of non-remote employees that reported the same.

Now, whether or not this data point is truly a measure of remote employee loyalty is up for debate. Gauging if an employee wants to stay at the company for their whole career is about as extreme as you can possibly get when measuring long-term plans. When I got my first real job as a grocery bagger in high school, I could envision myself staying with my store for the “rest of my career,” and working my way through its managerial structure. So the fact that I’m writing this article now is a testament to how fickle and fanciful those plans can be.

All kidding aside, Schawbel’s emphasis on the comparison between the two populations is what’s really interesting. Onsite employees largely do not want to devote their entire careers to their employer, but the ones that do outweigh like minded remote employees by a hefty margin.

Schawbel suggests that the reason for this disparity has to do with the strong connections onsite employees build with their coworkers. In other words, the more we see each our colleagues, the more likely it is we’ll build strong relationships with them, which increases our commitment to our teams. Sound familiar?

Likewise, remote employees would be at-risk for the inverse of this phenomenon.

“When you don’t see or hear your colleagues over a long period of time, you can become less committed to your team and organization–and start looking for your next opportunity–since no one is looking over your shoulder while you job search,” Schawbel writes.

Related: Building Company Culture For Remote Workers

A remote work culture must solve for loneliness

Much in the same way that remote work at the scale it’s at today is very much a new phenomenon, so too is the concept of a remote work culture. While we may not be able to tell the story of, say, the Southwest Airlines of remote work cultures, we do know one crucial element of what that story will be about:

The loneliness problem.

Put simply, the modern struggles of remote employment provide what is perhaps the clearest illustration of how crucial interpersonal relationships are to employee engagement and performance.

Schawbel’s findings are not alone. One of the common threads in research on remote employees today is the damage these feelings of loneliness cause, and how building up relationships with colleagues can reverse it.

Buffer’s State of Remote Work 2018 report notes just over one in five remote employees struggle with feelings of loneliness. The same percentage also reports difficulty collaborating and communicating with their peers.

Another HBR contributor, Tsedal Neeley, has her own label for the loneliness problem–“social distance”–and refers to it as one of the greatest barriers of effective team work. Even Bonfyre’s own Jake Bernstein shared his experiences with this issue for the Gather Around blog.

“When the social distance on teams is great, it’s hard to align on work priorities. It’s not that people aren’t working on what they’re supposed to, it’s that team members aren’t working as well together as they could,” he writes. “Barriers in communication–be they physical or psychological–make it difficult for teams to get on the same page.”

The greater the social distance between remote team members becomes, the more problems it poses for their ability to work together. But this can be remedied by having your team take the time to get to know one another. Relationships are the essential ingredient for a successful remote work culture.

As Gallup’s Adam Hickman and Tonya Fredstrom write, “Finding ways for your remote workers to connect and find at least one best friend at work is essential to their engagement and performance. Remember, remote employees don’t want to feel isolated.”

Here are a few micro-tips to get your remote teams building relationships.

Trust your team. You can’t have a good relationship with someone without trust, and you definitely can’t have a high-performing, engaged team either. Remote employees are no exception. If you start micromanaging your remote teams actions because you can’t physically see them perform their work everyday, Take the time to clearly define your remote team’s performance expectations, as well as your expectations for how they’re to communicate with each other, and–wait for it–trust your team to fulfill them.

Make time for facetime. Sometimes there’s just no replacement for face-to-face interaction. Getting your remote staff to come into homebase, even just for an important, all-employee meeting, can go a long way towards helping them build camaraderie with their peers.

Leverage technology tools. As Schawbel notes above, it’s not uncommon for remote staff to go long periods of time without hearing the voices of their colleagues. This is, to put it lightly, simply unacceptable in a world where now nearly every smartphone device is capable of making video calls. Leverage the tools your company provides to give remote staff as much of a presence as possible in meetings. Find opportunities to turn emails into phone calls, and phone calls into video chats. 


This month’s Bonfyre Breakdown took a look at the Harvard Business Review article “Survey: Remote Workers Are More Disengaged and More Likely to Quit.

Bonfyre Breakdown is the featured article series in our Monthly Roundup newsletter, a collection of our favorite culture, engagement, and communications articles from across the web. Subscribe today to see all the articles highlighted in the latest newsletter!

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