Some remote workers are so isolated they might as well be on the moon. Image: John Lewis

Thursday 19th November 2015

Another planet

Are your remote workers a little too remote?

Thanks to those moral paragons over at John Lewis, reaching out to the isolated has become very du jour.

The retailer’s curious schmaltzy-cum-crushingly-depressing Christmas ad in which a small girl manages to reach out to an elderly man on the moon has caused a fair bit of online chat. Mostly about loneliness, age and those unfortunate people who, for one or another reason, society simply leaves behind.

There is of course a corollary in HR, emphasised last week by the Institute of Leadership and Management releasing its research on remote teams. It’s not good news. According to the ILM survey, 88% of remote workers ‘struggle with miscommunication’ while 83% ‘feel overwhelmed’ by emails.

I can see you! Photo: John Lewis

Though there’s no question that remote working can mean significant improvements to work-life balance, ‘a lack of team identity can cause isolation and loneliness.’

So for every worker that seems to have it all going on – managing distant relationships perfectly and working productively and creatively – there’s probably about another eight staring teary-eyed at screens in their spare bedrooms, wondering what the heck is going on at HQ and getting increasingly paranoid about their job security.

Lonely this Christmas

And if remote loneliness is a problem, it’s one we’d better fix soon. Some estimate that by 2020 half of all FTEs will be working remotely.

A good place to start is to understand some of the signs of isolation. Here are five that you and your managers should probably be looking out for.

The remote worker is tired

When you conference call, you’re aware that the remote worker is stifling yawns. See them on a video call and there’s bags under their eyes the size of rucksacks. Generally, their approach is listless and unfocused.

Trouble sleeping can be a reflection of depression caused, or exacerbated, by isolation. According to US researchers, loneliness is a major cause of fragmented sleep, with lonely people rarely resting well as a consequence of not feeling socially secure.

She blows things out of proportion

According to Everyday Health, isolated people often lose perspective. TED-talking loneliness guru John Cacioppo from the University of Chicago says that, when you are lonely, ‘the brain goes on the alert for social threats’.

In other words, if you get a long email from the remote worker complaining that people are talking behind her back, or that you signed off rather rudely in your last email, or asking why you didn’t sign the birthday card that was posted over, you might have a problem.

He’s sick a lot

Loneliness can raise stress levels, making it harder for us to recover from viruses or just the everyday stresses of life. Lonely people frequently report colds, digestive problems, even back aches.

There’s a school of thought, explored in a Stanford journal, that not being part of a community every day can actually damage our immunity – hence regular illnesses.

She has low self-esteem

Often people who are denied frequent feedback begin to lose their sense of self-worth. In other words, losing social context can make them fall victim to negative thinking-patterns.

The charity Mind suggests you can often spot someone with low self-esteem because they are reluctant to try new things, often fail to finish tasks and can develop dangerous ‘coping’ relationships with drugs and alcohol.

Remote workers who write things like, ‘This is probably a stupid suggestion, but…’ and ‘This is my fault, as usual…’ might have self-esteem issues.

He’s become obsessed with social media

He’s on Facebook and Twitter all the time. Social networks in particular become a salve for the lonely as they look to mimic normal relationships.

The trouble is that social media might actually exacerbate the problem: seeing reports of old friends meeting up, getting married and generally living a good social life can actually make you feel worse about your own.

Better to use social media to arrange face-to-face meetings, rather than staring at the screen wondering why you haven’t been invited to yet another reunion of school friends or work colleagues.

So what’s the cure? Well, that’s easy. Buy them a telescope, tie it to a load of balloons and – no, wait. That’s only in John Lewis-land.

Back in the real world, ILM has its own suggestions, which are well worth sharing:

  • Create a clear shared plan – ensure everyone has a clear picture of team objectives, deadlines and how each member will contribute.
  • Build a team ethos – focus on creating a collaborative team culture, with regular face-to-face interaction and social time.
  • Use the right technologies – set strict guidelines on email usage and replace with chat and video tools wherever appropriate.
  • Instil a sense of balance across your team – monitor workloads, watch out for signs of stress or isolation and create an open culture where employees can raise concerns.

And it might just be the forthcoming Christmas season making us sentimental, but perhaps there’s a bit more employers can do with remote workers in terms of feedback and recognition. Making someone feel integrated, for example, by recognising their specific contribution with a timely reward that’s also tailored to their interests.

Football tickets for a favourite team, concert tickets for a favourite group, a couple of bottles of their favourite wine – maybe even a telescope for a prospective astronomer.

But that’s another story…

About the author

Andrew Baird

Andrew is the CEO of HRville. He is also Employer Brand Director of Blackbridge Communications, Editorial Director of Professionals in Law and an associate of The Smarty Train. Previously, he was the MD of TCS Advertising.