The rise of remote working has been accompanied by growing body of research investigating its productive consequences – and the studies are almost universally positive. However, there’s no denying the practice can also be cripplingly lonely. To counterbalance remote isolation while still maximizing remote employee productivity, some have suggested introducing “in-office days” for remote workers. But what would this mean in practice and, more importantly, what does it say about the long-term sustainability of remote work?
For all the perks of remote working, there are of course pitfalls, and isolation is a big one. Not having to leave your house for work may seem great, but it can quickly breed loneliness and social withdrawal. Social interaction is, after all, something we all need in our lives and going without human interaction for days isn’t healthy. While video conferencing goes some way to bridge this gap, it’s not a substitute for in-person relationships. The net impact of this is a dangerous loss of community and support. Studies show that remote workers develop weaker relationships with co-workers than in-office counterparts. Witnessing the close bonds and camaraderie shared by office workers from afar can serve only to push their sense of isolation further; as an observer of workplace culture, but not an active participant. But it isn’t just the social aspect that some remote workers struggle with. Without the structure of an office or physical separation of work and home, remote workers can become more stressed, taking fewer breaks and working longer hours – all of which can have serious consequences for their health. Since they’re not “visible” in the same way, many feel they have to work harder to prove their dedication and engagement – and even then, studies show they still have a smaller chance of promotion.
In light of this, could inviting remote workers to come into the office for one day a week or fortnight help? For non-local remote workers operating from different countries or continents, perhaps flying them in monthly or quarterly could help keep remote loneliness at bay? Current research would suggest so. One Gallup poll, for example, revealed that partially remote workers were happier, more engaged, more connected and more secure in their professional development prospects than fully remote workers. But there is a catch – these particular effects only relate to remote workers who come into the office once a week. Research from Nuffield Health has set even higher requirements for accessing these benefits, concluding that remote workers who spend less than two days in the office will witness a deterioration in the quality of their workplace relationships. Clearly, it is not reasonable or financially viable to help more far-flung remote colleagues access these benefits. More pressingly, encouraging in-office days seems completely at odds with the whole idea of remote working. As a work model still very much in its infancy, requiring in-office days could serve only to vilify the “bums on seats” old guard, and antagonize the new millennial workforce seeking greater flexibility and autonomy. For the black-and-white purists, in-office days would seem to suggest that remote working isn’t, in fact, sustainable for the long-term.
Whatever your take on remote work, the key issue at play here is balance – to have time to yourself and to have time with others. In-office days may be a welcome initiative for some, but they are just one approach to tackling the much wider problem of remote social disconnect. Solving that ultimately requires an individually tailored approach to support and a cultural commitment to inclusion.
Sadly, there is no single remote work “sweet spot” that works for everybody. You can’t introduce a blanket approach like in-office days and expect your team to love it. We’re all different and have different requirements from our working environment. Some remote workers counteract the potential social pitfalls of their set-up by using its flexibility to spend more quality time with family and friends. It’s important for management to always remember choice whenever introducing remote initiatives – giving people options to adjust how they work, should they want to.
For long-term sustainability, companies need to make ongoing efforts to build connection between in-office and remote workers. Just like in-office days, annual company meet-ups are great for this, but this sense of community needs to be sustained through regular remote team building activities. It also requires companies to financially invest in remote worker socialization – like funding access to local co-working spaces or providing weekly budgets for cafe working.