Since 2005, there has been major growth (173%) in the amount of people working remotely.1 In 2018 alone, 56% of global companies allowed employees to either work fully remote or allowed a hybrid- both remote and in-office options.2 These flexible options were an attractive choice for both employer and employee alike. Employees generally report a high degree of satisfaction with telecommuting, including greater work/life flexibility.3 Employers as well found attractive benefits to offering remote-friendly options as they found decreased their turnover rate 25% more than employers that don’t.2
However, when countries transitioned towards remote work for better safety measures at the start of the pandemic4, traditional companies and flexible companies alike struggled with sudden and massive remote work arrangements.5 This drastic shift in a short period of time has changed the norm of communication and affected workplaces in 3 important areas:
1. Team communication
2. Employee wellbeing
3. Organizational support
Communication is a core part of team dynamics and, when done effectively, often increases a group's performance and productivity.6 Increase of ineffective communication, on the other hand, increases frustration and negative associations to the company.7 The lack of face-to-face interaction limits social cues often leads to misunderstanding and conflict.8 Google search interest related to “team-building” increased by 9% in 2020 and highlighted an ongoing problem of team communication.9 With the demand for reliable and effective remote communication on the rise, enterprise spending for remote work solutions like web conferencing software (67%) and collaboration tools (57%) are expected to increase.10
Collaboration and communication is an integral part of interpersonal relationships. When healthy interpersonal relationships are cultivated in workplaces, it can increase an employee's self-confidence and gives them the confidence to “speak up” and be themselves.11 Remote employees, however, found they lacked this interpersonal relationship and experienced “a barrier” to forming friendships with their colleagues.12 Remote employees were also less likely to divulge their ideas and feelings to their peers.13 This ongoing lack of human interaction can also give rise to another epidemic- loneliness.
Deep feelings of isolation can negatively impact an employee's wellbeing as loneliness directly influences different socio-emotional states, such as self-esteem, mood, anxiety, and optimism.14 Loneliness is also found to affect physical health such as impaired sleep, increased blood pressure, and altered immunity.15 These two issues are widespread in the workplace as a 2020 survey found the top 2 biggest struggles for remote employees were collaboration and communication (20%) and loneliness (20%).16
Loneliness is often a hard topic for employees to talk about because it carries significant social stigma. “Lonely” people are often perceived as less psychologically adjusted, less achieving, and less intellectually competent.15 Employees, therefore, hesitate to speak up about their struggles with loneliness due to fear of the ramifications and ostracisation.
This problem is far more prevalent in the eastern world than the western world largely in part because of the different collectivism vs individualistic frameworks. Studies have found that collectivist cultures, such as Asian countries, were more likely to blame themselves for their loneliness and were less willing to admit because it would be characterised as a personal flaw.17 While individualistic cultures, such as America and Europe, were less likely to hold themselves responsible for their loneliness and were, therefore, more open to admitting their problems.17
Organisational support has been shown to improve employee wellbeing and decrease feelings of loneliness.14 However, current data suggests that most remote managers are most concerned about reduced employee productivity (82%) and least concerned with employee loneliness (59%).18 But, these two things go hand in hand. An increase in employee loneliness reduces task performance, creativity, and impair other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making.19 Therefore support for employee loneliness should be an integral focus to boost not only employee wellbeing but employee productivity as well.
Although significant investment in digital platforms and conferencing tools are on the rise, there are still major gaps in employee loneliness that are not being addressed. The rise in employee loneliness is a significant concern to organizations worldwide as changes in an employee's mental and physical health directly affects their productivity.19 Therefore, software alone isn’t enough to fill in these gaps. Behavioural changes to tackle stigma and employee wellbeing awareness within organisations need to be implemented for remote work to be successful.