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Working from home is becoming an increasingly popular choice — both in terms of the number of people who desire the opportunity, and the number of companies willing to allow it. About a fourth of all Americans did at least some of their work from home (or remotely) last year.
That number is expected to grow, as communications technology continues to improve, and the benefits of working from home are supported with more empirical evidence. Already, it’s been shown that employees who work from home are more productive.
So, it’s reasonable to assume that letting more employees work from home will reduce office expenses, commute times and greenhouse gas emissions attributable to daily commutes. But working from home could also have negative consequences for your state of mind … especially in the long term.
Working from Home: The Loneliness Problem
Working from home entails some degree of isolation. If you live by yourself, you may go an entire day without seeing or talking to anybody. If you live with other people, you might customarily shut yourself away in a separate office.
Whatever the case, your initial response to these conditions might be one of relief: suddenly, you have no bosses to micromanage you or coworkers to interrupt. After a few weeks or months, however, you may start to feel the effects of isolation, which increase over time.
When there are no coworkers around to help you measure your own performance, you might develop a constant, nagging feeling that something is not right.
Our social relationships may be classified in terms of strong ties (those to close friends and family members) and weak ties (such as those to coworkers and passing acquaintances). On a day-to-day basis, your level of happiness largely correlates to how many interactions you’ve had — especially with strong ties, though weak ties also play a role.
Across multiple studies, controlling for factors like income, geographic regions and even genetics, the single most important ingredient for long-term happiness appears to be how and how often we connect with other people. Loneliness, especially on a chronic basis, can subject you to depression, frustration and career burnout.
In addition, working by yourself gives you no opportunity to take advantage of Equity Theory. This is a sociological phenomenon in which individuals gauge their own performance and sense of belonging against the habits and actions of others. When there are no coworkers around to help you measure your own performance, you might develop a constant, nagging feeling that something is not right.
Overcoming Detachment in a Remote Work Environment
Although you may love the benefits of working from home, even if you consider yourself a self-sufficient introvert, you’ll still need to take daily precautions to avoid the creeping threat of loneliness. Fortunately, a handful of easy strategies can help to mitigate your risk:
- Work in public. First, try working in public at least some of the time. Most coffee shops, bookstores and similar establishments offer free WiFi with any purchase (even a small coffee), and don’t mind if you spend a few hours on a laptop in their space. Interacting with your cashier, and possibly a handful of strangers in a busy environment, could be what you need to establish new weak ties and stave off loneliness.
- Chat and share with others. Though certain types of online interactions can actually make us more lonely, thoughtful and personal interactions with coworkers and friends can make us feel more connected — even when transmitted digitally. Sending a collage of pictures or a card with an app like Smilebox, for instance, can instantly brighten someone’s day, which beats passively hitting “like” on someone’s vacation photos.
- Socialize with relatives and neighbors. You might work from home, but you’re probably surrounded by people. Take occasional breaks from work to interact with them. You’ll be glad you did.
- Consider joining a shared workspace. Shared workspaces are becoming common as more people recognize the isolation and logistical challenges of working from home alone. Consider the investment value of the low monthly rate, or pop in once in a while to engage with other remote workers and embed yourself into a new environment.
Working from home doesn’t have to be lonely or miserable, but you need to know what you’re walking into before you commit to the point of no return. A few simple habits each day can help you feel more connected, and reduce your risk of depression, mental illness and professional burnout.
Larry Alton is an independent business consultant specializing in social media trends, business and entrepreneurship