Remote Workers and the Quest for Human Interaction

I was intrigued when @brhea posed this series of tweets. I'm a remote worker in a small town, and I also struggle with how to get my "human interaction fix" during the work week. It can be a struggle for everyone, so I was grateful that Brian told me to "go for it" when I asked if I could write this post. Here's how he started the conversation:

For all the benefits of working remote, as the trend continues, I would put a giant ass bet on "loneliness" as the number one reason talented employees quit and return to colocated team.

I wrote an article last year about loneliness, and lately, more people are shining a light on this drawback of working remotely. Buffer's 2019 State of Remote Work cited "loneliness" as a key struggle, only marginally behind "unplugging from work" (which I, for the record, do not struggle with).

Remote work isn’t always as Instagram-worthy as it may seem. In fact, many remote workers struggle with unplugging from their work, loneliness and communicating. -'s 2019 State of Remote Work

Brian continued, "For sure there are people who have not (and perhaps will not) experience this. In traditional companies, the notion of 'people don't quit their job, they quit their boss' is an expensive problem that costs companies their most talented team members because they have options. I suspect that 'people don't quit their job, they quit their lack of human interaction' will be an expensive and inherently more common problem that remote-first companies will have to solve."

What can companies do to help remote workers combat loneliness?

Companies with remote workers have to actively help workers create and cultivate connections with each other. This can be as passive as creating environments for that to occur (technically speaking). It can also be active: fostering collaboration with structured virtual activities, retreats, summits, or conferences. I've heard many anecdotes from remote teams about throwing virtual pizza parties, happy hours, or coffee breaks. No matter the solutions, companies must not treat office workers differently than their remote counterparts.

How can remote workers combat loneliness?

Brian's conversation led to some common themes and suggestions for combating loneliness.

Communications Culture: Having a "cameras on" culture can be helpful, as can regular video chats. Free-flowing moments before, during, and after meetings should not be viewed as wasted time, since those moments can help foster connection. There is a fine line there, though, so it's best to steer the meeting back on track if it goes too far afield. Dedicated channels for casual interactions in Zoom can help, as can plug-ins like Donut for Slack.

Local Communities: Find IRL (in real life) opportunities to meet with others by attending meetups, local professional groups in your chosen field, or having one-on-one interactions with other remote workers who live nearby. Coworking is becoming popular, and depending on where you live, can be a viable option for finding social connection. There are many styles of coworking: full-time, part-time (either full days or partial days at a coworking space), or rolling your own space with other remote workers. You might need to consider the latter if you live in a rural community. Bonus points for all of these options, because they get you out of the house and interacting with others. Don't confine yourself to professional communities, either: there are likely many social and creative outlets that'll give you similar satisfaction by interacting with others outside of your normal work hours.

Online Communities: Join a Slack channel or participate in virtual networking events like #RemoteChat and Networkplaceless. Start communicating about your experience as a remote worker, too: one respondent cited their own podcast as a direct avenue to making new connections and building relationships. Whether you communicate using a web site, newsletter, or social media, join the global conversation as a contributor and a reader.

Team Retreats, Summits, and In-Person Meetings: Details of implementation vary, but this was a common suggestion in the thread. Getting your team together periodically can make sense, but monitor and adjust based on the feedback. Having too great an in-person frequency might not be the best option for a remote team. If it's geographically possible, in-person meetings can help build one-on-one relationships, as can events like periodic team lunches.

Home Office Companions: Having a partner who works from home with you can be a fantastic foil for loneliness. You may not be working on the same thing, but proximity and casual interactions can be priceless. Home office pets are also fantastic for combating loneliness. We all love our dogs, cats, and rabbits!

Cater to Your Inner Disposition: How can "remote work" work best for you, or for someone you manage remotely? You might find that some adjustments in job responsibilities can help someone thrive in a remote role. One respondent said, "One teammate missed interactions. We moved him into a more phone-heavy support role and it filled the gap." No matter how hard they try, employers should help employees know if their disposition is right for remote work. It simply may not be the best choice for someone, and giving them the feedback to know that can be priceless.

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