The Loneliness of the Hybrid Worker
Having supportive colleagues in the workplace is key to feeling less isolated when working from home.
Unprecedented levels of hybrid work seem likely to persist beyond the pandemic conditions that revolutionized employers’ attitudes toward flexible working arrangements. Even as offices have reopened, many employees are loath to give up the benefits of working from home at least some of the time. But some two years into what has been an unplanned global experiment in remote work, the costs of that approach are coming into sharper focus.
While employees appreciate saving time, shedding the stress of commuting, and having more flexibility to balance work and personal demands, remote work has downsides that go beyond domestic distractions and blurred work-life boundaries. In particular, the quality, frequency, and nature of interactions change when colleagues are physically remote and there is less dynamic, spontaneous communication. Neuroscience research has found that only in-person interactions trigger the full suite of physiological responses and neural synchronization required for optimal human communication and trust-building, and that digital channels such as videoconferencing disrupt our processing of communicative information. Such impoverished virtual interactions can lead to static and siloed collaboration networks, workers with a diminished sense of belonging to their organization, and social and professional isolation.1 Long before COVID-19, these issues led some to question whether the large-scale practice of remote work would create a society devoid of social connection, lacking communication skills, and less able to develop meaningful relationships.2
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In contrast, when employees are colocated in a physical workplace, they are set up for richer communication when they bump into one another in the hallway, stop by one another’s desks for impromptu meetings, go out for a chat over coffee, or socialize after work. While workplaces can be noisy and full of interruptions and other distractions, collaboration and coordination among team members is easier, and individuals are more visible when career development opportunities arise.
We wondered whether hybrid work arrangements would help reduce the potentially severe social disadvantages of working remotely. The research we conducted among individuals in hybrid work situations, in which we probed for differences in their experiences working at home versus in the company workplace, indicates that in-office interactions — especially with colleagues — can indeed improve employees’ job satisfaction and reduce their feelings of loneliness, even when working at home.
1. L. Yang, D. Holtz, S. Jaffe, et al., “The Effects of Remote Work on Collaboration Among Information Workers,” Nature Human Behaviour 6, no. 1 (January 2022): 43-54; H.M. Schade, J. Digutsch, T. Kleinsorge, et al., “Having to Work From Home: Basic Needs, Well-Being, and Motivation,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 18, no. 10 (May 2021): 1-18; and R.S. Gajendran and D.A. Harrison, “The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown About Telecommuting: Meta-Analysis of Psychological Mediators and Individual Consequences,” Journal of Applied Psychology 92, no. 6 (November 2007): 1524-1541.
2. Y. Baruch, “Teleworking: Benefits and Pitfalls as Perceived by Professionals and Managers,” New Technology, Work and Employment 15, no. 1 (March 2000): 34-49.
3. S.K. Parker, C. Knight, and A. Keller, “Remote Managers Are Having Trust Issues,” Harvard Business Review, July 30, 2020, https://hbr.org.