Kulik Stepan, Pexels.
Kulik Stepan, Pexels.

The Dark Side of Remote Work

New research shows that fully-remote work can lead to problems, including loneliness and lack of friendships at work.

Before the pandemic, Gretchen Yetzbacher had her dream job as a trade show producer, traveling across the country and mingling with people all day long. Last fall, her boss informed her that her job would permanently be remote. 

Single with two kids in college and home alone all day, the self-proclaimed extrovert spiraled into a depression. “It wrecked me,” she says. “I climbed into a hole, and it was changing my personality.”

Remote work has plenty of benefits, including a lack of commute and more flexibility, but the daily grind of working from home is starting to lose its luster. The dark side of being isolated at home is beginning to emerge for many people.

The hidden toll of remote working

A 2022 Social Connection in Remote Work survey of 1,057 remote workers by Boston University and the University of Canterbury found that people who identified as the “most lonely” spent more time working from home (77.2%) than “least lonely” employees (64.1%). Working from home ranked lowest when employees rated how socially fulfilling they found their primary work location.

“After two years of lockdowns and social distancing, many people associate remote work with isolation and disconnection. Those advocating for a widespread return-to-office have cited loneliness as a key reason,” said Ben Marks, Founder & CEO of #WorkAnywhere, which offers remote working software. 

Research demonstrates that loneliness can drive employee burnout and turnover. Thought Catalog, Unsplash.

A review of 23 studies across 10 countries also suggests that telecommuting can lead to anxiety, exhaustion, depression, pain and stress. Further research suggests it can lead to more ambiguity about job roles, reduce the chances for feedback and lessen social support. 

Not surprisingly, loneliness is pretty bad for you. It can shorten your lifespan by up to 15 years and may cause strokes, heart disease, dementia and more. 

“When you’re lonely, you’re less productive, you have more health problems and you’re more likely to quit,” says Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Workplace Intelligence, and author of Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation.

That was the case for Yetzbacher. The Denver executive started searching for work just after the start of the new year, and she soon landed a hotel sales job—where she works in the office every day. She misses the flexibility of remote work, but says her mental health is far better. Says Yetzbacher: “I’m far happier now.”

Return to office continues

Companies, including Apple, Google and Tesla, are beginning to request that employees report back to the office. And new startups have popped up to foster connectivity for fully remote workers. One startup, Selina, offers remote workers beautiful places to stay, travel, and work abroad indefinitely. Those spaces have open floor workspaces and private meeting rooms, restaurants and bars, pop-up events, tours and seminars, rentable artist studios, common kitchens, onsite wellness studios and more. “Remote work does not have to be isolating,” says Rafi Museri, CEO of Selina.

Research shows hybrid work environments are the healthiest, especially when it’s one to two days in the office. That balance appears to appeal to both extroverts and introverts. A March survey by Myers-Briggs found that 82% of extroverted workers would like a hybrid work model, with 15% preferring full-time remote work. Surprisingly, 74% of introverts said they wanted to be in the office at least part-time.

At the core of employee experience is relationships, says Schawbel. Those connections anchor people to an employer and ultimately impact overall joy and fulfillment at work, he says, but if you’re fully remote, it’s more challenging to create them.

Fewer friends at work 

New research found that fully remote workers have 33% fewer friends at work— people they’ve met at work and maintain a relationship with outside the workplace. JobSage, an employee platform, surveyed 1,200 Americans to learn more about the state of workplace friendships and relationships today and found that 95% said having a friend at work makes them happier and 92% say those relationships impact their willingness to stay at a company. 

Yet one in five Americans have no friends at work, and remote workers report having 33% fewer workplace friends. It appears that younger people, Millennials and Gen Z are far more likely to have no friends at work, and women, too, were more likely to report fewer work friends than men. 

The pandemic showed people how much those in-person interactions once filled the workday—and led to not only friendships but knowledge, mentoring and kindness. That social capital is critical to a thriving workplace, according to a Harvard Business Review piece by Microsoft executives Nancy Baym, Jonathan Larson, and Ronnie Martin. They surveyed 30,000 people in 31 countries and found people consistently felt disconnected in a year of full-time remote work. “We saw a clear trend: the shift to remote work shrunk people’s networks,” they wrote. 

People became more siloed, limiting interactions to people they used to see regularly. Even those close team interactions started to diminish after a year. Those relationships matter. People with strong relationships at work tend to be more productive. And those who said their interactions decreased said they were less likely to be thriving at innovation, thinking strategically, collaborating or brainstorming with others.

The trio looked at the importance of social capital in the workplace—which is usually built through short, informal conversations between people over the course of a normal workday.

Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, found similar trends in this Harvard Business Review piece that explores how in-person interactions fuel culture, collaboration and purpose. 

It’s typically more difficult to start a job remotely, Markman writes. In person, a new recruit can learn from observation and interactions with colleagues. Those in-person connections also keep the corporate mission alive. “The longer you’re separated from them, the more your overall sense of mission tends to drift,” he writes. 

Another perk of being together: it apparently makes us all smarter, according to research out of the University of Michigan. Researchers found that just interacting with other people, whether it’s socializing or talking, actually increased cognitive performance. 

Working in the office again doesn’t necessarily mean you’re constantly chatting with others. But the post-pandemic workplace has made people more aware of the value of working alongside other humans and as a result, they may be far more likely to ensure connection happens.

“There’s a designated time in the day for socializing,” says Schawbel. “People are far more intentional about their interactions today.” 

And that human connection, as it turns out, can be the glue to hold an organization—and individual people—together.