Remote working: Is arrangement creating generation of lonely staff?

The growing loneliness of remote working was captured by Microsoft’s report New Future of Work Report 2022. PHOTO | POOL

The idea of remote working sounded alluring before the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. To most workers, the idea that they could do their work without dealing with irritating supervisors was welcome, and they jumped at the first opportunity they got.

Three years down the line, some of these workers are lonelier than ever, with a recent report by Microsoft raising the red flag, noting that gig workers are most affected.

Rolex Aoko, a freelance writer based in Nairobi says that even though freelancing offers her the flexibility she craves, and sometimes she earns more money compared to her peers who hold office jobs, it is often a lonely life.

“The only friends I have are those I made in college. It’s hard to socialise because mostly I’m in the house,” she says of her limited social capital.

The growing loneliness was captured by Microsoft’s report New Future of Work Report 2022 which shows that gig or freelance workers (82 percent) expressed significantly higher loneliness rates than those working for a private company (61 percent.)

Growing problem

A 2021 study found that almost two-thirds of people working from home felt isolated or lonely at least sometimes, and 17 percent do all the time, pointing to the growing problem.

The 2022 report found that although remote work can improve job satisfaction, it can also lead to employees feeling “socially isolated, guilty and trying to overcompensate.”

“It’s lonelier since I graduated from college. I have not made a single friend; eventually, you get used to the loneliness and stop trying,” says Ms Aoko.

Phillip Otieno, a salesforce quality analyst, can also relate to Ms Aoko. He has been freelancing for almost two years now and says he has learned to wear the loneliness like a sleeve.

“I’ve been lonely since I left office work immediately after my internship when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020. The lockdowns shifted the work culture, and I took advantage when roles were open remotely,” he says.

Over time he says, remote roles can take a huge toll on social, mental, and physical well-being. “I miss out on one-on-one bonding with colleagues,” he muses.

But workplace loneliness is not a new problem. The concern was growing long before the pandemic hit and forced organisations and individuals to take isolationist measures like remote working.

The pandemic raised awareness about workplace loneliness in workplaces where most employees struggled to make deep connections despite collaborating on multiple concurrent teams.

Small price

However, some workers like Mr Otieno and Ms Aoko consider the isolation, a small price to pay, especially for the demographics who struggled with an office-based working life pre-pandemic.

“I may have limited social capital, but I have a lot of free time and decide when to work and when to network,” Ms Aoko says, adding that lonely as it gets, she still wouldn’t go back to office work.

Mr Otieno is also adamant that for him, there is no going back.

“I wouldn’t take an offer to get back to office work at the moment. Remote work gives me lots of room to work and explore other areas of interest without the need to be bound, moving on a daily to an office,” he explains.

The popular belief is that remote workers hop from city to city, working and exploring. From an outsider’s perspective, remote work is very lucrative, but Ms Rolex says it is hard work and requires discipline.

“You eat what you work for; if you don’t work, you don’t get paid; you work a little, and so is the pay.”

Coping mechanism

The downside to freelancing, other than the toll it takes on one’s mental health, is that it is unpredictable.

“Global issues highly influence remote work, so you may have work today and none tomorrow. It’s shaky, and I think this is the greatest downside,” added Ms Aoko.

To ease her loneliness, Ms Aoko has taken up fitness.

“To cope with this, I try to build a solid social life by engaging in a myriad of activities like fitness and swimming and playing soccer too,” adds Mr Otieno.

Silo networks

The Microsoft report adds that the difficulty of social support and small talk may be one factor in the increased siloing of collaboration networks in remote work. It notes that the emotional demands of work diminish job performance.

“Having colleagues with whom you can vent and relax can buffer these negative effects,” the report read.

Ms Aoko says whenever stress and other matters overwhelm her, and she needs someone to talk to, reaching out to her friends and neighbours who offer a listening ear helps.

“I’m fortunate that my neighbour is a college friend who also works remotely and can relate to what I sometimes go through.”

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