The Problem With Remote Work Is Not What You Think It Is

It fosters isolation even as it encourages autonomy.

Written by Laura Putnam
Published on Nov. 02, 2023
The Problem With Remote Work Is Not What You Think It Is
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Remote work has provided workers with new levels of autonomy — one of our deepest human needs, according to the longstanding Self-Determination Theory. Working from home during the pandemic opened up new possibilities on what work life can look like. Employees also discovered the joy of having flexibility in terms of how, when and where they work. No wonder that 90 percent of employees don’t want to return to work full time in 2024, according to research by Gallup.

5 Drawbacks of Remote Work

  1. Social isolation
  2. Presenteeism
  3. Lack of technical support
  4. Diminished career progression opportunities
  5. The blurring of home and work boundaries

    The Psychological Impact of Teleworking: Stress, Emotions and Health

On the employer side, however, a new Stanford study reveals that remote work has resulted in a 10 to 20 percent reduction in productivity, due to myriad factors such as challenges in communication and coordination, degradation of social networks, reduced creativity due to an increase in multi-tasking (which happens when we are remotely connected) and a decrease in learning, mentoring and feedback.

No wonder that 90 percent of organizations say they will transition to back to the office in 2024, according to a study. 

More Remote WorkWant People to Return to the Office? Focus on Relationships.


The Human Cost of Remote Work 

As much as employees don’t want to return to the office, a hidden human cost lurks in the shadows. Another equally important necessity is our need for connection, and there is no doubt that remote work has taken a toll. In the spring, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy warned remote work will only add to the loneliness epidemic

I have worked with hundreds of organizations and more than 40,000 executives and managers to implement workplace well-being strategies. I have seen first-hand that social interaction at work is critical for not only our individual well-being, but also for the companys bottom line. For example, research shows that social connections at work can increase productivity by enhancing how employees work together to achieve a task.

On top of this, many studies have shown that social cohesion is also good for organizations. Strong social networks in the workplace have a positive impact on creativity, engagement, teamwork, retention and productivity.

Given the toll on social connections at work, it shouldn’t be surprising that employee engagement dipped in August to its lowest level since last June, according to a poll from payrolls processing firm ADP. A recent survey from McKinsey reached a similar conclusion, with nearly 60 percent of employees reporting low levels of job satisfaction and commitment to their work.

office improvementsWhy Creativity Is the Key to a Successful Workplace


How to Transition Back to the Office

Despite the resistance, returning to the office or a hybrid model holds promise for both the employer and employee. The key to making this work lies in how employers go about making the transition. Superficial perks like free food or happy hours won’t cut it. Rather, employers need to come up with meaningful ways to reshape the work experience itself so that workers feel like there is a legitimate reason to be in the office. 

This calls for a cultural shift — ensuring flexibility, taking explicit measures to prevent and/or address workplace toxicity and understanding that a culture of well-being can’t be micromanaged. In addition, it demands transparent conversations, a willingness to tackle systemic issues and training to empower leaders, especially managers, to nurture environments where employees can thrive, both professionally and personally. Above all, managers need to be trained on how they can foster relationship building, equity and inclusion within the team. 

Here are three ways that managers can enable their team members to feel more connected at work and thus ease the transition back into the office.


Encourage Physical Activity

Managers should encourage team members to infuse physical movement into their work day by giving them time to be physically active and by adding motion to team meetings. Walking meetings can be particularly helpful for building social connections, breaking down formalities and enhancing psychological safety.

One Stanford study revealed that walking meetings can help to reduce an individual’s inhibitions and help to foster increased creativity. A study out of Sapienza University in Rome revealed that physical activity can prime us to socially connect with one another. Specifically, the researchers found that moving together can build trust — a critical ingredient for team performance. 


Ensure Psychological Safety

Building a culture of psychological safety is critical to improving employee engagement. Managers can do this by giving every employee equal airtime during meetings, picking up on social cues so that no one feels left out and building genuine friendships and camaraderie with and among employees. 

Today, employers recognize that the focus needs to be not just on how people work as individuals, but more on how they work together. Google’s 2011 Project Aristotle study revealed that the highest performing teams were the ones that had the highest levels of psychological safety, where there is a “shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking,” as defined by Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson. Psychological safety, her research shows, accelerates team effectiveness because it allows team members to focus on achieving shared goals, as opposed to focusing on self-protection.


Foster Compassion

Awakening compassion at work,” a phrase coined by psychologists and co-authors Monica Worline and Jane Dutton, and especially within the team, is fundamental to building a healthy workplace culture. Managers can do this by engaging in small acts of compassion, such as tuning in and paying attention, giving people the benefit of the doubt, appreciating people not just for what they do but for who they are and talking openly about their own personal challenges.

This heightened level of transparency helps end the stigma around mental health and sends a strong signal to employees that they can share their own personal struggles without fear or retribution, which in turns builds trust. This open sharing is also a powerful way for managers to acknowledge that stress and suffering is real — something that many employees are experiencing right now.

With a renewed push for employees to return to the office, employers will need to make a concerted effort to demonstrate through tangible changes that working in the office is good for business and also for employees’ well-being.

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