Tackling your latest work project from the comfort of your own home (and, potentially, the comfort of your sweatpants) can be a professional game-changer. Research shows telecommuters and their managers report higher productivity, less turnover, and better work-life balance than those with a more traditional arrangement.
But for all its perks, being confined to your home office desk daily with nobody to talk to—except maybe your dog—can start to take a toll. According to a 2012 Ipsos/Reuters poll, 62 percent of employees surveyed said they found telecommuting to be socially isolating. (Granted, that was a Slack-less world, but studies show that texts, chats, and messages are more likely to be misconstrued than IRL interactions.)
At-home workers can take some comfort in knowing that while they may sometimes feel alone, they’re actually members of a pretty big club. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the percentage of employed people who do all or some of their work from home has jumped from 19 percent in 2003 to 22 percent in 2016. Technology has helped foster these more flexible environments, but there’s still plenty to be done to make sure telecommuters are keeping up with their in-office colleagues socially and professionally.
In addition to feeling socially left out, telecommuters can feel—and actually be—left out career-wise as well.
Kristen Shockley, PhD, an industrial organizational psychologist and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, says in addition to feeling socially left out, telecommuters can feel—and actually be—left out career-wise as well. One study done at a Chinese call center in 2013 supports this: Employees who were randomly assigned days to work from home were shown to be more efficient and productive, yet they weren’t any more likely to get a promotion than their in-office counterparts. Without face-to-face contact, other out-of-sight, out-of-mind issues, like technical errors, can arise, Dr. Shockley says. “Essentially, it’s a lot easier if somebody’s sitting next to you just to be like, ‘Hey, just so you know, this is going to impact X, Y, and Z,’ than if you have to send an email or a Gchat message,” she says.
Communication and contact is key to combatting these problems. The first thing Dr. Shockley and other experts in her field recommend is limiting your time working from home to about two days a week, if possible. “You still get some of the benefits: stress relief, you don’t have to do the commute, people can often focus more at home,” she says. “But then you have some time in the workplace to get that social interaction.” And if you live in the same region as your colleagues, talk to your manager about making sure you’re included in any team activities. You may miss out on the daily chatter in the break room, but you can still join in the group dynamic for Happy Hour or the holiday party.
According to Shockley, there are companies working on software that would act as a kind of “virtual water cooler,” but until those tools are widely available, making the most of a messaging program like Slack may bring about stronger connections. Getting into a work mindset at home by separating your living space and your working space—preferably with a door that family members will respect—and abiding by a professional routine like showering and ditching those sweatpants (sorry!) can keep you from feeling like an outsider as well.
Making your presence known with extra daily emails and messages can improve your relationship with your coworkers and supervisors in other ways, too. A survey that interviewed a number of high-performing telecommuters found that making it a priority to show your colleagues you’re just as available as they are can help squash any jealousy they may be harboring over the fact that you can work from your couch when they’re stuck in a cubicle.
Showing colleagues you’re just as available as they are can help squash any jealousy they may be harboring over the fact that you can work from your couch when they’re stuck in a cubicle.
Intraoffice relationships aside, being cooped up alone all day can make anyone stir crazy. Shockley says there hasn’t been much research done into whether people working from a third space like a coffee shop are any more or less satisfied than their in-office or at-home colleagues, but one study did suggest people preferred having the option of sometimes working from a smaller satellite office every once in a while. Surrounding yourself with other people, even if you’re not directly interacting with them, may be enough of a psychological boost to power you through that 4 p.m. slump.
It all really comes down to individual differences, Shockley says. “Some people can work from home really well and some people can’t,” she said. If you’re feeling like there’s something missing, consider finding other outlets for your social needs like joining a gym or taking an evening class. Figure out what works for you. “I’ll know after five days [of working from home] in a row,” Shockley said, “It’ll be like, ‘Okay, I have to do something social tonight.’” Anyone for spin class?