skip to main content
Remote Worker Isolation: Perception vs. Reality

Remote Worker Isolation: Perception vs. Reality

by Adam Hickman

Story Highlights

  • 43% of U.S. employees work remotely at least some of the time
  • Today's remote workers need nontraditional managers
  • There are three ways to combat isolation and increase engagement

Offering remote work can have huge implications for both recruiting and retention.

But it can also highjack your employees' performance fast if you don't know how to manage these workers.

In 1973, engineer and physicist Jack Nilles was designing space vehicles and communication systems for NASA and the U.S. Air Force. Out of necessity, Nilles developed a strategy to save commute time by working away from the office. Since then, this idea of using telecommunications and technology to get work done outside the office has evolved into what's commonly called remote working.

More than four in 10 U.S. employees (43%) work away from their team members at least some of the time. And the difference in their engagement -- compared with employees who never work remotely -- is drastic.

Engagement is highest among workers who spend three to four days per week working remotely.

Isolation is one aspect of remote work that can have a negative impact on performance, even though some would argue that being alone is the point of working remotely -- to be able to isolate yourself for maximum focus.

But despite the potential benefits for the employee and the organization, remote work isn't for everyone all the time.

Managers must understand that the expectations of remote workers are different than those of in-office workers, especially if remote workers are feeling isolated. Perceived workplace isolation can lead to as much as a 21% drop in performance.

Managers simply can't manage the modern remote workforce using a traditional management approach.

Three ways to combat isolation and increase engagement are obvious but often overlooked:

1. Defeat negative misperceptions of remote workers.

A negative misperception of remote workers is that they are less productive and collaborative than in-office employees.

In 2009, IBM reported that 40% of its workforce (386,000 employees in 173 countries) worked remotely. In 2017, the company asked thousands of these employees to return to the office. Leaders of IBM decided that after 20 quarters of straight losses, employees must need to be in the same building for serendipitous ideation to occur. On the surface, this made sense -- bringing everyone back into the office would improve collaboration and eliminate feelings of isolation. But that notion didn't necessarily prove to be true. IBM stock today is lower than it was in 2017.

The best managers recognize that most remote workers really do want to build meaningful relationships and that pulling everyone together in a common physical workspace may not be the answer. To engage their remote workers, great managers are intentional about having frequent, meaningful conversations and using technology to recreate the office culture.

2. Know your players.

To combat the potential impact of isolation on remote workers, managers need to know their players. They need to know their teams.

Remote worker performance has been studied extensively, particularly as it relates to the volume of work these employees produce. In the past few years, researchers have also begun to study isolation, loneliness and burnout among remote workers.

For example, a 2019 study of a customer service organization determined that workplace isolation might help improve performance among particular groups of employees given their job demands. And it indicated that managers might never even realize how isolation could be helping or hindering their employees' performance.

Managers should take the time to really understand their remote employees. To consider their unique contributions and notice how they prefer to communicate. To discover how they think about and respond to specific kinds of workplace situations.

Beyond any talk of business outcomes or scientific validity, though, is a very simple premise: To ignore the need for relationships and meaningful conversations with your remote employees is to ignore human nature.

3. Know their tendencies.

Managers can build a work culture that enables remote employees to not only bring their best self to work every day but also do what they do best every day.

And, most importantly, managers have to figure out the specific, individualized needs of team members who work remotely. A basic understanding of your employees' strengths can lead to an effective, people-centric approach.

Here's how you can start:

  1. Identify your remote workers' strengths and natural talents so you can appreciate who they are and how they work best.
  2. Study their work patterns. When are they virtually connecting with peers to collaborate? Whom do they work with most often, and which of their partnerships produce powerful results?
  3. Ask for your remote employees' thoughts and opinions at the end of each project or task, just as you would if they were in the office. You'll begin to learn when they prefer to collaborate and when they want to isolate themselves to get work done.

Managers should take the time to really understand their remote employees.

When remote workers' basic needs are met, casual conversations between managers and employees can lead to meaningful, innovative discussions about how both the team and organization can thrive in the future.

Managers who apply these three strategies -- and communicate their unwavering support from afar -- will come to realize that isolation can be leveraged to help their remote employees work through some of their most complex and challenging projects.

Want to learn more about managing and engaging your remote workers?

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030