How Remote Work Made Me Feel Less Isolated Than Working in an Office

Maintaining big work energy without office coffee and work besties

Hi,

Welcome to Remotely Inclined, a newsletter about remote work and remote entrepreneurship. If you’d like to sign up, you can do so here. Or just read on…

I’m writing this from Pearson airport in Toronto. I’m on my way to France (and will be there by the time you read this). If you read my previous post, you’ll know that I’m heading out for two weeks to help a family restore the abandoned chateau they purchased. For a kid who grew up wanting to live in a castle, I’m so excited for this experience. 

Sitting alone in an airport, though, had me reflecting on my remote work journey. I started my remote business as a side-hustle in 2017 while working in an office environment full-time. It wouldn’t be until January 2019 (when I got laid off from my office job) that I decided to take my business full-time and work remote full-time. 

Just over a year later, I can’t believe how much less isolated I feel and how much more socially fulfilled I am compared to when I worked in an office. 

Surrounded by people but more alone than ever

I entered the working world in 2014 right after graduating from college, where I had an abundance of community stimulus. I had the privilege to attend Yale where I was on the track and field team. The whole university was a series of communities - sports, cultural affiliations, interests, academic fields, and even secret societies (no, I was not a member of Skull & Bones). 

The working world, by contrast, felt cold to me. I worked in three companies before going remote with my business, and the experience was all vaguely similar. People talked about departments and how they couldn’t wait for the weekend. Creativity, prized in college, was met with tough stares and comments about how “that’s not your job.” The company socials felt contrived. The foosball tables and beer became running jokes as the company’s substitute for actual genuine connection. The ‘just-like-you’ was not very much like you at all. Even the catered meals (I LOVE food) felt more like an attempt to keep all of us in the office and working instead of a focused opportunity to build relationships. 

It all felt like someone was trying to force a fit that just didn’t belong. 

An office selfie from 2018 (I take a lot of selfies)

I did some research on it, and it turns out the research is behind me on this: despite being more connected than ever, people are feeling more isolated than ever. And work is a big culprit. 

The American Psychological Association calls this a phenomenon of ‘passive relationships.’ You know - those people you know by name and perhaps even a few facts about their lives, but that’s it. Or the work bestie who is only a bestie from 9-5. 

Most of the challenges I faced were totally normal: 

  • Work besties but we never made after-work plans.

  • Being forced to attend some contrived work social event. 

  • Simply not liking every coworker (and I’m sure the feeling was mutual). 

The problem is that office work was built for passive relationships, but people’s expectations have changed. In the days of a true 9-5, passive relationships at work weren’t really a problem. You’d clock in and clock out, getting fulfillment from your family or other social clubs, such as churches or sports clubs. But as work began to take an increasing amount of our time, other connections began to fade. What little was left got digitized, and suddenly everyone has a bunch of LinkedIn connections but no real human contact.

We turned to our office environments to fulfill our desires for connection, but it simply wasn’t built for that deliverable.

The tenets of happiness and social fulfillment

After I went remote, I started to notice my happiness levels going up and I began to feel more fulfilled with what social relationships I still had. It seemed backwards - working alone made me more connected? I even started closing clients I’d never talked to or met before, so there wasn’t much of an argument for working remote pushing me to hang out with more people. 

I was curious what was happening that seemingly turned the tables - that remote made me feel more fulfilled than being surrounded by people - and here’s what I noticed: 

According to Psychology Central, humans need three things to be happy:

  • Autonomy

  • Competence

  • Relatedness

Things became clearer almost immediately. Autonomy is 100% baked into both entrepreneurship and remote work. If you don’t plan your working hours and client work, or don’t deliver on stated expectations, you will be out of work very soon. I learned that, for me, an office environment took away the things that I valued as autonomy - by having my employer handle (read: control) things like where I had to work and how long I had to do it, I lost my autonomy. 

Similarly, remote work forces an increased level of competence awareness. Because you can’t micromanage well in a remote work setting, tasks must be adequately scoped and communicated ahead of time with end-state goals and metrics known before you start. Even with strategic work that doesn’t have a complete picture yet, you have to communicate with more clarity when you’re remote. That helped me ensure that I was acting at (or above) my level of competence, eliminating the feeling that I was wasting my efforts or being given tasks I simply wasn’t able to complete. 

When it came to relatedness, an interesting thing came back up: autonomy. In the office world, I was forced to interact with people that I didn’t work with on a practical level but we were ‘colleagues.’ This may sound harsh, but I ended up with a lot of useless work relationships. The ones where you begin to feel bad because you’re forced to connect, but because there’s no productivity to be had the whole thing starts to feel like a drain on your mental and emotional energy. I guarantee I was also that relationship for some people. 

When I went remote full-time, those fake relationships slipped away. I could - and had to - choose who I spent time with, which further provided me a sense of relatedness. I more deeply engaged my love of castles and chateaux, which led to the trip I’m departing on as I write this. I also spent more time with friends across industries (including nonprofit, consulting, tech, and more) -- people who I wouldn’t have had the time to see when I worked in an office environment because of the after-hours obligations that come with salaried jobs. 

Reducing isolation when you’re working remote

Psychology Today published a list of 18 ways to overcome loneliness, and if you clicked on this article because you’re a remote worker feeling lonely, I highly recommend you give it a read and give the tips a try. 

But in my own journey in remote work, here’s what I found had a massive impact on reducing my feelings of isolation and increased my feelings of connectedness. 

Talking to clients more

As a writing / marketing consultant, my best work is done when I deeply understand my clients’ needs. While this can be done in an office environment, I found there were so many distractions that I got stretched too thin. Working remote gives me the time and energy to really focus on my clients, so the conversations feel deep and genuine. 

Purposeful reach outs to friends

From inviting friends to work with me to simply rearranging my day so I can spend time with them, I have WAY more time for friends. I want to add that, in many cases, I work more hours than I used to - it’s the fact that I can control my day to maximize availability that matters. 

Location freedom meant I could travel

I was lucky enough to meet people who lived all over the world during college. I live in Canada, so I don’t often get to see them. But with location freedom I can travel more, giving me the chance to see my friends and have interesting experiences with my partner. Best part: I don’t mind crashing on a couch or in a spare room, so travel is nowhere near as expensive as if I went to exotic locations where I didn’t know anyone. I could even just escape the city for a few days and visit my parents (which they tell me they want more of, anyway). It doesn’t need to be a big trip.

My boyfriend and I at the Wallace Collection, a free museum in London (in someone’s old palace - it’s beautiful!).

Getting the office vibe on demand

I have a membership to coworking drop-in platform FlexDay, which is new in Toronto. But around the world there are coworking spaces where you can get a desk or access to a cafe space for relatively little per month (like Croissant in the US and Europe). 

If you can afford it (or, better, if your company will pay for it!), you get that office vibe - which is great for big-work-energy - whenever you need it. Oh, and there’s usually a LOT of free coffee in those spaces. 

Not forgetting about IRL

I run a remote business, but I am a human. Humans need social interaction (thank you, New York Times). So to stave off the loneliness that would 100% come if I tried to hole up in my apartment full-time, I make a point of having mentor, advisor, contractor, or service provider meetings in person whenever possible. Not only is this better for my business (I can ask deeper questions in person to the people who help me build my business!) but I also get to ensure some human face time, since people who are connected to your business in some way will often be more readily available than someone else with an equally busy schedule to you. 

But, when all else fails, I invite my friends up to Toronto. I have the time to play host and get work done, and they get a great vacation in one of the best cities in the world. Everybody wins. 

Two friends flew up from LA for a vacation in Toronto! All I had to do was move around my working hours so we could spend time together

Do you work remote? What do you do to reduce feelings of isolation? Leave a comment!