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Lonely and Misunderstood Remote Workers

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Remote workers fight loneliness in spite of the many advantages to remote work. And they are often misunderstood.  Why is this so? MIT, Sloan School of Business researchers have revealed that remote, work from home and hybrid workers miss the social aspect. They yearn the face-to-face interaction that the traditional ‘report to the office’ atmosphere brings. Further, in the absence of social interaction, they are often misunderstood.

Brad Hunter, in his essay titled “The Subtle Benefits of Face-to-face Interaction,”  published at Stanford University, identified  these benefits to in-person interaction:

  1. Individuals report better health due to physical contact.
  2. Society benefits from the promotion of socially oriented behaviors.

The book, Back to Human, written by Dan Schwabel, back in 2018 before the Coronavirus pandemic, lockdowns and adoption of remote and hybrid work policies foresaw the significance of in-person human interaction. He wrote that interacting with others is critical to one’s well-being. It helps to meet the human basic needs of belonging, affinity and attachment. These feelings ward off those of isolation, detachment, and abandonment.

Almost five years ago, Schwabel presented at a  conference  to address a rare autoimmune disorder. He spoke about  the “loneliness epidemic.” He had the foresight to suggest that remote work could lead to feelings of isolation.

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Remote tools to increase and maintain social interaction

Remote workers may feel lonely and isolated from their colleagues, clients and supervisors. Therefore a proliferation of  technology companies presented tools to help them feel more connected to their workplace.

  1. Evernote,
  2. Slack
  3. Asana,
  4. Basecamp,
  5. Zoom,
  6. Salesforce, and
  7. Microsoft Teams, among others.

Remote work may lack social interaction

Remote working environments provide less opportunities for social interactions prevalent in face-to-face communication.  Innovative tools to coordinate and support  online communication may not be enough. As we communicate with others, we use body language and tone of voice to send non-verbal cues. What would be the percentage of impact? Mehrabian’s Communication Theory presents the following.

  1. Fifty-five percent of our message is conveyed through our facial expressions and body movements,
  2. Thirty-eight percent is expressed using the inflection of words, syllables and tone of voice, and
  3. Seven percent of our message is understood by the words we choose to verbalize.

When applying the lesson learned from Mehrabian, remote workers are often unable to make full use of the 100% of the communicative arsenal in our tool box. This may lead to misunderstandings.  We leave  93% (tone of voice, facial expressions and body movements) on the table and rely solely upon the restrictive  7% available to us (words chosen to verbalize).

We run the grave risk of losing the meaning of our message when what needs to be conveyed requires more than the spoken or written word.  Our message may be misinterpreted and misconstrued. And guess what? The written word used in the absence of nonverbal cues, facial expressions and body movements, isn’t that effective either.

Remote workers should use verbal communication

Reseaerchers recommend verbal communication for remote workers. Despite this lesson,  remote workers, digital nomads and those who work from home may rely upon emails, text messages, group forums and chats as their primary means of communication. But this may be forenaught.

Forbes magazine recently published an article that appeared in the Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, March 2022. The study revealed that emails and text messages should not be used when nuances are required. Complicated communications regarding negotiations, problem-solving, strategic and higher-order decision making come to mind. Why draw this conclusion? It turns out that the lead researcher, holds similar opinions as Meharian. Gajendren found written (text-based communication) does not include the vital components of conveying the full meaning of a message. Namely, emails and text messages, for instance restricts the use of “visual, vocal and nonverbal cues.”

To reduce misunderstandings remote workers may need more time to communicate effectively

To reduce the risk of misunderstandings and confusion, remote workers may need more time to communicate effectively. Gajendren did not make the complete jump as I regarding the ineffectiveness of the written words alone to convey nuanced messages. He did, however,  write that decisions founded in text-based messages alone takes more time to minimize divisions, differences of opinions,  and to diffuse individual interests.

As human resource managers reflect upon the need to maintain the productivity of remote, work from home, hybrid and virtual work teams; the element of time is critical. In short, more time and patience is required by each team member to come to a consensus. Individual members participating in virtual teams, he argues, may have to take considerable time to craft their written messages to avoid the risk of misinterpretation. Without the additional time required, remote workers may be perceived by their supervisors as ineffective. And internally, these remote workers, working from home, may experience  heightened stress and an overwhelming sense of helplessness.

Remote workers use of email and texts may be energy depleting

Remote workers who rely upon email and text messages to work through complex tasks may feel drained.  Gajendren not only found email and text messages as ineffective for higher-order tasks, he found that they drain the energy of the remote workers. This is because employees, when communicating with others as they work remotely must:

  1. Take longer to craft an effective message viewed as non-threatening and non-judgemental,
  2. They must take the time necessary to edit for grammar, review for tone, and check for spelling errors,
  3. They must take into consideration the absence of voice tone, inflections, body movements and nonverbal cues,
  4. They must determine who to or whether to cc (carbon copy) or blind copy,
  5. They must weigh the day, time, time zone in which to send an initial message and/or a reply message so as not to seem inconsiderate,
  6. They must scale down the message so as not to write anything that could be misconstrued leading to a potential professional and or corporate liability, and finally
  7. They must write their message using a professional tone, but not so high as to be considered haughtly and not with too may jokes or too casual to seem unprofessional.

Remote workers must remember the importance of face-to-face interaction

In reviewing the details of this research, it is important for remote workers to remember how vital face-to-face interaction is.  In-person communication is vital to business success. In the absence of direct face-to-face communication in person, communicating virtually may be the next best alternative.

Jonathan Taylor, senior psychologist at Pearn Kandolaace  explained that face-to- face interaction is crucial for building trust and maintaining rapport. Without which, effective messaging takes considerable forethought before the actual conveyance. Without communication exchanges in-person, it may take much longer to build a trusting and lasting relationship.

Finally, lacking face-to-face communication to support negotiations, decision making and problem-solving, remote workers and those on a hybrid work schedule may feel drained. It may make them feel more isolated also.  Therefore, human resources professionals may consider the use of technology tools as a practical utilitity and not a non-essential luxury.