Many of us now work alone. In the literal sense, we are a society of not just homeworkers but lone workers. It is one of the negatives of working remotely for people who miss the social interaction of the office. Without those ‘watercooler chats’, that some organisations blame for a lack of collaboration, creativity, and connection, how do we find those meaningful connections when working remotely?
Mental health and resilience is a hot topic in the workplace. It is something freelancers, small business owners, and self-employed homeworkers can also struggle with for a variety of reasons. A major factor is often loneliness, and so working alone can contribute to and exacerbate this problem.
However, there is a big difference between being alone and being lonely. Some people love the solitude and peace that comes with working from home. Others can be surrounded by colleagues in an office environment and still feel very lonely.
Loneliness is often down to a lack of meaningful connection, something that is increasingly important in a remote world.
The problem is not just working remotely
As social beings, we need meaningful connection for our emotional development and wellbeing.
Speaking with The Homeworker for our design issue, clinical psychologist Dr Stephanie Fitzgerald says, “People are wanting to come back [to the office] not to work, not to collaborate (you can join a meeting on Teams which might suit you better) but what people want is human connection, to be around other people.”
This is why people champion the hybrid model of working to allow for the best of both. If you don’t work as part of a team, it is why coworking venues have become so integral to the days of many self-employed people. Remote teams also use them to host meetups and in-person events.
However, while we can find that human interaction even as a homeworker, it may not solve the problem of loneliness.
“Loneliness is a normal human emotion. It is a sign that one of your needs aren’t being met. This could include your need for connection, community, intimacy or affection,” says life coach and author of The Joy of Being Selfish Michelle Elman.
“Therefore, it is important to realise that the solution to loneliness isn’t necessarily being around people. This is because being around people who don’t understand you can make you feel lonelier… “
Working alone at home may not always be the problem. We need to look at ways to find meaningful connections no matter where we are based.
What are meaningful connections?
What exactly is a ‘meaningful connection’? It is a phrase that gets bandied around a lot yet achieving it is not quite so simple. In Psychology Today, Deborah Heiser Ph.D notes that a meaningful connection is one that happens when we share a sense of vulnerability or a common value or interest.
This is why showing vulnerability and opening up about your own experiences can help you connect more with your audience or your team members. While meaningful connections can help improve mental wellbeing, they are also an opportunity to open up about mental health and loneliness.
Workplace consultant and mental health advocate, Natasha Bowman says this is why it is important to be vulnerable as a leader, particularly around mental health challenges. In The Homeworker, design issue, she says, “Being vulnerable opens the door for [others] to be able to talk about it.… We need to be inviting the conversation in and opening the door, rather than waiting for people to knock.”
A recent study revealed British workers want to be able to talk more openly to their boss about their personal life. The data from Visier found nearly half (48%) enjoy talking to their boss about the goings on at home. This strong relationship even leads to better retention. Of the 2000 workers polled, 38% said they stayed in a job longer than expected if they had a good bond with management.
Meaningful connections when working remotely
Try to find time in your week for conversations outside of the regular work remit. This is where the watercooler chats did help to create a sense of unity and connection. Working remotely requires a higher degree of scheduling but taking time out for a coffee and a chat is still possible. We may need to be more proactive in having the conversations, but the location of those conversations is less important than the content. We now know that you can have a fulfilling and enriching conversation with somebody on the other side of the world on a video call.
It may be that you also have these conversations with people outside of your workplace. I know many people who network remotely, connecting with people on platforms such as LinkedIn because they already share a common background or mutual contact. Scheduling a call with these people can often turn into a really positive experience where you find more common ground, shared values, and therefore, a meaningful connection.
Out of hours connections
Forming healthy and positive relationships with others is known to reduce stress and improve wellbeing. According to The Mental Health Foundation: “…We must urgently prioritise investing in building and maintaining good relationships and tackling the barriers to forming them. Failing to do so is equivalent to turning a blind eye to the impact of smoking and obesity on our health and wellbeing.”
Forming these meaningful connections and relationships may not happen in the working day. When working remotely, online communities are also valuable places where you can find likeminded people all hours of the day. You can get engagement and social connections on Slack, Facebook and apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp.
When we asked The Homeworker community how they liked to switch off and spend time after work, many answers included social activities such as sports groups and volunteering. These experiences provide opportunities to engage with other people and form healthy, reciprocal relationships. They can enhance your life and that of the other person.
The importance of authenticity
While we often associate feelings of loneliness when we feel disconnected from others, we can experience it when we detach from ourselves as well. In an age of social media, filters, and false images, it can be hard to know what is real. We can sometimes feel we need to change ourselves to be accepted.
“We also can experience loneliness when we self-abandon in order to be liked by others. A lot of the time, people associate loneliness with being single but you can experience loneliness in a relationship, surrounded by friends/family and multiple different contexts,” says Elman.
Staying true to yourself and your values gives you a sense of integrity and authenticity. It is you backing yourself without trying to imitate or conform to please others. This piece on self-reliance based on Emerson’s Essays talks about this.
If you are true to who you are, then you are closer to having a much better and meaningful connection with a very important person: yourself.