Dear Businesslady: Fighting the Work-From-Home Isolation Stress
I recently switched to a remote setup with my company after moving to a new state. The transition was fairly easy, as my job is essentially a one-woman show (for better or for worse), and most of my day-to-day communication is with outside organizations. I’m generally pretty autonomous and very introverted, so although both my bosses and myself are historically bad at “checking in,” it’s usually smooth sailing. Except when it’s not.
When my work blows up, it’s really easy to feel like I’m the only person in the company who is falling behind or floundering—even when, in reality, everyone is behind, and I’m actually in comparatively good shape! Since I’m not in the office and work so independently, I don’t have a good sense of the overall stress levels of my coworkers. That can be a blessing, but it also means that I spend a lot of time (figuratively) in a fetal position under my desk in my home office, without knowing that my colleagues are doing the same thing with regard to their own projects. Sometimes even a hermit misses the camaraderie of group suffering, you know?
To combat this, I’ve been making regular visits to the office (every month or so) to ensure face time and basically just try to be in contact with my other coworkers as much as possible—even if it’s just calling or emailing them to ask how their day is going. Any other recommendations for fighting the work-from-home isolation stress?
—Hopeful Hermit Needs Help
This is yet another letter that could’ve been written by a past version of myself. I switched to working remotely in 2013 after my own interstate move, and the adjustment was HARD. It took a while for me to learn what routines worked for me, and to adapt to the completely different vibe of a silent apartment (or one cohabited by an also-working spouse) compared to a lively suite of a dozen or so other people.
Your question is also timely, because while office-bound folks in the USA are currently experiencing the building energy of “oh my gosh it’s almost Thanksgivingggggggg,” it’s just another week for us home-workers, aside from a slowdown in our inboxes.
But although remote work is not for everyone, I’ve come to love being the master of my private domain, and I have faith that you might someday too.
Some folks struggle with staying productive in the absence of an office-full of watchful eyes, and if that’s your problem there’s a section for you in my book. I’m actually the opposite, though, which isn’t necessarily a good thing when you’re the one responsible for ensuring you don’t put in far more effort than your job actually warrants. If you feel like you’re falling behind compared to your peers—even while you acknowledge that’s not actually true—you’re probably of a similar mind. So let me teach you all my secrets.
Demand to be managed
You say you’re introverted and that your managers aren’t great about checking in. In an autonomous job, that can be a great combo. However, that autonomy can only maintain itself for so long. If you’re in the habit of never talking to your boss, the times when you do need their input are going to feel a lot more awkward. It’s also going to make it more difficult for you to build a case if you need to get them on your side about a problem—especially if that problem is “I’m feeling overwhelmed.”
I can’t stress it enough: you’re doing yourself a disservice if your supervisor isn’t at least generally aware of your workload and priorities at any given time. You may not need to talk more than once a month, but whenever you do those regular site visits (which is an excellent practice, by the way), make sure face time with your manager is a non-negotiable part of the trip, accompanied by regular updates about anything important that arises between meetings.
Create a virtual water cooler
You’re already doing everything right in terms of periodic IRL contact with colleagues and keeping in touch by phone. But since you’re feeling isolated, I highly recommend adding some kind of chat interaction into the mix. If your office doesn’t have a Slack group yet, you can start one (it’s free, and the only reason one exists at my job is because the staff collectively made it happen—although you want to be mindful of your job’s internet-use policies, and err on the side of “this could all become public one day” as you’re lobbing thoughts out into the ether). Gchat is another solid option, as are any number of direct-message mechanisms.
Voice-to-voice conversations are great for concerted catching up and discussing delicate topics, while email’s ideal if you deliberately want to create a digital paper trail. But when you just want to chat, there’s something nice about the low-pressure rhythm of asynchronous communication, whether you’re sharing silly links or resolving issues that entail a lot of back-and-forth. It’s a good virtual analogue to the ebb and flow of conversation that occurs naturally in offices, with enough additional benefits that your local colleagues will likely appreciate it too.
Embrace your space
When you work from home, there aren’t as many social interruptions. Offices are replete with opportunities for spontaneous breaks: congregating around free food, joining overheard discussions, or stopping to talk to someone you pass in the hallway. At home, there are no such surprises. You can be distracted, sure, but often those distractions are random domestic obligations. While it can be neat to get your dishwasher loaded as you’re figuring out how to edit down someone’s proposal abstract (if you’re me), you have to make sure you’re giving yourself actual break-breaks too—the kind that knock your anxiety level down a few notches. Fortunately, you’re home! Take advantage of it by sitting in your comfiest chair, doing some full-body stretches, cranking music, or otherwise engaging in stress-relief that wouldn’t be (as) possible in a typical office. When no one else is around to force downtime upon you, you have to take responsibility for incorporating it into your workday.
The solitude of remote work is balanced out by total control over your space and schedule—at least in theory. But I can’t be the only one whose partner is often home on weekdays, and that dynamic requires its own set of negotiations. While it’s great to have someone to eat lunch with and talk to about what’s going on in your day, you have to establish a some ground rules: namely, that you respect each other’s mental airspace with the same courtesy you’d extend to a typical coworker. That means not interrupting the instant you have a thought you want to share, taking phone calls behind closed doors, and so on. It also means learning your respective rhythms and being realistic about the kinds of projects you can hope to accomplish on a day when you’re working from a two-person home office. (You need to make comparable concessions for other sentient beings—pets, kids, roommates, etc.—by asking for accommodations if the intruder has the cognitive capacity to comply and/or finding ways to minimize their disruptions.)
I am here to make friends
My last suggestion is to make an effort to socialize with your colleagues—outside of work, on your own time, or during your onsite appearances.
It’s easy to overlook the social aspects of office life, because strictly speaking they’re not essential. Plenty of people aren’t buddy-buddy with their coworkers, and while that’s perfectly fine, I’d argue that it’s not ideal. Tackling collaborative work problems is far more enjoyable (and effective!) when everyone’s coming from a place of mutual fondness.
I know I don’t need to explain, like, the idea of friendship. But I do think it’s worth reflecting on its specific advantages in a professional setting. For one, work friends are an audience for any jokes you want to make about the odd esoterica of your office, which never land as well with the rest of your social circle even if you do manage to fill them in on the relevant backstory. More importantly, they’re also sources of support when you’re dealing with especially stressful periods, and allies if things start going truly awry. Plus, on a purely practical level, they allow you to let your guard down a bit in professional communications—which is always a relief after a long day of fastidious politeness.
All of the above benefits are contingent upon trust, and that’s not something you can cultivate in a few cursory interactions. I mean, do you share your deepest professional insecurities with casual acquaintances? Me neither. You need to create enough real intimacy to feel comfortable saying “I’m really behind on this project” without worrying about getting tattled on to your manager. That only develops if you spend time getting to know someone as a complete person, not just the overlord of a particular set of office tasks.
But even if you want to befriend your coworkers, it can be tough to overcome the inertia of busyness and awkwardness to initiate a hangout. I fear rejection (and its cousin, “being annoying”) as much as the next person—except I’m weirdly comfortable powering through those insecurities. So I can assure you that the non-jerks of the world are surprisingly chill about unexpected happy hour invitations or suggestions to go grab lunch: all you have to do is say the words. Worst-case scenario, your overtures will be met with snotty disdain, at which point you’ll have identified someone you don’t want to associate with anyway.
You may not end up transitioning from “work friends” to “real friends” with your colleagues—that’s an added bonus if it happens. Nevertheless, even a lowkey set of social affiliations can have a meaningful payoff, especially when your job’s wearing on you and you need commiseration.
All together now
A laptop, phone, and internet connection may be the basic prerequisites for working from home, but they’re not enough to forestall loneliness and a stressful feeling of invisibility. Remote workers need well-informed bosses, a variety of colleague-communication channels, a productivity-conducive domicile, and a solid support system for when times get rough. If you do your best to put all these pieces in place, you’ll be able to overcome deficiencies as they arise—live-Slacking the travails of working from a noisy coffee shop, or trusting that your manager has your back even as turnover destabilizes your happy-hour crew.
You also need to have faith in yourself. The professional powers-that-be think you’re capable of doing your job remotely—and they’d surely tell you if you were falling behind on your goals—so who are you to disagree? Working from home can be a really sweet gig, but you can’t let your gratitude turn into guilt. Give yourself permission to stop stressing, shut down your computer after you’ve gotten enough done for the day, and enjoy the quick commute to the comfort of your couch.
Businesslady is an editor, writer, and the author of the “witty and entertaining” career guide Is This Working?—the perfect gift for anyone who likes reading more than they like their current job situation. Got a query of your own (or want a personalized signed copy of the book)? Just email: email@example.com.