Working from home has a lot going for it—no commuting through bumper-to-bumper traffic, more flexibility, a kitchen that’s all yours for lunch and the ability to run a load of laundry while you’re in a meeting. It’s easier to take care of kids and pets. You can wear comfier clothes. And yes, it can keep you from catching illnesses from the people you work with. If you’re super-efficient, you can even work fewer hours. There’s a lot to like about remote work.
Personally, I do most of my work from my home office. I enjoy all the perks of remote work, including the freedom to work on ideas at my pace, when my creativity is flowing. It’s great to not have someone looking over my shoulder or breaking my concentration when I’m in the zone.
However, remote work is also contributing to what the US Surgeon General calls an epidemic of loneliness in America. Some surveys say as many as 60% of us feel lonely on a regular basis. Remote work isn’t the only reason, but it’s a reason for some. There’s no gossip over coffee at someone’s desk, grabbing lunch with a coworker, or even meeting for drinks after work. There’s less of a feedback loop where you can kick around ideas or get a quick response to your work. It’s harder to find a mentor or have a serendipitous encounter that sparks a fresh idea for you.
Those problems are real. I do miss having conversations with people I might not normally talk to. There’s little collaboration with disparate personalities. Those kinds of conversations help us creative types feed off each other and inspire new ideas. So, I sometimes get lonely, too.
Feeling lonely doesn’t just make remote work less fun sometimes. It gives you more headaches, body aches, insomnia, and more. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy says prolonged loneliness is a major health risk akin to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and raises the likelihood of anxiety, depression, heart disease, stroke, and dementia.
I would very much like to avoid all of those problems, and I don’t think I’m changing my business or my remote work anytime soon. So I’ve really started looking at what we can do as remote workers to remedy loneliness. The surgeon general wants big policy changes such as strengthening social infrastructure, boosting public transportation, and mobilizing doctors to address this issue with patients. That’s all a great idea, but while we’re waiting, what can we do for ourselves if we still want to work from home?
Beautify your environment
Tons of research results say that an attractive environment has a direct impact on how we feel at work and our productivity. What makes a difference? Everything from an abundance of natural light to paint colors to photos of loved ones. I have an inspiration wall filled with quotes like “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” – Maya Angelou.
For me, beautiful visuals are incredibly important. Because I love interior design, I have pictures of dream houses. My window looks out on a garden full of roses, and I keep my office full of orchids. Like Halston, the orchids are part of my process (albeit on a much smaller budget). Having a beautiful office filled with things I love helps me feel cared for and purposeful.
“I find that I am much more creative when I’ve actually taken care of myself.” – Arianna Huffington
Change your view
I don’t know about you, but I get to feeling a little claustrophobic when I’ve stared at the same four walls too long (even though they’re beautiful). So for me, it’s important to get out of the house regularly.
Lots of people like taking their laptops somewhere else to work—to the coffee shop or even a library. That works for lots of people but personally, I would rather just take a break. My local coffee shop is a much better place for people-watching than for working. I haven’t struck up a great friendship there, but it is pretty entertaining to hang out for a 15-minute coffee break.
An idea I really like: Set up an office date—a coworking day with fellow remote workers. I just did that recently with a former team member and we had a great time. The view was gorgeous, we had lunch together, and we still got good work done. We agreed that our experience was worth the parking fee and we’re going to do it once a month.
Join an exercise class outside your home
When I was going into the office all day every day, finding time to exercise was difficult. I know I wasn’t the only one. Few people have the energy for a workout after work. Cocktails almost always seem like a better option, especially when you have a fun team to go with. Or, you’re so exhausted you just want to go home. And mustering the discipline for a 6am workout is arduous, to say the least.
I used to go to a yoga class every morning that offered me a great sense of community, but unfortunately the community dispersed during the pandemic. When it was gone, it had a real negative impact on my day—both from the time spent with my class and the residual effects of the exercise. Working out by myself at home isn’t fun or engaging enough for me to stick with it. It’s taken me some time and effort to find a replacement class, but I have. Even though it’s not the yoga I was doing before (it’s now Pilates), I’ve found that I really enjoy it.
And what’s more, I now go at 4pm, because I know I’ll have more energy to do those bridges than I would at 7pm or 6am. If I don’t have a meeting, why not? It’s not like I won’t get the work done if I take a break for Pilates. In fact, I get more done because I’m in better physical shape and have more energy. And I go to yoga on Friday mornings if I don’t have a meeting because I know I will be fresh and it makes for a better afternoon. It’s important to experiment and take advantage of work-from-home flexible hours. The dead zone is real and it’s OK to make it work for you.
I used to always think I had to be in my assigned seat from 9-5 to be productive and serious about my job. But that really doesn’t serve me well, and completely obliterates a big perk of working from home. So I started rethinking it and along with my organized classes, I take my dog out for a walk every day. I trusted myself to get the work done and I do. It turns out that I’m not the only one. Breaks are good.
“Either you run the day, or the day runs you.” – Jim Rohn
When I’m really frustrated, I drive to the ocean. My favorite spot is only 10 minutes away from my house where the surf crashes over the rocks and the saltwater spray hits my face. I’ve been a beach girl all my life, and there’s something about it that gives me a sense of relief and freedom. The beach is a big mood-booster for me. I’ve heard it’s the same for people who go for walks in the woods.
Nurture your friendships outside of work
It is very easy to get caught up in the details of daily life and not keep in touch with your friends—but it’s vital to your well-being that you do. Friendships have a big impact on your health.
I used to walk over to a friend’s house for dinner in my neighborhood, but she moved to another state. We lost touch for a while, but I made the effort to reestablish that connection, and it’s helped both of us. I told another friend that I was feeling lonely and now she and her husband make a habit of either coming into the city to visit me or inviting me out to their house more often. It’s a small thing, but I really appreciate her efforts and it’s strengthened our friendship.
These things don’t happen by chance, like they might when you’re in the same office with other people. It takes deliberate effort to make social connections happen. It can be really tough to be vulnerable enough to reach out and tell someone you’re feeling lonely. But it’s worth it for the results. And remember, if you’re feeling lonely and America is having a loneliness epidemic, chances are that your friend you haven’t spoken to in a while is feeling a little lonely, too.
Get a pet
There are huge physical and emotional benefits to having a pet—research shows they reduce stress, encourage healthy routines, and make you feel less alone. If you know me at all, you know I love my little poodle named Dude. He entertains me, greets me with great enthusiasm when I come home, and gets me outside when I take him for walks. It’s easy to strike up conversations with other pet owners, too. We all love talking about the 4-legged members of our families. Other pets might not get you outside (you can’t take cats, snakes, hamsters, snakes, lizards or fish out for a walk) but just about any pet can make you feel less lonely.
Make the effort to experience new things and meet new people
I’m from a big family (6 kids), so I never did a lot by myself before I left home. As an adult, there were still several things I never did by myself, like going out to dinner—but lately, I’ve started to just go. It turns out that I can have a great time. I get to try new foods and experience a new environment. Some restaurants have larger community tables or chef tables where you can talk to your fellow diners, instead of being closed off by yourself in a booth in the back.
To be fair, it doesn’t always work out. I’ve also been to a wine-and-paint event that turned out to be in a sketchy part of town and I didn’t even like the way the instructor was teaching painting. Some of my solo restaurant experiences have been a bust. But sometimes, it’s great.
Maybe for you, this will be joining a church, finding a local Meetup group, volunteering, or taking a class. My personal advice? Do things you’re actually interested in doing. Don’t go just to meet someone. That way, if you don’t make a new friend, at least you got to do something you wanted to do.
If you’re really looking for a romantic relationship though, maybe skip what my friend’s therapist recommended: wander around local street festivals or state fairs to meet someone. Can you imagine anything more preposterous? If you’re going that route, just bite the bullet and do online dating. It works for a lot of people.
Whatever you do, it may take some effort to make yourself step out of your comfort zone, but you’ll probably be glad you did. I feel more optimistic about going to new places than I ever have before.
Ask for a more connected company culture—or switch jobs
If you’re feeling like you’re working in a void all by yourself, maybe it’s not you—it’s your company. Many companies enjoy the productivity of remote workers but also report trouble establishing teams or a positive company culture. I think the issue is that people don’t have a shared idea of what remote work should look like. It’s not fair or realistic to expect that everyone will get back to the office full time. (And it’s certainly worth remembering that not all companies with an in-person workforce have a great company culture.)
Not everyone has figured it out, but personally, I’m a big fan of Cisco’s philosophy of making work “a magnet, not a mandate.” Some companies have implemented strong strategies for remote workers, like hosted in-person events, assigned work buddies, and even guides for communicating. (Not everyone knows what should be in a Slack message and what should be an actual phone call.)
Some companies provide stipends to pay for shared workspace time or social events. Others take time in team meetings to encourage conversation about interests outside of work. I once organized a company Zoom event so that people could share and talk about their pets with co-workers. It was a huge success.
If you’re feeling disconnected, there’s no reason you can’t ask your company to implement some of these suggestions. If you get nowhere, maybe it’s time to think about moving to a company that offers more of what you’re looking for.
Remote work is not a one-size-fits-all. For some, it’s incredibly helpful and positive. For others, it’s a recipe for loneliness. It depends on your particular personality and life circumstances, and I think wise companies will make working remotely a true option for those who want and need it. In the meantime, we who work from home do need to take extra steps to take care of ourselves, fight the loneliness we might experience, and live our best remote work life.