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Home alone and disconnected? A practical response

This article from 2012 is in the Flexibility tradition of not just pinpointing an issue, but setting out practical responses to it.

Being isolated and disconnected have been constant themes in the media during the lockdowns of 2020-21. Usually the remedy suggested in articles (and at workplace conferences) is to go back to the office. Well, occasionally maybe. However, 9 years ago we suggested a more analytical and 21st century approach.

[Archive article] Home alone and disconnected?

Potential pitfalls of home-based working: assessing and overcoming the dangers of isolation

We are often asked about the downside of remote working – particularly working from home. And the two issues that seem to cause most concern are the dangers of isolation and the temptation to work all hours and never switch off from work.

At Flexibility we clearly focus on the benefits of flexible work. But we recognise it’s not always plain sailing: there are real issues to address.

So here in the first of a series on the downside of flexible work, we assess the dangers of isolation and suggest ways to prevent it. A second article deals with 24/7 working.

After taking the kids to school, chatting to other parents before watching a performance in the school assembly, catching up on local news at the corner shop, talking to several clients, sponsors and project partners on the phone, meeting a colleague for coffee in the local café, I meet a friend for a pub lunch.

It’s not long before she asks the inevitable question: “Don’t you feel isolated working from home?” If only, I think …

Working away from the office and away from daily contact with colleagues can be isolating.  But whether isolation becomes a problem depends on a number of factors:

  • How often are you working away from the office? 1-2 days per week is typical for employed homeworkers
  • What kind of work you are doing?  In particular, how much interaction is involved with colleagues and clients by phone, conferencing, site meetings etc makes a big difference.  The big growth area in homeworking is in work using home as a base – i.e. skipping the visits to the office before setting off for more mobile tasks.
  • What’s your domestic and community situation? One can have a more or less active family and community life, and this can make a substantial difference to one’s perception of isolation.

What are you missing out on?

The key issue is: by working away from the office, what are you being disconnected from, and what are you (re)connecting to?

The following grids are a useful way to assess the pros and cons of your situation.  Take a look at each factor, then see whether you are disconnected from them or not, putting a Yes, No or “a bit” in the next column.

Disconnection isn’t necessarily bad.  So you can assess with a plus or a minus whether the situation is on balance a good or a bad thing for you.

After that, you can look at what the key issues are for you, and whether a remedy is desirable or possible.  Some remedies may be technological – like good remote access or one-number telephony that links you in seamlessly to the office networks and exchange.

Others may be more to do with management or communications – ensuring that  remote workers are always included in briefings and team activities, for example.  It may be necessary to formalise previously ad hoc communications, e.g. with electronic newsletters or via an intranet.  And ensuring regular face-to-face interaction takes place is vital.

For balance, a similar grid can be worked through to find out the value of homeworking.  Reflecting on the positives, or finding where the fault lines are, helps to overcome feelings of isolation

Some things can be hard to face up to.  Being with the family more – essentially by eliminating the commute and being there at lunch-time and when others come home – is in principle a benefit.

But, if it causes stress by making working difficult or exacerbating emotional conflict, this needs to be recognised as a negative impact.  Remedies could include ensuring there is a clearly separate workplace at home, or reassessing the occasions for home working.

Changing the location of work necessarily changes our “activity spaces” and the range of daily interactions.  Understanding what has been lost and what has been gained in our daily activities helps to put feelings of isolation in context, or to understand how enduring problems of isolation can be overcome.

Next:  The 24/7 home worker