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Remote work loneliness: how virtual coworking can help

A UC Berkeley professor shares insights on how virtual coworking counters remote work loneliness, enhancing team solidarity and personal satisfaction.

Dr. Aruna Ranganathan

Dr. Aruna Ranganathan

Associate Professor at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business

remote work loneliness

In recent years, there has been a significant shift towards remote work. There’s a good chance you’re a part of this movement. Since the pre-COVID era, the proportion of remote workers in the US has increased from merely 5% to just over 25%.

Read more: COVID-19 big shifts: The workplace will stay remote controlled

This shift has been driven by advancements in communication technologies and pandemic-induced changes to workers’ and organizations’ preferences.

Loneliness increases in remote work

However, with the increased adoption of remote work comes new challenges for organizations and workers, particularly when it comes to feelings of isolation and a lack of community among remote workers. If you’ve been working outside of the office, either full-time or for part of the week, you likely identify with these feelings.

Remote teams often have fewer opportunities to interact and face difficulties in building camaraderie and solidarity, which are critical for workers’ happiness and satisfaction. Our team at UC Berkeley recently conducted a study on remote teams that highlights this concern.

Using empirical evidence from a one-week field experiment in India, we found that remote work eroded within-team solidarity, which led to remote teams being 75% less likely than on-site teams to ‘voice upward’ – in other words, to bring grievances to their managers.

Our findings underscore the crucial role of interpersonal interactions in fostering a sense of belonging and community within a workplace, and how the absence of these interactions can have detrimental effects on remote workers.

There’s a tech for everything

The good news is that there are solutions that can help you alleviate isolation. One compelling solution is virtual coworking, which experienced a surge in popularity during the pandemic. When engaged in virtual coworking, users join timed, quiet “coworking” sessions, often over video. These sessions enable workers to focus on independent tasks in the presence of others.

Read more: Remote work technology: the road ahead is digital

We estimate that virtual coworking platforms have collectively amassed more than 100,000 active users and 10 million sessions – pointing to the critical mass of users adopting this practice as part of their daily work structure.

Some of the major virtual coworking service providers aim to offer a community and sense of accountability to workers — especially those who may be physically distant but can cowork virtually.

One such platform we’ve been studying, called Groove, takes the community aspect one step further. During its 50-minute coworking sessions, Groove enables users to connect with each other via in-app messages. They can even build cohorts of like-minded individuals called “Orbits” that help facilitate future ‘Grooves’ together, build stronger bonds, and offer greater support over the long term.

Replicating the office environment

Interviews we conducted with remote workers point to the potential positive impacts that virtual coworking could have on individuals’ professional and personal lives.

Interviewees consistently spoke to the effectiveness of virtual coworking in acting like a pseudo-“office” environment that mirrors the camaraderie found in traditional office settings; increasing their sense of accountability and work structure, and reducing their isolation.

For example, a freelance digital marketer who started a new job abroad explains: “During the pandemic, for health-related reasons [or] timezone-related reasons … trying to connect remotely with someone was very difficult […] So, [virtual coworking] was one of my only social interactions for being in a place where I didn’t have a strong community.”

A remote financial advisor also expresses appreciation for the unique community of virtual coworkers: “These are people who will [be] vulnerable […] or honest at the beginning [of the session], ‘I’m struggling today and this is stressing me out.’”

Virtual coworkers also share camaraderie: “[It’s] nice to have accountability, … [and] to commiserate with other people doing it,” a remote data analyst told us.

Overall, working virtually with friends or even strangers seemed to provide a sense of community similar to that of an in-person work environment.

Overcoming isolation among remote workers is imperative for the sustainability of remote work in the long run. Insights from our research suggest that virtual coworking has the potential to be a transformative solution.

As remote work continues to evolve, it is essential to prioritize solutions that not only enhance individual productivity but also nurture workers’ overall happiness and satisfaction to create a fulfilling and sustainable work experience. Virtual coworking platforms can be a big help here. Try a few and see if there’s one that works best for you.

Dr. Aruna Ranganathan is an Associate Professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Her research combines multiple methods to understand what the future of work holds, the ways in which remote work exacerbates or alleviates pre-existing workplace inequalities, and how workers seek meaning in this new world of work.

Angela Tran, who also contributed to this article, is a Research Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

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