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Remote Workers Suffer “Techno Isolation”

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Remote workers’ feelings of isolation related to being away from the social environment of the office and digital technology contribute to them finding video conferences especially draining, according to recent research from NEOMA Business School.

Previous studies show five key “techno stressors,” as employees work at high speed for longer hours, all the while feeling as though their private space is being invaded. On top of this is the burden of using digital tools, which require a huge effort to master, uncertainties stemming from IT systems that are in constant flux, and fears of being replaced by more digitally literate workers.

A new report co-authored by Dr Agata Mirowska, Assistant Professor of Human Resources Management and Organisational Behaviour at NEOMA, identifies “techno isolation” as another cause of work-related stress. Remote work makes it much harder to have spontaneous interactions with colleagues, share useful information, and find experts or pull groups together to quickly resolve issues, Mirowska explains. These findings were published in the journal Information Technology & People.

The findings are based on in-depth interviews with employees and human resource directors at French companies during the Covid pandemic. In the data-gathering process, the researchers differentiated between lockdown-related stress and isolation and factors specific to remote working and digital technology.

In their own words, interviewees described digital-intensive remote work as “difficult”, “frustrating”, “strange”, and “boring”. They also reported physical symptoms, including heightened fatigue, migraines, and eyesight problems. This led to feelings of being “cut off” from their colleagues and “less committed” to their work at times.

The researchers find these feelings translate into workloads becoming increasingly difficult to manage, with more time and effort needed to achieve the same outcomes. Remote workers also reported missing informal interactions with colleagues that made their jobs easier, as well as social events such as celebratory drinks or departmental meals to mark the end of a project.

“Techno isolation” arises when digital tools hinder communication by making it harder for people to get immediate feedback or read non-verbal cues that indicate what the person you are talking to is thinking and feeling, Mirowska explains. For example, video conference presenters can struggle to get a “feel” for their audience, hampering their ability to adapt what they are going to say.

“Interacting primarily via digital technologies creates a very monotonous physical work environment: video conferencing consists of a screen, and when participants switch off their cameras, they’re no longer visible. It’s easy to get distracted, and staying tuned in requires a great deal of effort and concentration,” she says.

One interviewee claimed they “don’t even have the energy to speak up” and “it’s so easy to say nothing.”

Additionally, a day full of remote meetings may mean that the employee isn’t changing rooms or moving around as much, making the experience even more monotonous.  For these reasons, the researchers suggest video conferences become harder to follow as workers feel less involved and engaged. The camera and screen set-up also impede making eye contact and reading body language, exacerbating the issue, they claim.

Finally, the lack of impromptu coffee breaks, bumping into colleagues in the corridor, and conversations that veer into less work-related territory deprives employees of the support framework they are used to, the study finds.

Nevertheless, there are ways these negative impacts can be minimised. Mirowska says video conferences should bring together a limited number of participants, preferably people who have interacted with each other in person before. Also, the focus should be placed on tackling concrete subjects that demand an immediate response, and conferences should not run on for too long.

According to the researchers, managers should boost digital training and technical support for all remote workers. Furthermore, they should arrange days when teams can gather on-site and scale back the length and frequency of digital interactions in order to prevent employees from experiencing digital overload.

Of course, managers also need training and support. The authors suggest they should receive guidance on best practices for moderating virtual teams so they can better include informal interactions.

Alternatively, they could try using more immersive technologies such as metaverses and online collaborative software. However, Mirowska warns this could be a double-edged sword, as these tools can be complicated to use and could add to remote workers’ feelings of boredom and exhaustion, thereby compounding the stress effects.

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