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Working from home can be a coveted perk, allowing you to opt out of rush-hour traffic and eliminate the tedious banalities of office life. But it can also cut you off from the spontaneous interactions that can spark new insights (part of the reason Marissa Mayer famously rescinded Yahoo’s telecommuting policies). And, at times, the solitude may lead to isolation or the feeling that you’re left out at work.
How can you combat loneliness and create positive relationships with colleagues when you work from home full-time? I’ve worked from home since 2006, when I launched my consulting and speaking business. Here are three principles I’ve found to be effective in staving off isolation, maintaining productivity, and surrounding oneself with a stimulating cadre of colleagues.
First, since you’re not physically interacting with coworkers, it’s important to seek out an online community of like-minded practitioners. The technology changes over time — when I first launched my business, I participated regularly in an online forum for solo consultants; today I maintain an active Facebook community for participants in my “Recognized Expert” online course. These discussion groups allow you to share successes and challenges and ask sensitive questions that, especially because participants are geographically dispersed, can be answered honestly and without feelings of competition.
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Second, it’s especially useful for at-home workers to leverage video technology. Instead of phone calls, I’ll almost always book Skype or Zoom meetings so that I can see the other person. This helps me read their body language, ensures they’re more likely to remember and recognize me (if we don’t know each other well already), and provides me with a facsimile of in-person interaction. I’m admittedly an introvert, but at the end of a day filled with video calls, I’m often socially exhausted and need downtime, just as I would after a round of in-person meetings — so I think it’s doing the trick.
Depending on your preferences, it can be useful to track whether you prefer scheduling a smaller number of daily video interactions with clients and colleagues (a “minimum effective dose”) or instead want to cluster them on the same day. The latter will allow for larger blocks of creative time on the days when you’re not in meetings (as I describe in this post on scheduling meetings when you’re self-employed).
Finally, make a concerted effort to learn more about the personal lives of your colleagues. When you work from home, there’s a natural tendency to avoid “wasting time” with small talk; it may seem like a better move to focus exclusively on work-related conversations. But that may be a mistake.
As eminent psychologist Robert Cialdini told me, small talk may seem trivial, but it’s actually the cement that creates rapport. “A weakness of Americans,” he says, “is that we tend not to do what is done in many other cultures — spending sociable time interacting with other people so there is a context of commonality recognized by both parties, so subsequent interactions go more smoothly.” Indeed, he cites research showing that when two groups of MBA students who didn’t know each other were asked to perform a negotiation over email, 55% of those who were told to “get straight down to business” made a deal. Meanwhile, a full 90% of those who were encouraged to share personal information and find commonalities with one another beforehand were able to strike one, and their deals were 18% more beneficial to both parties. That’s because, as Cialdini’s research shows, someone is far more persuasive to you when you like them — and knowing more about them and how you’re similar often hastens that process.
So before a meeting starts, ask your colleagues about their recent vacation, their daughter’s sports matches, or their upcoming nuptials. These small details can create bonds that enable you to build deeper relationships that are both personally gratifying and professionally beneficial.
A bit of loneliness may seem like an unavoidable trade-off when you work from home, away from the buzz of the office. (Though it’s important to note that not all social interactions have to be with humans: A study jointly run by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health revealed that 87% of those who reported experiencing “a great deal of stress” in the past month were able to reduce it effectively by spending time with a pet, which may be even easier to accomplish when working from home.)
But by following these strategies, you can ensure you’re forming meaningful connections with like-minded colleagues, even if you’re not face-to-face with them every day.