Project Management Institute

Ask PMI Anything: Coping with Loneliness in a Remote Working World

man sitting in large window looking out at a city

Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash

29 May 2020

Sunil Prashara addresses the common experience of feeling lonely while working remotely and offers tips on how we can all feel more connected.

Working remotely has become a way of life for many of us during the COVID crisis. Many of us have speculated that it might even become a standard feature of the post-COVID future of work.

However, there are downsides to all of that time we save on commuting to an office. I recently received a question from a colleague in response to a video I had posted on LinkedIn. As you can see in the exchange below, he proposes a valuable counterpoint to consider as we evaluate the pros and cons of a virtual workplace.

linkedin comments discussing virtual work

Christian’s question about coping with loneliness while working remotely has stuck with me. There’s also something to be said for co-located teams when it comes to fostering creative ideas and collaboration. (Steve Jobs famously proposed that Pixar’s headquarters should have just one set of bathrooms in the central atrium to nudge more employees to cross paths and potentially cross-pollinate ideas.) These kinds of coincidental encounters don’t happen as often on video chats.

I certainly do miss those spontaneous interactions that happen when we bump into colleagues around the water cooler or coffee machine. Those personal and professional bonds are difficult to forge and maintain in a purely virtual world.

But I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by my family, which has helped to keep true loneliness at bay. Not everyone has that advantageespecially older workers or young people who may be alone and on their own for the first time in a small apartment in a “hot spot” city.

So, I decided to do some research. Fortunately, there are many resourcesfrom the World Health Organization (WHO), The American Psychiatric Association (APA) and otherson how to cope with the stress of working remotely during the COVID-19 crisis.

Here is some of the advice I found most helpful:

Take Care of Yourself

The first bit of advice falls under the heading of self-care. Your attitude and overall mental fitness will be much better if you take active steps to maintain your physical health. That means eating a healthy diet, staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and going outside for some fresh air. It also means paying attention to your feelings and needs. It’s perfectly natural to experience stress and dislocation at times like these. It’s important, the experts say, to monitor your feelings and take steps to counterbalance them, if necessary. If the negative feelings persist or become more severe, you should certainly contact a mental health professional.

Establish Healthy Routines

Another way to maintain a healthy outlook is to adopt a regular schedule. Stick to a consistent daily routine that balances work, social and recreational activities and self-care. Also adopt a strategy that the APA calls “distract and redirect.” That means engaging in activities that give you pleasure and distract you from day-to-day stresses. The APA recommends activities like meditation, yoga, journaling, art projects, cooking, breathing exercises and listening to music. Really, anything you enjoy will doas long as you do it purposefully and in moderation.

Stay Connected…

It goes without saying that you should make special efforts during the crisis to stay connected with family, friends and colleagues. Technology can help. A number of people have commented that we’re now using video conferencing far more than in the past. They’ve also noted how much they prefer looking their colleagues in the eye, rather than listening to disembodied voices on a conference call. In our personal lives, technologies like FaceTime, Skype, Google Hangout and other video-based services can help us stay in touch. And many people have found creative ways to leverage those technologies. People are gathering for virtual happy hours, poker games, exercise sessionseven to binge watch TV shows together.

…But Not Too Connected

While social media allows us to share news and keep friends and family close, it can also create needless anxiety by amplifying misinformation and negative rumors. The PMI Global Executive Council recently heard a virtual presentation from a leader at a major search engine who spoke about the daunting uptick they have tracked on viral false information making the rounds online. My advice is to consume social media sparingly and thoughtfully. The same is true for traditional media. Many experts advise limiting the amount of news we consume, so we’re not overwhelmed by a constant stream of negativity. They recommend checking news at a specific time each day and relying only on trusted, authoritative sources like the WHO and your national health authority.

Give Back

But perhaps my favorite piece of advice comes from the WHO website. And it’s simply this: give back and be supportive of others. Here’s what they have to say:

“Assisting others in their time of need can benefit both the person receiving support and the helper. For example, check by telephone on neighbours or people in your community who may need some extra assistance. Working together as one community can help to create solidarity in addressing COVID-19 together.”

That’s useful advice for all of us, regardless of our personal situation.

We’d like to use the PMI Blog as a way of staying in closer touch with you and your concerns. To that end, I and other members of PMI leadership will periodically respond to questions we receive online or in day-to-day conversations. So, thank you, Christian, for serving as the inspiration for this post and for what we hope will be a continuing series on the PMI blog.