The Psychology of Remote Work

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The struggles of working from home have cost companies money, time, and employees. It doesn’t have to be that way.

The shift to remote work seemed, at first glance, like set of logistical hurdles. From technology hiccups (“you’re on mute”), to finding physical space in our homes for makeshift offices (bonus points for quiet space), just being able to get through the week in one Zoomed-out piece felt like a major accomplishment.

As the weeks turned into months, many of my clients got used to the logistical upheaval of working from home. Some even began to embrace the benefits, like increased autonomy and flexibility, shortened commutes, and more casual dress (especially from the waist down).

As the operational stresses diminished, however, what began to percolate was how mentally and emotionally demanding working without an office and without colleagues (more on that later) can be.

As many of us begin marching towards a second year of remote work, it seems more important than ever to explore and make provisions for the psychological challenges of working from home.

Below are five areas your organization may be overlooking – or just unsure of how to address – when it comes to remote work, employee experience, and the challenges of working from home in a global pandemic.

1. Engagement

distracted unengaged employee

A present, active, and engaged workforce was a priority for many companies long before COVID-19 tore through the global workforce or “Zoom fatigue” became part of corporate lexicon. The challenge of building an enthusiastic, inspired, and dedicated workforce, in the absence of a centralized space in which to bring people together, has proved one of the central psychological obstacles that businesses face in 2020.

The resources and connections that support engagement are difficult to reproduce online. Promoting company culture, teambuilding, and onboarding each depend on one-on-one and group interactions, which are currently restricted to emails, messaging, and virtual meetings. Add to this that many employees are now consumed by competing demands while working from home – such as caregiving, overseeing digital education, or just good old-fashioned distractions – and it’s little wonder engagement continues to wane as the pandemic presses on.

2. Mental health

2020 has been a year for the record books, and mental and emotional stress are no exception. Some psychologists argue the pandemic poses the greatest threat to our collective mental health and wellbeing in generations.

employee working from home in bed

As employees continue to navigate social isolation, many are also coping with financial stress, employment uncertainty, and fear of COVID itself. Others feel upended by what they describe as the unpredictability and interminability of the pandemic. Across all industries, anxiety, depression, and burnout are on the rise, alongside an exacerbation of existing mental health conditions.

The responsibility organizations have to their employees varies according to the values of each company. Many organizations have noted the importance of promoting and protecting mental health at work; some offer Wellbeing Days, others free counseling, training, or wellness allowances. Whatever your company’s approach to wellbeing, it’s important to communicate to employees that mental health matters and determine which outlets and services best support their needs.

3. Leadership

Managing a team is an incredibly difficult gig at the best of times. Managing a team you never bump into in the halls, brainstorm with around a table, or socialize with outside of work is next-level arduous.

Just like the employees they manage, leaders have been thrust into remote working without warning, training, or a strategy of distance leadership to defer to. Managers and executives now find themselves limited to digital communication, while devising and implementing massive change strategies, all while supporting colleagues’ wellbeing. Most are building the plane as they fly it.

If you manage a team, you may find yourself asking familiar questions in a completely new way. How can we build trust from a distance? How do we onboard effectively? How can I communicate care and disseminate company culture in a virtual environment? Even the best leaders will struggle to answer these difficult questions from a distance without the tools and support necessary to navigate such a massive change.

4. Socializing

We spend about 1/3 of our adult lives at work, 1/3 asleep, and 1/3 left to our own devices. What makes that ratio tolerable for many of us is the people we spend our days with. The community, friendships, and camaraderie that materialize across teams and companies make our offices not just places of work, but spaces of social connection.

empty office space

At a time when we need human connection more than ever, many of us find ourselves confined to our homes – where we may live with a large family, roommates, or on our own. Having our work interactions limited to Zoom meetings further limits our social opportunities and may increase our sense of isolation. While there is no perfect way to navigate teambuilding and socializing in a remote working environment, creative solutions and new ideas to foster connection while teams are apart will make enduring the pandemic easier.

5. Productivity

remote zoom meeting

While productivity may not seem obviously connected to psychology, research shows that both our creativity and productivity have a lot to do with our mindset, personality, resilience, mental health, and a host of other dimensions of our inner world. Making a point of attuning to these in your workforce will not only increase individual productivity, but also employee experience, job satisfaction, and collaboration.

Organizational psychologists have argued that teams are generally more productive when people are together than they are apart. (The idea that a group’s contribution will be bigger than the sum of its parts is known as the Assembly Bonus Effect.) While some roles and employees may be better suited to individual work, most businesses require the carefully coordinated efforts of multiple teams, which are easier to organize and execute in person. Evaluating productivity from a distance is also a challenge at many organizations new to remote work. The disjointedness of remote work, particularly in its infancy, is likely to impact productivity until new systems are in place throughout the organization.

Off-site education may also impact productivity, especially when it comes to learning new tasks and roles. On-the-job learning, particularly for new employees, often occurs in conversation, social and cultural mimicry, and informal exchanges amongst colleagues. Younger employees, in particular, may miss not only the social elements of work, but the mentorship, education, and peer-to-peer learning opportunities that physical offices more naturally provide.


From social isolation, to declining engagement and mental health, the pandemic has brought about a large-scale remote work change project many companies were unprepared for.

Without creative strategies and the right psychological tools and training, even well-meaning and talented employees, leaders, and teams can fall into patterns that diminish company culture, erode employee experience, and inhibit productivity.

If you are struggling with or concerned about any of the above in your organization, consider implementing a remote work strategy, offering new training specific to the demands of remote working (examples below), or engaging the expertise of an organizational psychologist to help manage your remote change project.

Recommended training and skills-building courses:
– Managing remotely
– Empathy, communication and emotional intelligence
– Change management
– Mental health support

As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to get in touch. I’d be happy to help.

The Psychology of Remote Work

The shift to remote work seemed, at first glance, like set of logistical hurdles. From technology hiccups (“you’re on mute”), to finding physical space in …

By katycook
January 12, 2021

The shift to remote work seemed, at first glance, like set of logistical hurdles. From technology hiccups (“you’re on mute”), to finding physical space in our homes for makeshift offices (bonus points for quiet space), just being able to get through the week in one Zoomed-out piece felt like a major accomplishment.

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