Remote and hybrid work is bad for employees’ mental well-being and leads to a sense of social isolation, meaninglessness, and lack of work-life boundaries, so we should just all go back to office-centric work–or so claim many traditionalist business gurus.
There is a “core psychological truth, which is we want you to have a feeling of belonging and to feel necessary… I know it’s a hassle to come into the office, but if you’re just sitting in your pajamas in your bedroom, is that the work life you want to live?” Malcolm Gladwell said.
These office-centric traditionalists refer to a number of prominent articles about the dangers of remote work for mental well-being.
The problem with such claims is that they’re misleading: They decry the negative impact of remote and hybrid work for well-being, yet they gloss over the damage to well-being caused by the alternative, namely office-centric work.
People would feel less isolated if they could hang out and have a beer with their friends instead of working. They could take care of their existing mental health issues if they could visit a therapist. But that’s not in the cards. What’s in the cards is office-centric work. That means the frustration of a long commute to the office, sitting at your desk in an often-uncomfortable and oppressive open office for eight hours, having a sad desk lunch and unhealthy snacks, and then even more frustration commuting back home.
So, what happens when we compare apples to apples? That’s when we need to hear from the horse’s mouth: namely, surveys of employees themselves, who experienced both in-office work before the pandemic and hybrid and remote work after COVID struck.
Consider a 2022 survey by Cisco of 28,000 full-time employees around the globe. Most respondents (78%) said that remote and hybrid work improved their overall well-being. Of the small number who reported their work-life balance had not improved or had even worsened, the number one reason cited by over two-thirds of respondents is “the difficulty of disconnecting from work.”
Much of that improvement stemmed from the time saved due to not needing to commute and having a more flexible schedule: 64% saved at least four hours per week and 26% saved eight or more hours. What did they do with that extra time? The top choice of 44% was spending more time with family, friends, and pets, which certainly helped address the problem of isolation from the workplace. For 20%, the top choice for investing that extra time was in self-care. Indeed, 74% reported that working from home improved their family relationships, and 51% said it strengthened their friendships. Some 82% report the ability to work from anywhere has made them happier, and 55% report that such work decreased their stress levels.
Other surveys back up Cisco’s findings. For example, a 2022 Future Forum survey compared knowledge workers who worked full-time in the office, in a hybrid modality, and fully remote. It found that full-time in-office workers felt least satisfied with work-life balance, hybrid workers were in the middle, and fully remote workers felt most satisfied. The same distribution applied to questions about stress and/or anxiety. A mental health website called Tracking Happiness found in a 2022 survey of over 12,000 workers that fully remote employees report a happiness level about 20% greater than office-centric ones.
What about the supposed burnout crisis associated with remote work?
It’s a fallacy. Burnout has been on the rise, even before the widespread adoption of remote work. A 2018 survey by Deloitte found that 77% of workers experienced burnout. Gallup came up with a slightly lower number of 67% in its survey.
By contrast, an April 2021 McKinsey survey found that 54% of those in the US, and 49% of those globally, reported feeling burnout. A September 2021 survey by The Hartford reported 61% burnout. Given that we had much more fully remote or hybrid work at the height of the pandemic, arguably full or part-time remote opportunities decreased burnout, rather than increased it. Indeed, that finding aligns with the earlier surveys and peer-reviewed research suggesting remote and hybrid work improves well-being.
In a late 2022 Gallup survey, 71% of respondents said that, compared to in-office work, hybrid work improves work-life balance and 58% reported less burnout. When asked about burnout among workers who could work fully remotely, those who were fully office-centric had rates of burnout at 35% and engagement at 30%. By contrast, 37% of hybrid workers were engaged and 30% were burnt out. For remote workers, the percentage for engagement was 37%, and burnout at 27%, further belying the myth about remote work burnout.
Still, while overall being better for well-being, remote and hybrid work does have specific disadvantages around work-life separation. To address work-life issues, I advise my clients who I helped make the transition to hybrid and remote work to establish norms and policies focused on clear expectations and setting boundaries.
Some people expect their Slack or Microsoft Teams messages to be answered within an hour, while others check Slack once a day. Some believe email requires a response within three hours, and others feel three days is fine.
As a result of such uncertainty and lack of clarity about what’s appropriate, too many people feel uncomfortable disconnecting. They reply to messages or do work tasks after hours. That might stem from a fear of not meeting their boss’s expectations or not wanting to let their colleagues down.
To solve this problem, companies need to establish and incentivize clear expectations and boundaries. Develop policies and norms around response times for different channels of communication and clarify the work-life boundaries for your employees.
Setting work-life boundaries doesn’t mean that employees should never work outside of regular work hours. However, if such work after hours systematically happens more often outside of emergency situations, there’s a problem that you need to address.
Moreover, for working at home and collaborating with others, there’s an unhealthy expectation that once you start your workday in your home office chair, you’ll work continuously while sitting there (except for your lunch break). That’s not how things work in a physical office, which has breaks built in throughout the day. You took 5-10 minutes to walk from one meeting to another, or you went to get your copies from the printer and chatted with a coworker on the way.
Research shows physical and mental breaks decrease burnout, improve productivity, and reduce mistakes. That’s why companies should strongly encourage employees to take at least a 10-minute break every hour during remote work. At least half of those breaks should involve physical activity, such as stretching or walking around, to counteract the dangerous effects of prolonged sitting. Other breaks should be restorative mental activities, such as meditation, brief naps, or whatever else feels restorative to you.
To facilitate such breaks, my clients such as the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute shortened hour-long meetings to 50 minutes and half-hour meetings to 25 minutes, to give everyone a mental and physical break and transition time.
You can get the vast majority of what you usually do in an hour-long meeting done in 50 minutes. Just remember to start wrapping up at the 40-minute mark, and at the 20-minute mark for meetings that last 25 minutes. Very few people will be reluctant to have shorter meetings.
After that works out, move to other aspects of setting boundaries and expectations that facilitate work-life balance. Doing so will require helping team members get on the same page and reduce conflicts and tensions.
By setting clear expectations and boundaries, you’ll address the biggest well-being challenge for remote and hybrid workers: work-life boundaries. As for the other issues, the research clearly shows that overall remote and hybrid workers have better well-being and lower burnout than in-office workers working in the same roles.
Gleb Tsipursky, P.h.D., helps executives drive collaboration, innovation, and retention in hybrid work. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. He is the best-selling author of 7 books, including Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill and Ohio State.
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