CSUN Professor Offers a Caution About Isolation Associated with Telecommuting

Qin Sun

As the global COVID-19 pandemic continues, the number of people who are working from home continues to grow.

Although experiences vary, many telecommuters enjoy increased autonomy, schedule flexibility, and a decrease in travel time, traffic issues and gas expenses. But California State University, Northridge marketing professor Qin Sun who teaches in the David Nazarian College of Business and Economics, cautioned that telecommuting can have some downsides.

“Telecommuters may feel lonely and disconnected from their peers and organizations,” Sun said. “They may also lack the influential network connections and acknowledgment of their contributions needed for career advancement.”

Sun said telecommuting can be associated with physical and psychological isolation. She co-authored a paper on that very subject, ‘Employee Isolation and Telecommuter Organizational Commitment,’ that appeared in the latest issue of the Employee Relations journal. Her co-authors were Wendy Wang, Department Chair of Trident University’s Information Management Technology and Computer Science programs and Leslie Albert, associate professor of Management Information Systems at San Jose State University.

Other negative effects of telecommuting include experiencing an increased workload and expectation to be constantly available to “make up” for their absence in the office. Many telecommuters also struggle to keep their work and personal lives separate.

“Informal and serendipitous interactions through technological tools such as video teleconferencing, phone and email should be encouraged to reduce potential “side effects” of working at home such as the psychological isolation,” Sun said. “Given the widespread availability of rich, synchronous communication media, it is possible that workers can overcome physical and psychological isolation through technologies.”

Novice telecommuters may also feel pressured to learn new technologies to keep up with work and family. Sun said that some may have the “out of sight, out mind” mentality, where they believe their lack of visibility means their chance of potential work opportunities will be reduced.

She advised that telecommuters should strive for balanced, nutritious meals and find time for a daily workout during their work time, such as 10-minute meditation or yoga, to help energize and rejuvenate their bodies, and reduce the stress of working at home.

“When virtual meetings or informal gatherings are offered, it is worthwhile to attend and stay in touch with colleagues, supervisors and the organization,” she said. “It is important for new telecommuters to create a work routine for themselves, keep themselves in a good mental state, and stay positive.”

Sun encouraged organizations to use teleconferencing and other communication media that closely mimic face-to-face interactions with advanced internet communication technologies (ICTs) such as Zoom, Google Meet and Skype. She said virtual happy hours, other social gatherings and “water-cooler chats” can encourage ongoing interactions.

She advised direct managers to strive to keep lines of communication open so employees don’t feel forgotten. Check-in messages can encourage employees with telecommuting struggles to share their needs and concerns, Sun said.

Working from home over a long time due to the pandemic could require many employees to shift to new work habits that support telecommuting, such as acquiring better technology and equipment, and establishing routines and systems that keep work and personal lives separate.

“Overall, this extended telecommuting experience may have a positive impact,” Sun said. “It will give us a chance to think and reflect on what is important and appreciate each other more.”

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