You couldn’t blame anyone who suffers through a daily commute for envying the bed-to-computer lifestyle of their remote-work colleagues. The lure of working from home is self-evident — no soul-sucking commute en route to a building you would never otherwise be in, wearing clothes you would never otherwise be wearing, only to spend most of your waking hours with people you would never otherwise know.
Who, after all, wouldn’t leave all that behind to work on their own computers at home on the couch, TV tuned into their favorite channel, cozy in their PJs with their dog at their feet in any part of the country or world they choose to live?
Millions of Americans experienced the freedom and flexibility of remote work during the pandemic and decided that there’s no going back — but it’s clear now that those luxuries come with a tradeoff.
Despite all the benefits of working from home, unplugging from the office completely can be a career kryptonite. Here’s what you need to know.
The Office Is the Glue That Binds Social and Professional Networks
In April 2021, Forbes investigated how a full year of remote work had changed America’s office culture. What it found was that, by and large, remote workers typically have smaller and less robust social and professional networks than those who work on-site.
All that missed contact — the chats on the elevator that never happened, the break-room coffees never shared, the water-cooler gossip never exchanged — creates a deficit in the remote worker’s professional network, which makes it more difficult to advance through their careers or land their next big job.
In July 2021, a few months after the Forbes report came out, data from the AARP and Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) shed more light on the disadvantages of telecommuting. One of the most striking was the huge number of employers — more than 40% — who tended to forget about their remote workers when it came time to hand out promotions.
When companies sent all or most employees home during the pandemic and then brought a portion of them back when vaccines arrived, those who remained working at home were much less likely to advance in their careers.
Employees who have face-to-face contact with the boss every day are naturally more on the radar than their remote counterparts, but according to Forbes, there’s more to the disparity than that.
The study found that a subconscious bias contributes to the perception that remote workers are less committed than their colleagues in the office. A LinkedIn study calls the phenomenon “proximity bias,” the latent favoritism that employers tend to show to employees who are in their physical proximity most frequently.
A Beamery study of more than 5,000 employees showed that roughly half of all remote workers think a lack of face-time with company leaders has hindered their professional advancement.
Getting out of the house reinforces work-life boundaries. You work at the office and come home to your life. According to Forbes, those boundaries — already blurred by social media, email and constant connectivity — disappear when your home is the office.
The result is often a purgatory in which remote workers are never fully plugged into their work and never fully unplugged from their jobs. This lack of separation makes full-time remote workers more susceptible to burnout and the feeling of being constantly overwhelmed.
According to the Beamery study, the negative feelings associated with burnout and a diminished work-life balance helped fuel the Great Resignation. Remote workers fled their jobs en masse, only to find the same conditions when they got to the other side of the hill, which led to even more turnover and fewer career advancement opportunities.
In 2021, industrial-organizational psychologist Elora Voyles coined the phrase “Zoom Ceiling.” It was a variation of the glass ceiling phenomenon that keeps women from ascending to positions that are open to them in theory, but out of reach in practice.
Women are more likely than men to work from home, according to CNBC and Voyles’ own research, which means they’re more likely to suffer from the passed-up promotions, dilapidated professional networks and harmful blurring of work and life that are more common among telecommuters.
It’s not just women. People of color, people with disabilities, and other underrepresented populations work from home in disproportionate numbers, as well.
In 2021, The Atlantic cited data from a decade before the pandemic as grounds for saying, “it is simply undeniable that remote work usually leads to loneliness.” Both before the pandemic and after, full-time remote workers were far more likely to experience loneliness and its many associated conditions. According to The Atlantic study, those conditions include higher instances of depression and substance abuse, a sedentary lifestyle, relationship problems and hampered creativity.
At the heart of it all was the deterioration of relationships.
Bonds between in-office workers were stronger, more enduring, and more personal than bonds between telecommuters, no matter how much virtual interaction they had, according to Forbes.
It’s not unique to America. A Columbia University study of more than 226,000 people across Asia, Europe and North America found that instances of anxiety and depression increased wherever remote work was more common.
Lonely, depressed, addicted, anxious, disconnected and inactivity aren’t exactly the qualities that employers look for when handing out promotions. The end result is that telecommuters who are already more likely to be depressed and dejected are then passed up for promotions, which only makes them feel worse, and the cycle goes on and on.
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