New wave of ‘techno isolation’ among remote workers who spend days working alone

Remote workers are finding that techno isolation is just one more trigger for occupational stress, according to academic studies. Photograph: iStock

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“Technostress” is a term attributed to the US psychotherapist Craig Broad who coined the phrase to describe, “a modern disease of adaptation caused by an inability to cope with the new computer technologies in a healthy manner”. That was in 1984. Fast forward 40 years and it’s back on the radar as a consequence of the pandemic.

This time the term is being used by French-based academics, professors Agata Mirowska (Neoma Business School) and Tuba Bakici (Rennes School of Business), who say that remote workers are suffering from “techno isolation” which in turn is driving a new wave of “technostress” among those who spend most of their working hours alone.

Techno isolation affects those working away from the social environment of the office and it’s closely linked to today’s heavy dependence on ICT for work-related communication. In more prosaic terms, the professors liken it to “working in a bubble” and, in their view, it’s fast becoming a new form of occupational stress that corporate leaders need to be aware of.

“Techno isolation is caused by digital tools making it harder to have spontaneous interactions with colleagues, to share useful information, find experts or pull groups together to resolve issues quickly,” says Mirowska, assistant professor of human resources management and organisational behaviour at Neoma.

“The pandemic led to disruptions in all areas of modern life, with many employees and organisations obliged to shift to telework at an unprecedented speed and scale,” she says. “This drastic shift, where employees perform their regular job at a location other than that of the traditional workplace, has been described as the most extreme organisational design change in our lifetime.

“It has affected how workplace interpersonal interactions take place, with meetings and collaborations being moved to online settings”, she continues (and) “even employees who return to the office may find themselves in contexts akin to remote work if their colleagues continue to telework”.

Judging by the statistics, techno isolation is not likely to be a temporary phenomenon. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) is the professional body for HR and people development in Ireland and its 2023 report on HR practices found that in 42 per cent of organisations, half their employees are now hybrid working while the figure for fully remote is 12 per cent.

This pretty much tallies with the international experience, with a report from global analytics and advisory firm, Gallup, stating that roughly 40 per cent of what are termed “remote-capable” employees have already shifted from working entirely on-site to either hybrid or completely remote working arrangements. It says that five in 10 globally are working hybrid, three in 10 are working exclusively remotely and two in 10 are working entirely on-site.

For Ireland, the CIPD says that the most common hybrid working pattern here is two to three days on site with employees being increasingly asked to come into the office on the same day. One of the main reasons why is to encourage collaborative activities.

“This covers options from face-to-face team meetings, wellbeing sessions, learning and development, to ‘town hall’ meetings, social events and so on,” the report says. “These events are enabling employees to engage with each other, build relationships and help facilitate informal conversations and cross-functional networking to support wellbeing, performance and culture.”

The report adds that sustaining company culture has emerged as one of the biggest challenges around remote/hybrid working with just over 70 per cent of respondents flagging it as an issue.

Prof Mirowska says that, even before the pandemic, many businesses were already knowledge-intensive organisations that required employees to interact extensively with ICT. The pandemic accelerated the process and one of its side effects is greater employee exposure to the stresses associated with the sustained use of digital technologies.

Employees described their seclusion to Mirowska as “difficult, frustrating, strange and boring”, and reported high levels of fatigue, migraines and eyesight problems. People worried about their ability to master the new digital tools they were expected to use while working remotely also required considerably more effort to maintain good connections with colleagues.

“Digital technology necessitates a very monotonous physical work environment and when participants switch off their cameras and they’re no longer visible, it’s easy to get distracted. Staying tuned in requires a great deal of effort and concentration,” Mirowska says adding that the transfer of the social context of work to a digital setting has made employees’ jobs more difficult while demanding more time and effort to achieve the same level of performance and focus.

Also missing in the digital universe are the more subtle factors that can help people engage and do their jobs better. These include informal feedback and ad hoc conversations as well as the collegiality that happens naturally when employees are together such as celebrating achievements and spontaneous social gatherings.

The professors say that techno isolation needs to be recognised as a significant new type of workplace stress and that employees need adequate training and support to deal with it. They also recommend employers tackle the problem of employees feeling cut off by arranging events to bring people together and encouraging employees to return to more in-person meetings.

The pandemic greatly increased the acceptability of technology for interpersonal communication. However, just because the technology is there doesn’t mean it should always be used the professors say. Decisions about how an organisation communicates are rarely within employees’ control so the responsibility falls to those leading the business to modulate its use and introduce “right to disconnect” practices into the company culture.


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