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How the psychological risks of remote working can impact belonging and inclusivity

A man working from home
Loneliness is a key problem experienced by many remote workers, but spending longer periods alone can come with other risks too – including 'psychological closing'. Photo: Getty

Although Covid-19 restrictions are set to be lifted in a few weeks, remote or hybrid working is here to stay. Instead of commuting every day, many employees will use offices as part-time workspaces or occasional hubs for meetings – giving them more flexibility and a better work-life balance.

However, hybrid working isn’t as simple as allowing people to split their time between their desk and a remote location. It’s essential for all workers – those in the office and those at home – to feel included and engaged at work.

“Inclusivity is an essential component in any workplace. It allows employees to experience a shared sense of belonging, which, in turn, enables them to feel comfortable, confident and inspired,” says Binna Kandola, senior partner and co-founder at business psychology firm Pearn Kandola.

“Unfortunately the pandemic and remote working poses an immediate threat to the inclusive workplace,” he adds. “Covid-19 has led to a sweeping capsule environment – that is, living and working with the same people, in the same place, 24/7.

“This has fundamentally changed the way we approach work, and how we interact with our colleagues on a daily basis. These changes can lead to psychological risks that directly impact an organisation’s inclusivity.”

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The psychological risks of remote working

Loneliness is a key problem experienced by many remote workers, but spending longer periods alone can come with other risks too – including "psychological closing".

“Due to a lack of stimuli, colleagues close themselves off from one another through less frequent and less rich communication,” says Kandola. “In extreme cases, this can lead to the development of cliques – an obvious threat to internal inclusivity.”

Organisations may also experience what is known as "autonomisation", in which team members isolate themselves from each other in groups.

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“This can lead to colleagues viewing each other as opponents, rather than partners, and can be a detriment to inclusive practice within businesses,” explains Kandola. “Another widely reported consequence of the capsule environment is displacement. Team members may feel frustrated with their working environment and, concerned with causing tension in their remote circumstances, may misdirect the blame towards other colleagues who may be members of other teams.”

All of these psychological effects can have a negative impact on a company’s efforts to boost inclusivity and feelings of belonging among staff. “Therefore, businesses must take responsibility for understanding these risks and putting systems in place to combat exclusion amongst team members,” adds Kandola.

Mitigating the risks

During times of crisis, the focus on inclusion becomes even more critical. People are already experiencing unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety, brought on by the many challenges of the pandemic and lockdowns. However, Kandola says, it’s possible for employers and leaders to boost inclusivity among their teams.

First, leaders should reinforce every employee’s purpose and value to the organisation’s work, as well as highlighting shared experiences that level the playing field across all representative groups.

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“Discussing and listening to employees’ experiences with the pandemic will help leaders ensure that inclusivity is the top priority as we move back towards in-person and hybrid working,” says Kandola.

“Internal teams can also take proactive measures to prioritise inclusivity. Employees should encourage each other to express themselves authentically, in order to bring a variety of experiences and skills to their teams. Team members shouldn’t assume that everyone feels included. Rather, emphasising the importance of open and honest communication can ensure that inclusion drives company culture.”

Finally, inclusion should be reflected as the top priority at the processes level. Being transparent with data regarding recruitment and terminations will help organisations stay in check with their diversity and inclusion commitments.

“Additionally, developing employee resource groups is a proven way to ensure that all employees feel solidarity in the workplace, and can be an effective tool for mobilising inclusion at the policy level,” says Kandola.

“The pandemic has highlighted the importance of diversity and inclusion for organisations,” he adds. “Organisations are presented with a unique opportunity to make substantial change, and to recognise the inherent value of inclusivity to company structure.”

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