There are reportedly few studies about the impact of prolonged isolation on work outcomes. But, on reflection, there are plenty of questions to ask and answers worth having, e.g., when is virtually complete isolation a positive influence on job performance? When is it a recipe for catastrophe?
What personal traits, attitudes and skills are best or worst-suited to it?
Stereotypes of solitary passionate composers in garrets, mad scientists in underground Frankenstein labs, serenely meditating mountain-top monks and the like can contribute only so much to our understanding—probably including too many misconceptions or half-truths.
The answers are important not only for those who telework and those who employ them, but also for those who increasingly “tele-live”, i.e., have a “social”, family or “community” life based primarily, if not exclusively, on what I’ll call “tele-isolation” and digitally-based, remote “conversationships”.
“Tele-Isolation”: a Working Definition
As I’m using the term, “tele-isolation” means complete or substantial physical isolation from friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, employers and the larger community that is created, and paradoxically compensated for, by telecommunications technology, including TV, as well as computer-induced isolation.
Used in this sense, “tele-isolation” must not be confused with a lack of access to telecommunications, which may, for this purpose, forgivably be called “teleble” isolation for those forced to make do without their treasured digital toys and tools.
The questions, observations and answers that follow, while drawing upon the limited formal studies cited below, are based, for the most part, on my own experiences with tele-isolation over the past seven months and, in a previous year, in the same very small town, over a comparable period.
Over that time, working not only as a telewriter, but also as a teleresident with contact with other people limited almost exclusively to Skype, phone and email, I’ve had what others would regard as an ample taste or dose of tele-isolation.
The reason for that isolation is my having mindfully chosen it—in part as an experiment and in part as flight from urban hives, in order to join the bees in the meadows and forests of a semi-isolated small community voted the “most livable town in the world” [in the under-20,000 population category] in an international ranking.
It’s the kind of place where spending no more than an hour or two per month with other people, including at supermarket checkout, is easy to achieve when it’s a goal and hard to surpass when it isn’t.
Types of Isolation
Before noting what researchers have to say about this kind of isolation and its common or probable effects on work performance, several essential distinctions and caveats have to be spelled out:
- Distinguish tele-isolation from complete isolation: Complete isolation is isolation from all telecommunications and from all face-to-face, in person interactions, i.e., it’s the case of the pure cave-dwelling hermit. Probably scary as a prospect for most, this will appeal to the mad scientists, monks, manic composers and almost nobody else.
Hermits in the Flow Zone
It is interesting to note that what all of these fringe, productive recluses and more moderate tele-isolationists are likely to have in common is a very high level of professional engagement in the form of “flow” or “being in the zone”:
—an excellent skills-talents match at very high levels of both
— very sharply defined and defended goals and values, including a need for independence
—adequate resources at hand
—immediate internal or external feedback
—total engagement and focus
—high task-latitude, save for the constraints imposed by the high standards to which they adhere, i.e., has substantial personal control of resources, timing, environment, goals and outcome
—a job load that’s perfect for them.
Throw a Type-A, driven workaholic personality into the mix and you’ve got the perfect tele-isolation candidate.
If problems arise, it’s likely to be only when these extremely engaged types step out of the zone and the flow, e.g., somehow lose interest, have resource issues, have sudden and severe skills-challenges mismatches, or when an employer wrongly misidentifies the employee as being highly engaged.
- Welcome vs. unwelcome vs. mixed vs. neutral tele-isolation: Commonsense suggests that the impact of isolation on job performance will critically depend on whether the solitude is perceived as stressful before, during or even after the period of employment [with implications for the next task]. The worst case is, of course, acute stress at all three stages, the best—at least from the employer’s standpoint—onset of stress only after job-contract expiration.
But even when tele-isolation is sought by the job performer, there is no guarantee that it will positively impact everything, especially since all of our choices carry costs as well as benefits. That’s why cost-benefit analysis exists—to flash red, green and amber decision lights.
Intuitively, it seems that a mixed cost-benefit denominated experience of tele-isolation is likely to be the most common outcome, namely, a blend of welcome and unwelcome elements, e.g., the benefits of few unwanted and the costs of few wanted distractions at the cabin in the woods.
Moreover, any employee whose attitude is “whatever”—i.e., flexibly neutral toward the prospect or actual experience of tele-isolation is not only, as I see it, likely to be truly exceptional, but also likely to be among the most adaptable people on the planet.
- Short-term vs. long-term tele-isolation: Personal “tele-isolation span”, understood as the maximum length of time solitude can be tolerated before a preference to end it kicks in, varies considerably from person to person.
When one is accepting or offering a position that entails tele-isolation, careful consideration must be given to its duration and frequency and to the tolerance level of all concerned, including the employer, who may, lacking direct control and face-to-face interaction, become uncomfortable over time.
- Work-related vs. other tele-isolation: It is one thing to be tele-isolated from work-related contacts, i.e., have zero face-to-face interactions with them, but quite another to be tele-isolated from friends, family, community, etc., and limited to only telecommunicated interactions with them.
Perfect for Type A’s
It is to be expected that given a choice that is not available—to be isolated from the workplace or from everybody else, most of us would choose the former. Why’s that? Because most people work to live, not vice versa.
For those, including many Type-As, who live to work, exclusively tele-mediated interactions with others are far likelier to present no special challenges or stresses.
So, what have the researchers and I discovered about the impact of isolation on job performance? Let’s start with the researchers:
—”Survey data from a matched sample of 261 professional-level teleworkers and their managers revealed that professional isolation negatively impacts job performance and, contrary to expectations, reduces turnover intentions.”
[Source: 2008 study, “The impact of professional isolation on teleworker job performance and turnover intentions”, Journal of Applied Psychology, italics mine, to distinguish this from social and other isolation, the second component of tele-isolation.]
— “Professional isolation’s impact on these work outcomes is increased by the amount of time spent teleworking, whereas more face-to-face interactions and access to communication-enhancing technology tend to decrease its impact.” [Ibid.]
If more time spent teleworking means less time spent socializing, i.e., results in more social tele-isolation, it can be expected to compound the negative impact of the work-related tele-isolation component.
Although telework may be imagined to simply replace office work, the lack of proximity to coworkers will entail the complete elimination of “extraneous” and essential workplace social interaction, including work breaks and sociable interactions in meetings.
— “The data shows that people who are isolated but healthy are twice as likely to die over the period of a decade or so as are others in the same health.” [Source: New York Times article, August 4, 1988]
Although this study is decades old, the report mentioned next, published in 2009, confirms that isolation is taking its toll.
The key question in any such isolation study is whether the isolation is defined as distinguishing or including telecommunications-induced isolation as well as others forms of physical or social isolation, e.g., of the elderly.
— “They could have more friends than ever online but, on average, Americans have fewer intimates to confide in than they did a decade ago, according to one study. Another found that 20 percent of all individuals are, at any given time, unhappy because of social isolation, according to University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo.” [Source: “Social isolation a significant health issue”, SFGate, March 2, 2009.]
Presumably, the other 80% includes the flow-and-zone types who emotionally and maybe physically thrive on their tele-isolation. Again, it is important to empirically distinguish social isolation attributable to telecommunications from that rooted in demographics, e.g., of the elderly or otherwise house-bound.
What’s my take on tele-isolation? Using myself and other tele-isolated friends as data points, I suggest the following:
Complete tele-isolation—comprising both work-related and socially/community-defined forms—is tolerable, maybe enjoyable and productive when the worker has
- a strong “internal locus of control”, i.e., sets, monitors and validates tasks and values relatively independently of external influences
- a highly independent personality, e.g., can work with minimum supervision, requires limited external feedback, etc. This is a generalized manifestation of a strong internal locus of control.
- a capacity for prolonged task-concentration
- a good job latitude-load and skills-talent mix
- all the resources necessary for doing the job
- the capacity to self-structure the work day and incorporate or deflect distractions
- frequent experiences of even mild on-the-job “flow”
- enough online “conversationships” and other telecommunications to offset the lack of in-person contact
- pastimes that offset the absence of direct in-person contact
- no other tempting distractions, e.g., no one available and interesting nearby to hang out with
- the latitude to set personal limits regarding the maximum duration of the tele-isolation, when tele-isolation seems to have become excessive.
To this list must be added one more, truly crucial requirement.
A boss who allows, welcomes, offers or understands each of the above.