I love working remotely. It created a sense of freedom and choice in my life. And I’ve been doing it all my working life for the last decade or so, even though I took 2.5 years off to live in the woods. At my previous company (Buffer), we became somewhat of a poster child regarding remote work. I gave dozens of talks and wrote articles about how great remote work is in front of thousands of people. And I continue to believe in the benefits that remote work has and continue to work remotely myself.

And yet, I think it’s important to shed light on the challenges that remote work can bring. There was an inspiring post by Ryan Hoover recently collecting over 1500 responses from people who reported their challenges on remote work. You can read some of what people said in this thread:

From reading this and pondering the topic for some years, I’m inspired to talk more about the problem. I’d also like to add a new framework from neuroscience that might offer a solution.

The Many Benefits of Remote Work

If you’re interesting in remote work (or if you’ve done it before), you likely already know the ways that remote work rocks. You’ll have more time with your family, more flexibility in your daily schedule, and no big time wasters, like long commutes. If you’re a remote work devotee, you’re probably more productive and deal with less interruptions than in a traditional office.

There’s a thousand articles out there singing the praises of remote work. But we’re here to focus on the potential downsides, and what you can do to beat them back.

And The Troubling Downsides

For this article however, I’d like to focus more on potential problems we all face when working remotely. From Ryan’s article polling 1500 remote workers, here’s a list of the biggest challenges that people self-report when working remotely:

  • Loneliness
  • Disconnecting
  • Need for Spontaneous connection (i.e.: “Water cooler serendipity”)
  • Communication
  • Respect

I’d like to connect these issues to our deeper, physiological biology. The neuroscientist Stephen Porges, author of The Polyvagal Theory discovered something astounding in the last couple of decades. Our whole nervous system, state of wellbeing and brains are largely (80%-90% to be precise) influenced by the largest nerve in our body called the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve is what matters so much when it comes to remote working. Biologically, it connects from our guts, through our hearts, to our face and into our ears through to our brain. Every time we have a real-life interaction with somebody, our younger vagus nerve (sometimes also called our social engagement system) is activated and exercised, like a muscle. And since most of our interactions are different, our vagus nerve gets lots of good exercise: a friend that is sad who we sit with for a bit; an angry co-worker that we make some space for; our celebratory partner when we join in with our cheers. All of these moments of connection mean exercise for our social engagement system.

If we were hooked up to a measuring device, we could observe the differing vagal tone throughout our human-to-human interactions. Sometimes, we reach a higher vagal tone, sometimes lower; it depends on what the situation calls for. The vagal tone influences our heart rate, our digestions, and many other bodily functions as well. These experiences generally strengthen (put protein into) our vagus nerve, as long as it isn’t overwhelming.

Takeaway: Your vagus nerve (a.k.a. Your social engagement system) reacts negatively to remote work. This nerve can, in-turn, negatively affect some of our other basic and vital systems.

The Vagus Nerve’s Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Loneliness

The challenges around loneliness arise when we go through long stretches without exercising our vagus nerve, like most of us do during remote work. Slowly, the same thing that happens to any muscle in our body that isn’t exercised happens to our vagus nerve: It starts to atrophy when neglected. This alarming phenomenon is reflected in experiments where mice are put into isolation, which makes their brain cells atrophy.

The feeling of loneliness therefore can be almost seen like an alarm system of the brain. The brain is saying “Help, we’re about to lose our sense of safety and ability to connect with other humans, which we need to survive! Please exercise me and interact with others!”

However, many of us haven’t been taught to be rational with loneliness, so as a first response, we get scared. Instead of remedying the problem with social engagements, we often self-isolate even further because of the fear that accompanies loneliness. Because our social engagement circuits have become weak, many of us no longer feel safe to enter interactions with other humans. All of a sudden, the simple interactions of check-ins, banter, and other forms of social contact no longer feel safe and enjoyable. With a weak social engagement system, human interactions can quickly overload and drain our nervous system of its energy.

As a consequence we spend even less time around other humans, which in turn creates even more loneliness and makes our brain cells and social engagement circuits atrophy even further.

Takeaway: When not exercised, the vagus nerve can atrophy. Loneliness is a natural part of working from home. Experiencing loneliness often doubles-down on itself by causing internal fear and panic. Separating loneliness from this fear (ie. just “simply being” with it and listening to it), is important to surviving this atrophy.

Breaking the Loneliness Spiral

If you’re working remotely or if you feel lonely often, let’s take a look at how you can rebuild your social engagement circuits from their atrophied state:

  • Build up slowly. If any of this article resonated with you, I’d suggest you check in with yourself at this point. How long have you felt lonely or disconnected in your life, because of working remotely or other circumstances? Whatever the answer to that question is, see if you can meet yourself there and acknowledge it, so you can make changes based on it. Answers like “one month” or “ten years” will require vastly different responses to support yourself. Your friend’s well-intentioned advice to “come join me at this party tonight, so you’re not sitting home alone like you do all day for work!” may be the perfect thing for you. Or it might only trigger overwhelming a social engagement system that has atrophied too much, and needs a much slower and quieter build-up. Most people with a more atrophied social engagement system prefer quieter, one-on-one connections instead of big group outings. Here are some slower build-up ideas if you feel apprehensive of having more social engagement again in your life:
    • A meditation group in your area
    • Seeing a therapist
    • Meeting a friend for coffee
    • Going to the gym or any workout with a friend
    • Finding a running buddy
    • Video-chatting a friend (if you’re not feeling up to leaving the house)
  • Finding regularity. Once you identified some social engagement patterns that work for you, see if you can build up regularity around it. Like any muscle that’s become weak, it’ll only rebuild itself and get stronger if you exercise it regularly. Even though that one meeting with a friend felt good, find a way to incorporate regular outings in your default work and life (every day or two ideally). Can you have a standing lunch date once a week with your friend working in the office nearby? Can you take regular coffee breaks to connect for a longer period with some of the people around you in the coffeeshop you work from, or the co-working space you work out of?
  • Disconnect loneliness from fear and make it your friend. Something that strikes me over and over again in my work of one-on-one coaching is that once we get close to Loneliness, we always recognize that the root of it is just a signal to go out and meet people. Yet, it is so often overcoupled with Fear. Feeling lonely and feeling scared are two different feelings. Nearly every person I worked with, once that was experientially understood on the feelings-level, saw a very clear opening for what to do next and how to connect with other people again. I’ve written before about how to uncouple two feelings from each other that are often coupled together, but are healthier when seperated.
  • Work from a small office with other remote workers. A friend of mine shared this wonderful piece of advice: “I recommend working from small offices with other remote workers instead of working from home, co-working spots or cafes.” I think this is an excellent way to experience all the benefits of remote work and also mitigating the downsides. He also wrote a full guide on how to master managing remote teams.

Takeaway: By taking actions that exercise your vagus nerve, you can slowly but surely rebuild your social engagement circuits. By staying aware and coming to terms with the atrophy, you can even set up personal systems to help protect you from returning to an atrophied state. Be mindful and aware of your own symptoms.

The Coffeeshop Caveat

A common piece of advice I’ve given and heard other people recommend in the fight against remote-work loneliness is, “Just work from a coffee shop or a co-working space!”

Although well-intentioned, I think this advice is challenging to follow. The reason is that most of us know that being in an environment with other people doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t feel lonely. The one minute chat with the barista to pick up your coffee is not enough to feel connected or fulfill our desire to interact with other humans. Instead, find a way to collaborate with others regularly and on a level where you can share deeper challenges with them. The benefit is twofold: it creates and facilitates deeper friendships and stronger relationships with co-workers; and it also exercises your social engagement circuits in a deep and meaningful way, keeping them healthy and strong.

Takeaway: Shallow conversations with coffee shop staff or quiet co-working space users is not enough to exercise your vagus nerve. Focus on engendering a collaborative and meaningful community to interact with while you work. A collective of small, owner-operated startups are perfect for this kind of community.

The Wrap-Up

The rise of remote work has brought enormous benefits to millions of people around the world and it seems that this trend is only getting bigger. IndieHackers and the community it fosters is itself a product of the rise of remote work. But with the rise comes some troubling hurdles. I have experienced the difficult downsides that remote working can bring both in myself and in my work with founders and professionals firsthand. I think it’s important to acknowledge and learn to simply be with those challenges. As most remote workers report, ignoring these challenges for too long can have negative consequences on our lives, reaching right into the core of our human nervous systems and brains.

Luckily for us, once we identify the problems, finding a way out is possible and often much less scary than our brain tends to tell us. Hopefully, this article illuminated some dark corners of your remote-working experiences; and I hope the tips I leave you with will help in your quest to tame those shadows and feel healthy again.

What have been your experiences with working remotely and or loneliness? How does the IndieHackers community fight these effects? I’d love to have a bigger discussion with folks around what has worked and what hasn’t. Please let me and the community know in the comments below!