A fundamental shift

Facebook. Twitter. And now Microsoft. 

These three technology giants have decided to make working from home part of their permanent corporate strategy. While decisions like these are often publicized to show “cost savings” or “employee satisfaction,” the reality is not so simple. These decisions are planting a flag in new territory for businesses at every size and in every industry.

Distance leading and virtual working is no longer the “new” thing to do to keep your business, and your employees, safe. Instead, work-from-home (WFH) options are continuing to grow as businesses explore new types of work environments.

As employees move away from the office, two worrisome considerations emerged for many leaders. Even if you’re not a leader, you or your colleagues may be experiencing these effects, too!

  1. People feel disconnected and lost without the office “structure” for interpersonal interactions, dedicated work spaces, and more fluid communication.
  2. Mental exhaustion and burnout are growing as the boundaries between work life and home life erode.

Lingering anxieties

To be honest, virtual working is not everyone’s preference. The in-office environment is a powerful motivator for many people. Being in an office may provide a community that helps you feel secure and working on a common goal. In a collocated office, you may feel more empowered, be able to communicate better, and share more social time in the office environment. The transition between being at the office or at home creates meaningful boundaries every day. You and your colleagues may miss those boundaries between work and home lives, adding to feelings of anxiety and disconnection.

Another source of anxiety comes from communications technology. Yes, we now have more ways to communicate than ever before. There are thousands of tools that help us communicate, but each one is another step away from a face-to-face conversation. Complex tools are helpful, but require practice to use effectively. Using technology is never as easy as simply talking to another person, and adds a level of difficulty to our communication patterns.

It’s hard to keep morale up if it’s a one-person show! As a leader and a colleague, we see and feel these anxieties (and there are many more) in ways that make us feel more isolated. Small problems that a group can solve quickly become much larger when we have to create solutions alone.

Learning as a coping strategy

One course of action you can take is to participate in learning. A number of studies indicate that participating in learning activities can improve mood and perspective (Klimova, 2016; Srisuwan et al., 2020). Several of the studies also found that learning online helps build new cognitive skills and helps decrease anxiety!

What makes learning different? There are a number of possible reasons why learning might improve learners’ moods.

Learning focuses on self-improvement. While learning new skills, ideas, and cognitive patterns, your brain focuses on external points of interest. Think of this change of focus like a “neural distraction” of the best kind. When you are learning, you are consciously directing your attention to new problems and interests.

Learning reestablishes a sense of control. In many WFH environments, a common thread is a sense of powerlessness. When you are spending time in the “learning zone,” you are in control. If the learning is self-paced, that’s even better! Spending the time you need to understand concepts is a welcome relief if your days are often a blur.

Learning boosts your self-awareness. A nice side effect of experiencing learning is that you feel more competent and valuable after completing a meaningful course. When completing a course, most learners feel a sense of accomplishment. If you can use the new ideas in your work environment, too, then you get a double bonus: you feel more accomplished and your coworkers can see your added value!

Learning can provide a sense of community. For group learning experiences, you can participate in activities in a way that helps you feel connected and supported. When structured well, learning activities and events provide a way to share interests as you develop new ideas. This isn’t limited to webinars, either! Many online courses include moderated responses, so you can ask questions and receive answers from the instructor and your classmates. 

Learning is often a positive diversion. There are so many things that can take our attention and drag our emotions down. When you are focused on learning and self-improvement, you are reinforcing the value that you bring to the learning process. In the long run, it’s an investment in your well-being and can help you divert negative emotions during the learning process.

Keep learning!

How do you reinvigorate your learning habits? The answer to that question lies in your interests. Opportunities to learn something new are fairly easy to find, although the options can be overwhelming. Here are a few starting points to consider:

  • Community colleges or universities. When people think of learning, their mind often drifts to school environments. Many community colleges and universities have weekend or evening classes that might be beneficial for you. Do you need to bolster your Excel skills, learn more about the HR process, or build up your project management expertise? The community college or university option is great for people who want to participate in the classroom (virtual or in-person) experience.
  • Professional organizations. Many professional organizations provide training or keep a list of partnering training resources. This is a great way to connect with like-minded professionals or peers in the same career family. Now that so many people are in WFH mode, many professional organizations have been offering many more courses to help their members grow their careers.
  • Online courses. If you are looking for single-topic and often self-paced learning experiences, then the opportunities for online courses have blossomed. Look for courses that are more than just video collections. Ideally, courses should invite you to dig deeper into your experiences. (I am a bit biased on this one - check out www.DistanceLeaderAcademy.com to find out more!)
  • Meetups. If you want to learn something just for fun with minimal time commitment, then check out what websites like Meetup.com, Facebook, and Groupspaces.com have to offer. Many events are held virtually, so you are not limited to a specific geographic area. Whether it’s a class on crochet skills, how to move to another country, or making leadership connections, meeting with people for shared learning experiences can be a positive way to develop your mind.

Final thoughts

The concept of distance work looks like a big part of the future work environment. As people continue to grow their WFH skills and abilities, you can jump to the head of the line by staying engaged through learning. In addition to keeping your brain active and occupied on positive tasks, you can learn some powerful approaches to apply to your job.

Good luck, and get learning!

Klimova B. (2016). Use of the Internet as a prevention tool against cognitive decline in normal aging. Clinical interventions in aging, 11, 1231–1237. https://doi.org/10.2147/CIA.S113758

Srisuwan, P., Nakawiro, D., Chansirikarnjana, S. et al. (2020) Effects of a Group-Based 8-Week Multicomponent Cognitive Training on Cognition, Mood and Activities of Daily Living among Healthy Older Adults: A One-Year Follow-Up of a Randomized Controlled Trial. J Prev Alzheimers Dis 7, 112–121. https://doi.org/10.14283/jpad.2019.42