The past 10 years have seen a surge in telecommuting, with the number of remote workers increasing by 115%. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, around 43% of Americans regularly worked from home, but since many people currently working from home in lockdown now want to secure long-term remote opportunities, this figure is likely to increase even further.
As the mass COVID-19 remote work experiment has revealed, working from home can come with negative physical and psychological side-effects. For the distributed work model to be sustainable long-term, these need to be acknowledged and actively addressed by management; reducing employee risk and providing the right support. Here are just a few practical ways we can all improve the remote work experience.
The challenges of working remotely
The 2019 State of Remote Work Report showed that while people were overwhelmingly positive about working remotely, they felt it came with some serious challenges. Most common among these was the difficult unplugging from work. By bringing work into your home, working remotely can blur the boundaries between the workplace and personal life, making it more difficult to separate work from leisure time. As a result, many remote workers can end up working unconventional hours, leaving it hard to switch off entirely at the end of a work day.
In parallel with this, research has indicated that remote workers can feel guilt and a sense of indebtedness to their employer due to the flexibility provided, leading to longer working hours as a form of repayment. On average, remote workers log four more hours of work a week than their on-site counterparts – clearly, higher productivity can come at a cost.If remote workers don’t manage their time properly and create personal boundaries, they can be at risk of overworking and burning out.
Remote working can be an extremely lonely experience. Moving away from a traditional office setting and working at home removes a huge social aspect of work. While they may seem innocuous, coffee breaks, group lunches and office jokes are an important mean of bonding and building connection. Telecommuting risks removing this sense of community and support network.
Many of the benefits of remote work are actually eroded whenever the set-up makes employees feel isolated. Studies reveal that loneliness leads to lower productivity and performance, and lonely remote workers are more likely to quit. The freedom of remote quickly becomes hollow if a sense of belonging isn’t developed.
Alongside emotional isolation, telecommuting can also cause opportunity isolation. Being out of sight means that it can be harder for good work to be noticed and feedback given. On average, full-time remote workers are 29% less likely to agree that they have reviewed their major successes with manager in past 6 months.
And there’s a dangerous knock-on effect to this informational asymmetry: remote workers find it harder to receive recognition. This is not only harmful for self-esteem but also creates a natural disadvantage when it comes to being considered for promotions and career progression. Failing to judge remote workers equally to those based in-house can force employees to make a choice between the benefits of telecommuting and career progression.
Making "remote" work
None of these challenges are insurmountable. Managed the right way, remote workers can experience the benefits of flexibility without negative emotional and professional side-effects. Here are three practical steps every business can take to improve the remote work experience.
Keep remote work visible and regulated
Investing in tools which help remote workers manage their time and schedule work intelligently helps them maintain a healthier work/life balance. Those that visualize all team activity also help managers balance remote resources, team priorities, project health and employee wellbeing.
There are lots of tools that can help with this – like planning apps, activity journals and to-do lists – but the easiest and most thorough solutions are undoubtedly automatic time trackers. They meticulously record everything employees work on to a private timeline for them, which they can then easily share with their team.
By seeing all the time they spend on different tasks, employees can improve estimates for work and build more effective schedules. They can also surface inefficiencies and highlight tasks, apps or processes that hold them back. Most importantly, they helps to surface overtime and employee activity against capacity, so managers can proactively address unsustainable workloads and expectations to prevent burnout.
The benefits of meeting face-to-face should not be underestimated. It has been shown that employees who go into the office at least one day a week are the happiest. This is something that should be encouraged wherever possible (e.g. by offering "in-office days"), so that the benefits of on-site and remote work can be combined.
Of course, things get harder when employees are located all around the world, but you still have options. Annual company meetups help build a stronger sense of community and give many colleagues a change to meet in-person for the first time, boosting a sense of belonging which helps employees become more engaged in their work.
When back in your various locations, continue to hold regular remote team building activities. It’s all about keeping people talking – helping colleagues learn about each other and creating opportunities for self-expression. Beyond that, financially support you remote workers by offering remote stipends (e.g. paying for access to local co-working spaces). While they might not want to work there every day, it gives them the option to create a small professional community of their own.
Finally, get serious about your recognition practices. One of the simplest ways of encouraging feedback is through regular check-ins – it helps remote workers feel you actually take their input seriously by protecting space for regular direct communication. Reward schemes can also be useful but should be tailored to remote workers, so that they don’t end up with a gift card that can’t be used in their local area.
But to make a real impact, you need to go beyond this and publicly acknowledge good work. By sharing information publicly, the wider team knows that a project has been a success and remote people feel more visible. It also reduces the chances of remote workers being overlooked for promotions and helps your whole team collaborate better – knowing someone is a master at something helps connect people to the right skills.
Remember, your remote workers should enjoy the exact same status and privileges as their in-house colleagues. Wherever people feel disconnected, undervalued or disadvantaged, "remote" just won’t work.