Remote working suffers from some serious rose tinting. Tell people you work remotely and chances are they’ll assume you’re a ‘digital nomad’, working wherever you want and whenever you want; catching up with emails from a sun-soaked beach, or tapping away on your laptop from a hybrid bike-yoga-coffee shop. The reality isn’t quite so glamorous, and we would all do better to recognize the serious downsides of remote working. Here are just six of the biggest.
Social withdrawal and isolation
Remote working is a double-edged sword: many of its perks also become its pitfalls, and remote worker loneliness is one of the biggest of these. While the idea of not having to leave your house seems great – particularly when the weather is disgusting – it can be a fast-track to social withdrawal and isolation. Loneliness was rated as the biggest struggle of working remotely in Buffer's 2020 State of Remote Work report, alongside challenges with collaboration and communication. If you work from home, it can be scarily easy to go for days without having a meaningful face-to-face interaction with another person.
You might not be best friends with your office co-workers, but conversation and collaboration form an important part of human connection. Since remote workers don’t have the same access to this daily interaction, it’s no wonder that they forge much weaker relationships with their teammates than their office counterparts. Video conferencing is convenient and certainly facilitates remote work, but socially it’s no substitute for face-to-face meetings.
On a similar note, it’s easy to feel excluded as a remote worker, especially when the majority of your peers are office-based (as is the case for most companies who hire remote workers). You miss out on the camaraderie of the rest of the team, who have their own bonding events and develop their own shared space together.
While tools like Slack are great for keeping communication accessible to the whole company, trying to follow private office jokes or seeing photos of group office fun can only amplify your sense of disconnection. No matter how rigorous your company is trying to bridge this gap, it’s hard to shake the feeling of being in a long-distance relationship.
The desire to be seen as ‘present’ in the workplace – contributing and creating value – can be strong even among office workers, but as a remote worker it takes on a completely new form. You feel an immutable need to prove you’re engaged despite being miles away; developing weird behaviors in the process, like sending unnecessary messages at the start and end of your day, and responding to emails as soon as they arrive.
Not only does it make you anxious about how the rest of the team sees you, it also disrupts your productive flow. And it’s pointless; employers who hire remote workers aren’t going to be suspicious if it takes you a while to reply – the whole working model can’t work without a basic trust and respect for employees as masters of their work and time.
Career development difficulties
Professional development can also suffer from remote workers’ lack of visibility in the workplace. Studies have shown that having a physical presence at work increases the probability of promotion, positive appraisals and raises. Even when remote workers do get salary raises, these are frequently smaller and their performance reviews are lower.
What’s worse, these factors only further contribute to the maddening need to prove your presence. More resources are spent simply transmitting the fact that you’re working, and it’s doubly hard to disengage from the job when you’re always switched on.
Lack of structure
Work flexibility has become a huge draw for the best talent worldwide, and while a lot of people are attracted to remote work by its structural fluidity, it’s often what they struggle with most. Without clear boundaries or structure, some people fall into a ‘grazing’ way of working; dipping in and out of work throughout the day with no distinct end point.
When the boundaries between your work and personal life aren’t clearly defined, it’s difficult to keep the two halves separate. You may find yourself working longer hours, taking fewer breaks, skipping lunch, working late and interrupting downtime to pick up a new Slack request.
This is a big one. Always being switched on comes with some pretty heavy implications for your physical and mental health. Working intensely for extended periods with few quality breaks can lead to disturbed sleep, stress, anxiety and depression – and because these factors can have catastrophic effect on heart function, it’s plain to see how high the stakes are.
Of course, there are lots of benefits in working remotely, but to make sure it’s a viable work model long-term, we need to measure the good with the bad. We can’t keep glossing over the downsides and focusing only on the freedoms; since really, the ability to work from anywhere doesn’t count for much if you’re constricted psychologically. In order to truly work, remote work requires the right culture, management and support – the combined effort of employees, colleagues and management alike.