Remote work has many advantages. But before business owners can benefit from them, they need to overcome the hurdles. This guide will outline the challenges of remote work and the most direct ways to navigate beyond them.
Remote work was once a privilege for certain types of workers. But with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has now become something of standard practice. Remote work is work done away from the office (‘remotely’) and is closely related to the concept of flexible work, where the employee will have more ownership of the workload and the total hours worked.
Remote work is on the rise in a big way. According to a Global Worker Survey conducted by IWG in 2019, 75% of workers consider remote work the new normal. Other notable statistics revealed by the survey include:
- 85% of business owners believe that it makes their business more productive
- 80% of workers will accept a flexible role over a traditional work role
- 62% of global businesses have a flexible work policy
- 65% of business owners believe flexible work policies reduce operational expenses
Remote work is here to stay and comes with a number of benefits. But it also arrives with a fair share of challenges. Business owners will have to carefully consider their flexible work policies and implement them in such a way that both the business and the employee prosper. The following are some of the challenges associated with remote work.
Table of Contents
- Challenge #1 – Unnecessary Meetings
- Challenge #2 – Loss of Face to Face Communication
- Challenge #3 – Loss of Informal Information Sharing
- Challenge #4 – Overworking
- Challenge #5 – Loss of Interest
- Challenge #6 – Alienation and Lack of Interaction
- Challenge #7 – Distractions
- How to Fix the Challenges (Employers)
- How to Fix the Challenges (Workers)
- 7 Remote Work Advantages
- The Role of Technology in Remote Work
- Psychological Implications of Remote Work
- Remote Work Software
- The Bottom Line
Challenge #1 – Unnecessary Meetings
One of the biggest challenges with remote work is that of unnecessary meetings. This stems from the fact that many managers are afraid that their workers will not put in enough effort without breathing down their necks. In one sense, it is understandable. A worker at home will typically not be engaged/motivated in comparison to working in an office.
While a balance has to be maintained, one of the most common complaints is that of unnecessary meetings. Workers feel that they are being messaged too many times about basic tasks, from bosses that feel they need to make their presence felt. Managers are trying to compensate for remote work by scheduling more meetings, and remote workers attend more meetings than traditional workers, at least according to research from Owl Labs.
At most, there should not be more than one meeting per day, yet many workers will have meetings twice a day, some with more than 14 meetings a week! Having meetings for the single purpose of having meetings is extremely counterproductive. On some level, it will be demoralizing for employees who will understand that the manager is simply checking in to make sure they are behaving themselves.
Again, it is all about balance. Perhaps 2-5 group meetings a week with a check-in with each individual once/twice a week should suffice. With over 70% of managers reporting that meetings are not productive, this is definitely an area that should be approached correctly.
Challenge #2 – Loss of Face to Face Communication
There is something about face to face communication that is superior to communicating over a screen. Despite the myriad of benefits associated with VOIP technology, people really thrive when interfacing face to face.
Often, it is the direct presence of a manager or boss that inspires the team to produce and puts it all together. There is a danger of a loss of productivity in this regard. Teams revolve around strong leaders that act as cohesive forces to attain goals.
And it is not simply on an employer to employee level that this loss of communication is felt. People need to work out any potential problems face to face. It is better to communicate one on one as opposed to sending an email or even arranging a call on Skype, Zoom, or an internal video system.
One of the biggest downsides of remote work, then, is the loss of face-to-face communication as companies turn more heavily toward low-bandwidth communication methods like email and chat. Although written communication can accomplish a lot, it falls short compared with the information exchange and personal connection of face-to-face conversations.
Additionally, it is asynchronous, meaning conversations aren’t necessarily happening in real-time. The real-time benefits of face-to-face interaction are lost in the delayed replies and other interruptions sprinkled in between.
Challenge #3 – Loss of Informal Information Sharing
This is related to point two above. When people are able to talk face to face, it allows for a lot of easy communication and face to face passive information transfer. This is why corporations insist on teams working closely together!
Despite all the benefits of remote work, nothing beats a team who all work physically near each other. Whenever you have a question, you turn around and ask a work colleague, without the need to schedule a meeting. Granted, you can also send a quick text, but it is not the same thing.
Work-colleagues often go to eat together and get to know one another. This is pivotal for success in any endeavor – the social relationships between people are as important as the individual skills of each team member. This point is not stressed enough in business assessments.
There are some ways around this. You could have a messenger chat room dedicated to entertainment and general talk. This can help to make team members feel connected on a personal level without being evaluated in any way. If you are a business owner with remote workers, make sure to facilitate collaboration and communication between employees in any way that you can.
Challenge #4 – Overworking
While most managers are worried about under-motivated employees who spend lots of time away from their computers, there is also the huge issue of ‘extra’ motivation, in one context.
People will be, in many cases, going to sleep within 15 feet of their computer, and waking up within 15 feet of their computer (which is basically their office space). These workers may lose the ability to shut down 100% so they are truly refreshed and revitalized for work. There may no longer be a work ‘day’ followed by the time ‘off’ work.
The primary way around this is to have clearly delineated accounts. Workers should close down all applications related to work after their designated shift. They should not look at work email during time off and to stop all work-related notifications.
This may be easier said than done, with people using many different accounts, and the lines between work and play are increasingly blurred. The best ways to avoid overworking include:
- Appointments – Set appointments on your calendar for the end of the day to get yourself out of your home office. Take a walk around the block, go to the gym, go for a yoga class, do something that enables you to take your mind off work, 100%. You can even do this during the day, returning refreshed for a couple of hours of focused work.
- Announcements – Be clear with your team on when you’re leaving—for example, by making an announcement in Slack, and then actually shut down your computer. Many people say make their goodbye then stick around for another 30 minutes or so.
- Boundaries – Create physical boundaries between you and your workspace. The best thing is if you have a dedicated office space so you can shut the office door, or even lock it. If you don’t have a dedicated office, even something as simple as putting your laptop out of sight when work has ended can help you avoid the temptation to log back on.
- Notifications – Turn off notifications on your phone and computer so you’re not pulled back into work after hours.
- Reminders – Set up reminders to take breaks. In Windows, you can use Task Scheduler to set up an hourly reminder. Timing your day with the Pomodoro technique can help as well.
Challenge #5 – Loss of Interest
A major challenge for managers and business owners is the fact that remote work brings new possibilities to employees. In most instances, remote work can galvanize a stagnant workforce with new energy. However, there are many other factors coming into play.
The combination of remote work and the COVID pandemic is forcing many employees to reevaluate their positions and their life strategies. While at home, they get exposed to new ideas and ways of performing. The end result is that they might veer in a different direction.
The way to proactively resolve this issue is to communicate with workers and put guidelines and procedures in place, along with chats and meetings. People need direction and purpose in their life, whether at home or in the office. Set goals and give your employees incentives to meet them. Reward them for work well done.
With remote work, you have to actively capture their interest somehow. Otherwise, they will go elsewhere. Employees need to be kept engaged and motivated, something which is a lot harder to do when everybody is not together in the office.
Challenge #6 – Alienation and Lack of Interaction
Perhaps the biggest elephant in the room is that of alienation and lack of interaction. People are not meant to work alone – they are most productive when part of a team working to achieve a common goal.
But it goes even beyond productivity. People will suffer from depression and loneliness. The psychological implications of remote work are explored in more detail below – many psychologists and social scientists have warned of the potential dangers of remote work.
The flexible workspace is an area that might offset this problem. This has already been implemented in the pre-COVID era, where digital nomads would work in communal working spaces. The employee would work with other employees, but they would be from different businesses.
This setting would provide the social setting to prevent alienation, and provide an impetus for networking and motivation. Communal work-spaces are not operational right now due to the on-going crisis but should become more common when things settle down.
Challenge #7 – Distractions
Many remote workers have a new set of challenges to contend with. They will often be working alongside their wife/husband, with limited room in the house for office work. They may have pets that need to be attended to, and/or children that arrive from school at various times.
And, on top of this, the remote worker has to contend with other distractions outside of other people. The temptation is there so eat more food – psychologically, it is going to be more difficult to overeat when the fridge is 6 feet away. It’s easy to go for an extended coffee break a couple of times a day without coworkers and managers to keep you in line.
In other words, remote workers need to have more discipline. They will be more productive if they can focus on their work, but those who are not motivated in the office will be even less motivated at home, with more distractions and no fear of punishment.
More details on how to avoid distractions are given below. But suffice to say that working in a kitchen with kids, pets, and family is a recipe for disaster unless you have a procedure in place to minimize distraction and maximize focus.
How to Fix the Challenges (Employers)
So, there are clearly many issues with remote work, as well as benefits (outlined below). But how do we address the problems in the most direct way?
While some things change, many things remain the same. Set (reasonable) goals and priorities for each and every employee. Ask them what they expect from the business, how they would like to proceed, and where they think the business is headed. Honest, direct communication is always the best way forward. You need to positively foster a relationship with your workforce.
The second step is to have the right tools in place. Primarily, these tools will include a messaging platform for people to informally communicate with one another. Because people are isolated in many different ways, they will need to connect in different ways. All people crave connection. As well as an informal messaging platform, you will need to get a good project management tool and other software, as applicable (such as remote viewing and time tracking).
These are the two primary ways to fix the issues associated with remote work. Have frequent meetings to see where everybody is at and don’t get too worried about productivity levels. As highlighted below, remote workers tend to be more productive, as long as managers are not breathing down their necks all the time. Assume that your employees are responsible enough to get work done, and take action if problems arise.
How to Fix the Challenges (Workers)
It is not just employers that have to deal with remote work challenges and keeping the team motivated! Workers also have a tough time adapting to a new environment. While there is no way to avoid all distractions, the following tips will be helpful:
- Boundaries – Set up a kind of ‘do not disturb’ signal to your family. Lock the door, put on headphones, or tell them not to distract you for any reason in certain hours.
- Childcare – If you have young kids, then you need to find somebody to take care of them while you work. There is simply no way to work with a young child around the house that constantly needs attention.
- Consistency – Set up consistent work hours each and every day. This will entrain you for increased productivity. This means that you are focused 100% on what you intend to do during your work hours and will not deviate for any reason. It will also help you to be consistent in your relaxation and entertainment.
- Headphones – Even without telling your family that you are working, a high-quality pair of Bose headphones sends out the message, loud and clear. You can couple this with some Theta binaural beats to assist in focus.
- Pet daycare – If you have a pet, don’t think you can save money by taking him/her out of pet daycare. This is another distraction. The exception is if you have a well-trained pet that does not need attention.
- Get out – If all else fails, try working out of a co-working space, the library, or a coffee shop. This may not be possible right now with COVID, which is why many are renovating their own home offices, which is becoming a necessity.
Perhaps the single best way to make remote work a viable option over the long-term is to do some home renovation and create your own office. You need space away from others who are not involved in the work that you do. The kitchen and living areas are simply not office spaces, and people will intrude. You need to make your own office.,
Aside from this, the best way to work remotely as an employee would be to have a clear delineation between work and leisure. Once you do this, you might find that your productivity levels will dramatically increase. Do not let work bleed into leisure.
Instead of looking at the problems presented, let’s take a peek at some of the many benefits of remote work from an employer and employee perspective.
7 Remote Work Advantages
Challenges aside, there are multiple benefits to remote work, once everybody acclimatized to the shift. The major advantages of working remotely include:
- Increased work-life balance – Workers simply have more time on their hands with remote work. Many of them are able to cut 2 hours of commute time each day. Spending two hours on a train or in a car is definitely not good for health, costly, inefficient, boring, and even frustrating.
- Increased anti-fragility – Because the business is not located in one particular area, it is more decentralized and anti-fragile. Your workers are remoting in and files can be kept in different locations. In the event of a natural disaster, you will not have computers in an office that could suffer harm, and you do not need insurance against theft, fire, storm, etc.
- Increased employee satisfaction/retention – As previously mentioned, most workers will take a job that offers a flexible work schedule. In addition to this, 42% of workers are willing to take a salary cut in order to avail of increased job flexibility. They are also 13% more likely to stay on-site, according to Owl Labs.
- Increased productivity – Generally speaking, the idea that remote workers will do nothing is simply a myth. Studies have proven they get far more done, despite taking more breaks. Which loosely translates to increased satisfaction for the worker, and increased profits for the business. A report conducted in 2020 by Airtasker found this to be the case, while also finding that remote workers were less likely to spend time on non-work related tasks compared to their office counterparts. The study was conducted on over 1,000 workers.
- Decreased carbon footprint – The carbon footprint from hundreds of millions of workers traveling to/from work each day is immense. Remote work can vastly assist with environmental concerns. Customers also like to do business with companies that are environmentally aware.
- Decreased expenses – The cost of maintaining office space in city centers is enormous. Further, the cost of buying and maintaining a desktop computer for every single computer is enormous. A team of engineers and IT professionals are required to create credentials and ensure the safety of the network, and there are also many operating expenses, as well as the lease itself. The bottom line is that remote work will save business owners a tonne of money.
- Increased access to applicants – Removing geographic obstacles separating employers from the best applicants for their vacancies, telework eliminates hiring borders and leads to more diverse workplaces. From posting job openings to receiving job applications and conducting interviews, hiring managers can select, screen, and evaluate candidates in an entirely virtual environment. This recruiting approach prioritizes aptitude, widens the hiring net, and allows employers to mitigate skills gaps, like multi-language fluency, that may be present in their immediate area.
The Role of Technology in Remote Work
Technology has a huge role to play in terms of the facilitation of remote work. In fact, technology is remote work. Without the huge number of project management tools, VOIP technologies, and messaging services, there is no way that remote work would be a reality. The proliferation of 4G internet (and soon 5G) has enabled people to work from anywhere.
Many tools have been devised with remote work in mind. It is not just about communication. It is about increased collaboration. Workers need to be engaged with the projects they are in, and this includes social engagement with co-workers. A-Zoom video meeting is simply not the same as being in a room with 10 other people.
How is it possible for a group to have a brainstorming session over a call? There are virtual whiteboards and similar services, but the technology has a long way to come to accommodate a truly inclusive remote workplace. There are also security issues to consider. Even if an end to the crisis is seen, remote work is here to stay.
People have become used to working from home and expect to be able to work from home in the long-term. Technology will have to adapt to suit these preferences.
Psychological Implications of Remote Work
Benefits aside, remote work has a number of negative psychological implications. This has been doubled with the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, which is causing stress across various sectors of life. According to the Association of Psychological Science:
Employees who have had to rapidly shift to remote work are vulnerable to feelings of uncertainty, being overwhelmed, and social isolation. At this time, it is essential that employers create opportunities and practices to help employees experience less ambiguity (e.g., providing clear expectations), reduce stress (e.g., offering employee assistance programs that provide short-term counseling and other confidential services), and maintain social cohesion (e.g., virtual happy hours and other social functions).
But even before COVID, remote work has been associated with a host of issues. It is commonly known among freelancers and digital nomads, who work on many different contracts but never really get to establish long-term relationships. Working at home, all day long is certainly no fun without any human interaction. At the very least, remote workers will need to meet people for lunch.
Human contact aside, many remote workers do not have a separate office, working from the kitchen table. This increases the chances of overeating. And there is no longer a delineation between work and leisure, as work has now seeped into the home. Working in the same area that you eat and relax will make it even more difficult for workers to switch off.
This is a key point for business owners to understand – you want your workers to be able to fully detach from work and relax. Otherwise, the quality of work will suffer.
Remote Work Software
In order for remote work to be successful, it is necessary to ensure that the software is up to date. There are a plethora of options to choose from. You will need:
- Messaging software – Slack, WhatsApp, Telegram, Troop Messenger
- Project management software – Trello, Asana, Basecamp, ProofHub, Instagannt
- Video software – Zoom, GoToMeeting, Skype, RingCentral
If you are looking for remote workers, then you would want to investigate TopTal, UpWork, or Freelancers.com. Here, you can find freelancers as you need them for one-off projects. You can view employee feedback and work history, so the power is really in your hands.
All you need is a couple of free online tools that are a good fit for your needs. A good mix might be something along the lines of BaseCamp and Zoom. BaseCamp also has informal messaging capabilities and is an excellent sole repository for multiple project management needs.
You might also want to check out a high-quality employee or online scheduling software. This is essential for service-based businesses and enables you to easily manage clients. Such tools include:
- SimplyBook: The most all-around appointment-setting solution for service-based industries. Super intuitive and a pleasure to use with a high level of functionality, but a little pricey.
- SetMore: Known for an extremely high standard of customer service. Offers an excellent live agent service for specialized businesses.
- ZohoBookings: Wonderful integration with the well-known Zoho suite. Great for those in the asset rental space.
Remote work is hard. But it can be made a whole lot easier with the right tools and programs to keep employees engaged and fulfilled. The benefits of remote work can be reaped by both employers and employees alike, once approached with due diligence and correct implementation.
Remote workers will have to get extremely organized in their home, to maximize focus and eliminate all manner of distractions. Business owners will have to keep their employees engaged and motivated, without having lots of needless meetings that are unproductive.
It is a thin line, but the rewards are enormous for those who get the balance right.
Is Remote Work Harmful Overall?
Overall, remote work is certainly not harmful. In fact, it is one of the biggest advances in recent times! In superpowers like the USA and China, people often travel to work each day, with an hour to and from the office. The overall psychological implications are not trivial and played a huge role in negatively altering the work/life balance of the employee. There are also transport expenses to consider. From the manager’s perspective, there is increased income from freeing up office space in cities, which is a massive cost. There are benefits all around and very little harm, though it will most definitely have an adaptation period for both classes.
How Is Corporate Culture Adapting to Remote Workers?
Corporate culture has adapted slower than most to the concept of remote workers. Starts and small businesses tend to embrace the idea freely. Corporate culture has opted more for flex spaces – where workers can go to complete their work as they need it. For instance, a large corporation might have Flexi spaces in 10 major cities, and a worker can easily get a transfer and work there. They also typically allow 1 or 2 days of remote work per employee, but still prefer at least 3 days of in-office work for team collaboration.
What Are the Main Dangers From a Manager Perspective?
The main danger from a manager’s perspective is the loss of productivity (as always!). But this fear is ungrounded in reality. There still needs to be a system of checks and balances so that the employee work can be assessed and monitored, to a degree. Remember, management is wonderful. Micromanagement is something entirely different. The employee might also not be as enthusiastic when away from the office, and start to get lonely and depressed.
What Is the Best Way to Stay Connected?
Frequent calls and meetings a few times a week to ensure that everybody is on the same page. Once or twice a month, arrange for dinner or coffee. If you live near people who work with you, then stay connected often and meet up daily for an informal chat. This is perhaps the best way. When meeting for a chat, there is no sense of ‘assessment; or ‘judgment’. You are simply meeting a friend to discuss the work environment and how best to proceed.
How Can I Take Advantage of Remote Work?
There are benefits on both sides. If you are a business owner, enjoy the increase in profits and a decrease in costs. Use freelancers to complete as many jobs as possible to decrease your costs even further. For employees, perhaps it is time to assess your work-life balance so that you can see how it can be optimized. You can work on your schedule, and do the things you always wanted to do but never had time for.
What Is the Relationship Between Remote Work and Shared Office Space?
Shared office space is where disparate employees from various companies work in the same office space. This is useful as the workers will not get the typical cabin fever and social isolation associated with remote work. It also provides networking opportunities and the potential for information sharing. Even before COVID, shared office space was an increasing trend, especially in the corporate environment, where urban rent was sky-high.
What Is the Single Biggest Challenge Associated With Remote Work?
The single biggest challenge is that of communication and loss of information sharing in a passive and social context. Email is just not the same as face to face communication, with many body language cues such as the tone of voice, wink of the eye, facial expression, hand movements, etc. It is easy for people not to be on the same page and much is lost in written communication. The situation is even worse if you are a remote worker and some people work in the office. You may feel ‘out of the loop’ and miss out on vital information.