With a pandemic spreading across the world, many office workers are working from home. There have been articles published everywhere about what remote working means with tips about how to be a successful remote worker. Some articles are positive about it while others are not.
I have been a remote worker for over 2 years. As an introvert, this seemed like the perfect setup for me. I knew that I wouldn’t really miss the human interaction that comes from an office. Some of my former colleagues talked about cabin fever and going stir crazy on the days that they worked from home. They said they needed to be around people. I don’t get that feeling very often. In fact, I can spend entire days without leaving my house. Being alone doesn’t bother me.
The being alone part of remote work doesn’t bother me. That doesn’t mean that the transition from working in an office to working at home was easy. It wasn’t so much about my productivity or motivation, but more about adjusting to this new work culture. Two years in, when I think about my current work situation, I can definitely see the benefits of remote work, but I can also see many downsides.
What I Like About Remote Work
No one can argue about this one. I can go work out in the middle of the day or take a walk. I can make my own meals. I can run to the grocery store and get other errands done during the day. If I am not feeling productive, I can take time to work on other things (like writing a blog post). I can take a nap in the middle of the day.
I don’t have any family responsibilities, but if I did, this type of work would provide me with the flexibility to take care of these types of things.
I can also choose my hours. If I have some obligation at 3 in the afternoon, I can start work earlier and work later in the evening. I am not restricted to the 8-5 work hours prescribed by the general office environment. Personally, I like a routine. I still get up at the same time every morning, get dressed and work mostly the same hours every day, but I like knowing that if something comes up, I can be flexible.
Again, you can’t argue with this one. I used to spend 45 minutes commuting into downtown each morning and 45 minutes commuting home. I used public transport, so I didn’t have the stress of traffic, but I still wasted 1.5 hours of each day getting to and from work.
Since I have started working from home, I sleep in one more hour each morning. The additional hour of sleep actually does wonders for my health. I feel fresher. I am no longer fighting fatigue by the end of the week. I fill my evenings with activities I like most.
One of the most important things in any remote work culture is transparency. Because we aren’t all in the same office, we have to make sure that information is public and can be found by anyone at any time. In an office, a lot of our information is gathered through overhearing conversations going on. Somehow, information gets disseminated through these small side conversations between different people at different times.
In a remote office, everything needs to be available to everyone. We have to be fully transparent about what we are working on. We work in the open. This means that our work speaks for itself and is fully available for others to see. This helps promote a healthy feedback cycle and collaboration.
Less Office Politics
No organization, remote or not, is immune to politics. Politics are everywhere. But office politics are something I loathe more than anything. I worked in an office for 10 years, and I was always annoyed at office politics. It was little things like who got the standing desks. It was the bigger things like who got promoted. It was a game that usually the most vocal and most confident won. The people who were good at agreeing with the CEO and telling her exactly what she wanted to hear were the ones who became managers, the ones who made an extra effort to suck up.
In a remote environment, this happens less. There is less of a “become best friends with the CEO to get ahead” mentality. The quieter folks aren’t drown out as often by the outspoken folks. Because we communicate through text, everyone’s voice can be heard equally (usually the most verbose are the ones ignored because no one likes to read long triads). Everyone gets their own corner office (with standing desk if they desire).
Believe me, there are still politics, but it’s mitigated to a certain extent.
When I worked in a 15-person open-space office, one of my biggest gripes was that most of my colleagues were working heads down with headphones on for the full 8-hour workday. We were working in the same space, but we used Skype to talk to one another. No one was interested in collaborating beyond what was absolutely necessary. I felt we should be trying to connect with one another more and have those important in-person conversations that would spark creativity. That was not the case. It was like we were all remote but in the same office.
The truth is that you might have one or two people on your team who spark your creativity. These are the likely the people you talk with the most often and the reason you might enjoy going into the office each morning. The other 95% of people in the office? Small talk. Occasionally, they might say something of interest, but most of the time, everyone is heads down. In meetings, we all forget 95% of what was said.
In a remote environment, the same rings true. You might have a handful of people who are great colleagues and help you do amazing things. You can set up video hangouts with these people to chat and to toss ideas around. You can also arrange group hangouts to get some creative juices flowing between different people. Being in a physical office doesn’t make much of a difference.
The foundation of remote work is mutual trust. Everyone has to trust one another to be honest and do their work. A work environment that is based on trust is extremely motivating. It can make people feel empowered and productive.
What I Don’t Like About Remote Work
I realize that what I enjoyed about remote work mostly revolved around lifestyle. As an introvert, I am ok being alone. However, many of the professional and business aspects of remote work are extremely challenging. Here are some things I don’t like about remote work.
Lack of Collaboration
This is probably my biggest gripe about remote work and the main reason I would argue against it. It’s true that you can have a physical office with very little collaboration, but it’s easier to force people into a conference room every once in a while to work together. In a remote environment, you can’t force people to work together.
One can argue that people can collaborate perfectly well in a remote office with the tools available (Slack or another instant message), video calls, and collaborative software, like Google docs where people can work together on a document or proposal or Github where people can collaborate on code. In theory, yes, there are a plethora of tools available to improve communication and collaboration between teams. In reality, you have people working alone on different projects and not using the tools at all.
Since remote workforces tend to skew introverted, people are usually happy working alone and many don’t value collaboration. The result? Duplicate efforts and a poor product experience. Imagine a developer who holes up in a work cave for 3 months and reemerges with a solution to a problem. The solution works but it doesn’t work well with any of the other systems. It doesn’t fit into the existing process (which means you have to overhaul the entire process to introduce the new solution). The text labels are so technical that they make no sense to a normal English speaker. It’s designed by a developer to be used by a developer. The end- user can’t use the product without knowing code. All the work done by the developer will have very little impact because the solution can only be used by a select few.
Unfortunately, I see this happen often in my current job. In a physical office, when you go into cave mode, someone usually notices and pulls you out of it. There are also visual reminders. For example, if you pass by someone in the marketing division, you are reminded to think about marketing when launching your product feature.
In a office you run into the people you can ask to help you. When you are alone in front of your computer, you don’t know who to go to. You don’t know who has been down the road before and who has the experience and background, so you default to going it alone. You start from scratch. This happens on the team level as much as on the individual level. We aren’t learning from one another. We aren’t making our work better through collaboration.
I wonder how much better we could be if we collaborated more on these projects. Even as an introvert, I value the opinion and ideas of other people. I think it’s this collaboration that makes things great – a sum of the parts (the full pie à la mode, instead of just one measly, runny slice).
In a remote work environment, it’s hard to promote active, productive collaboration. People fall back to working alone. Collaboration has to be built into the culture of the remote team. It has to be embedded in every team and new hire. Once it starts to fall apart, it’s hard to go back.
As I have mentioned several times, I am an introvert, so I don’t feel a pressing need to be around other human beings. I like the quietness. However, for some people, this feeling of isolation can be unbearable. It makes them feel lonely and unproductive. Remote work can be torture for these people.
What I experience more often is isolation from a work perspective, the feeling of being excluded and not part of a team. It’s easy to feel this way working from home. There is no active communication. Your teammates are all working on different, unrelated projects. You are also working in your own silo. You don’t know who to ask for feedback. People don’t respond to your messages. You don’t have that lifeline to help pull you back into work reality. It can be very challenging.
I have to admit that one of the things I miss most in about being in an office is being able to toss ideas around spontaneously. I like having that instantaneous feedback. It makes me feel more confident about my ideas. At home, alone in front of my computer, I am often unsure if I am going in the right direction and I don’t have any sanity check. I lose trust in myself.
When people start feeling this way, it’s usually because of poor team cohesion, which is usually related to poor management. Part of being a lead in a remote team is facilitating collaboration and making the team feel aligned in what they are working on. If this is not happening, then this feeling of isolation can be extremely tough to handle.
Communication is essential in any kind of work environment, remote or not. Poor communication is usually the source of most problems in an office. In a remote environment, good communication becomes exponentially more important, especially written communication.
When you are in a physical office, it’s easy to take for granted. We build empathy for others when we see faces and detect emotions. We run into people and remeber to tell them things. When working remotely, we are communicating mostly through text and occasionally video. We don’t have that same connection to people. We develop more selfish tendencies. Lots of information gets stuck with one person.
To make a remote work culture work, everything needs to be written down. Most people aren’t used to communicating often and well (in a direct and concise manner) in a written format, which results in a lot of confusion. Ineffective communication in a remote work force kills productivity.
Lack of Motivation and Slacking off
Lack of motivation can also be a problem for a remote team. Being self-motivated is one thing, but if you don’t know what to work on, how do you motivate yourself to do it?
This is another challenge for companies with remote work forces. If people don’t have a unified mission and goal, they don’t know what to work on. They lose their motivation. They start to slack off.
I am guilty of this. When you have no one paying attention to how you spend your time, it’s easy to slack off. You can spend full days doing nothing productive. No one knows if you aren’t working. People also slack off in an office, but in an office, you can say that you were at work. At home, if you aren’t working, you aren’t working.
Lack of Accountability and Productivity
It’s easy to make it looks like you are working when you work from home (make sure you move your mouse every once in a while so it looks like you stay connected, engage in a conversation here or there). After a while, you fall into the routine of spending more time trying to look busy than actually being busy (the same way you would do in an office, but in a remote way). In a remote work environment, you can easily lose your sense of accountability, especially if no one you work with directly is accountable. After a while, expectations are lowered all around. The team is half as productive as it could be because no one is accountable for their work. This multiplied across the whole company seems pretty disastrous.
People Who Are There Only Because of the Perks
Everyone has dreamed of a remote job. They see pictures of people working from exotic places all over the world. They want a job with the remote company solely because the job is remote. Nothing else matters. They don’t care about the product. They don’t care about the job. They don’t care about the mission. They want to have the freedom to work from home (and usually slack off), while enjoying traveling the world.
Unfortunately, there are these types of people in all remote teams. For them, it’s a cush job. They do the bare minimum. They are great at making it seem like they are doing a lot work. They are only there to take advantage of every remote benefit. These people can put a real damper on the motivation and productivity of others.
After 2 years as a remote worker, what is my stance on remote work? From a personal lifestyle perspective, I love it. Some mornings I wake up wondering if I am really getting paid to stay at home. From a work perspective, it has challenges that I won’t deny.
I think remote work in ideal conditions would be amazing, where humans are driven solely by the overall mission of the company and everyone puts in equal amount of effort. There are not people slacking off and other people picking up their slack. Collaboration, trust and transparency are built into the very core of the company. But alas, we are humans and none of this is natural to us.
In reality, remote work is hard. There are many things that don’t work if it’s not managed correctly. Most of it about culture. You need to cultivate a strong remote work culture and make sure everyone who enters the remote team from the outside is also conditioned to work by the same values. People who adopt physical office practices in a remote team can break the entire remote culture of your company.
Also people tend to forget that working remotely does not mean working alone. We are still on a team. As remote workers, we just have to make more of an effort to make teams work and connect with the other people we work with. We also each have to internalize the remote work values (collaboration, communication, trust and transparency) and integrate it into our day-to-day. It’s not easy, especially for shy introverts, like myself. It’s also counter intuitive to the way many of us grew up (working together in person in school, activities, and other organizations). But I think being aware of this is the only way to make remote work work long term.
If I had a choice, would I go back to working in a physical central office? No. Is working from home ideal for everyone? Definitely not. Am I an example of a successful remote worker? Not yet, but hopefully I will get there.