Technology has vastly improved the feasibility of remote work for companies and workers alike. The benefits of these new flexible and off-site options are numerous; remote work accommodates the busy schedules of working parents, expands freelance and entrepreneurial opportunities for individuals, cuts down on office and workplace resource costs, attracts and retains talent, and even improves worker efficiency. What’s not to love?
With the current public health concerns surrounding COVID-19, working remotely has proven useful once again. Instead of choosing between pre-emptive (but costly) extended business closures or the health risk of a close-quarters workplace during a disease outbreak, many companies are switching gears and adapting to remote work settings.
Of course, not every industry or job has the option to take advantage of remote work, but many of those that do are making a quick-switch to keep employees healthy and productive. For companies that may have previously been adverse to allowing flexible or remote work options, this will be an excellent trial period to see how staff performance and productivity fairs. However, as health officials further encourage the practice of “social distancing”—at work, school, and beyond—many individuals are discovering that remote work is not without its faults.
Isolated Employees’ Creativity, Problem Solving Skills Suffer
For one quarantined worker, the disadvantages are surprising. Kevin Roose has long been an outspoken supporter of remote work; but now, he says in an article for The New York Times, this set-up may be good for efficiency but “less ideal” when trying to achieve a harmonious work-life balance.
When the boundaries of work are not physically constrained by an office building, they can begin to encroach on home life and personal time. The inability to separate work from the rest of life can add to stress levels, negatively affect non-work relationships, and decrease overall wellness. Remote workers also to take shorter breaks and fewer sick days. Instead of resting at home or visiting a doctor while sick, an ill employee may find it easy to get work done from a laptop while reclined on a couch. In other words, making work so accessible may be making it harder for workers to “turn off” and relax.
This leads into another problem: a lack of mental stimulation. In addition to not giving appropriate time for breaks, remote workers lose a certain amount of creativity and inspiration that naturally comes from social interactions. Roose recalls how Steve Jobs, an opponent of remote work, believed strongly that “Apple employees’ best work came from accidentally bumping into other people, not sitting at home in front of an email inbox.” Additionally, team cohesion suffers and problems are solved less quickly.
Employers should also be aware about loneliness that off-site employees may experience. Single or childless workers and those without a religious or shared-interest community are most at risk, as the workplace may be one of the few opportunities for them to experience social interaction. These isolated workers are at risk of suffering from decreased mental health and depression.
Roose laments that “being near other people also allows us to express our most human qualities, like empathy and collaboration. Those are the skills that can’t be automated. And they’re what produces the kind of meaningful interpersonal contact we miss out on when we’re stuck at home.”
How to Remedy Remote Work’s Disadvantages
- Enable online interactions with off-site employees such as message boards, social channels, and virtual meetings where employees are encouraged to talk about more than just work-related tasks. For example, GitLab encourages its employees to schedule “virtual coffee breaks” to get to know other colleagues through social video interactions.
- Use icebreaker questions or create time for informal conversation during group calls or meetings.
- Encourage a mix of both work-from-home and on-site days to an employee’s schedule. If possible, allow workers to combine days in and out of the office each week. Humu, a human resources start-up, found that a combination of work settings each week allows an employee to still be a part of office culture, while achieving better productivity during more focused work at home.
- Honor remote workers’ time by not contacting them after regular office hours or while they are taking time off for vacation or sick days.
- Encourage remote workers to dedicate a specific space for work that can help them keep their personal life separate. Some may want to join co-working spaces if they are not located near an employer but want to enjoy the social interaction of a regular office.
By being mindful of employees’ social needs, personal time, and team dynamics, companies can successfully incorporate remote work options that support employee wellness, work-life balance, and productivity.