If you work remotely or from home, you’ve probably found yourself on the receiving-end of envious comments from friends and family. No manager looking over your shoulder; working in your own comfortable surroundings; wearing casual clothes; they’re all things that people think they want – but the reality of remote work is often very different.
The working landscape is changing – and while this presents exciting new opportunities for blending work and life, it also comes with its own set of problems. The question is: do we fully understand what these problems are? And even if we do; can we do anything about them?
What’s your perception of remote work?
While people’s assumptions about how relaxing not going into an office each day might not be 100% accurate, there are definitely benefits to be had. Social media management platform Buffer recently collaborated with series of major players in the field of remote work to compile a detailed study into the habits and opinions of thousands of remote workers around the globe.
The results of the study were interesting – to say the least:
- 99% of workers would like to work remotely for at least some of the time – for the rest of their career
- 40% of remote workers considered having a flexible schedule the biggest benefit of remote work
- 84% of people said ‘home’ was their primary work location
- 30% of people enjoyed the ability to work from any location they wish
- 14% of people said remote work increased their time with family
While these represent some apparently life-changing shifts in how people work, it’s not just employees who love to work remotely; companies that offered remote working positions were also asked about their attitudes to telecommuting and working with home-based workers. A staggering 91% said they intended to always support remote work. The message is clear; whether we’re asking employees or employers, the employment model is changing – and everyone seems to approve.
With such universal approval or remote, freelance or work from home positions – what’s the problem?
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Why can skewed perceptions of remote work be damaging?
Now, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a new approach to working – especially when it comes with so many perceived benefits – but what happens when we take a step back and cut through the novelty and overt benefits associated with working from home?
Buffer’s survey also gave us glimpse into the struggles that remote workers tackle every day:
- 22% said remote work made it difficult to strike a healthy work/life balance
- 19% cited loneliness as a factor in their remote working
- 43% of remote workers took only 10-15 days of vacation each year
- 10% of workers struggled with the distractions of home
- 8% of people had trouble staying motivated
This presents a tricky picture. 95% of respondents said they would encourage others to work remotely – even though the practice seems laden with pitfalls. It’s not just Buffer that are highlighting these problems either, Google’s two-year study into remote work finds significant issues too – and there are countless stories of remote working struggles coming from IT professionals – a sector in which remote work positions are increasingly all the time.
The question is, do we really understand what a healthy work environment looks like for ourselves? Do we appreciate the risks we’re shouldering when we break out of a traditional work environment?
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Where does protection come from?
When a company grows to a certain size, the need for some human resources provision is legally required. Why? Well, put simply, people are complex; employees come with a sprawling collection of issues that require laws, regulations, and workplace rules to protect against.
This can’t be underestimated. When given free reign, people have the capacity to work themselves into an early grave. The Japanese even have a word for it – karoshi – and while instances are few and far-between, it’s proof that often, we simply do not know how to look after ourselves without some guidance.
In a contained environment, these rules are more easily levied. While there are official procedures to account for major issues (such as working time directives), the small gestures are often the ones that catch problems before they have chance to develop into something greater; the boss who’ll cut you some slack if you’re unwell; the pressure-easing chats with colleagues when you have a coffee break; or the fact that you simply cannot access the office at 3am to work on something that’s keeping you awake. Take a look at this article about Hustle Culture – it’s more harmful than helpful.
Engagement with employees and colleagues isn’t just about immediately productivity, it’s also about nurturing healthy working environments for those people. Even the coldest, most utilitarian company understands; engaged and healthy employees are more productive over short, medium, and long term.
What are the problems with remote work?
So, what are the issues we might expect to run into as a remote worker? Well, it turns out they’re numerous, according to Buffer study.
- 22% of people struggle to get a good life/remote work balance
- 19% of remote work employees find working from home to be lonely
- 17% of people who remotely work struggle with collaboration or communication
- 10% of home workers find it very difficult to avoid distractions
- 8% simply struggle to stay motivated
This paints a stark picture. Almost half of all remote workers struggle with some wellness-related issue. Let’s not forget though; 99% of people want to hold onto remote working, and 95% of people encourage their friends to do the same. What is it that makes remote workers long for a 50/50 chance that mental well-being will be damaged by work?
The answer? It’s very difficult to say – and it’s likely to be different person-to-person. Perhaps you’ve tackled a city commute for years, maybe remote work gives you chance to be with your family more, perhaps you hate your boss, maybe you want to travel the world before old age. There are too many reasons to make sweeping generalisations – but one thing’s for sure; we want to work remotely, whatever the cost to our health.
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What are the root problems underneath remote work?
In the world of Health and Safety, risk assessments underpin virtually everything we do. Since remote work seems to carry significant risk, the first thing you need to ask is whether or not the risk is necessary; can this risk be completely removed? Should we remove remote work positions?
For most employers, the sensible answer is no. Remove remote work positions and you stand to lose a fair number of people to organisations who are more flexible. It’s a double-edged sword though – because while you don’t want to remove the positions altogether, you don’t want reduced productivity (you must increase productivity), or, worse still, employees mental-wellbeing so badly diminished that they become sick or leave.
Whether you’re a remote working freelancer, or you’re an employer who works with remote staff, you need to dig into the root causes behind the symptoms that can present. What are the problems that lie at the very core of the issues surrounding remote workers?
1. Work comes first
Remote workers will often work significantly longer hours to ensure their output is in line with what they think is expected. As a result, their hourly rate can drop, healthy personal relationships can suffer, and mental-wellbeing can be damaged. Work can often come first, whatever the cost.
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Isolation from the workplace can also mean isolation from important information and positive workplace cultures. Not only will this limit efficiency; it can also compromise feelings of job security.
3. (lack of) Resources
A lack of workplace resources means ergonomic health can be damaged. Working with a laptop on a sofa and mobile phone on your shoulder is no substitute for a well-lit workspace, office chair, desk, and headset.
4. Data Security
Data protection can be a source of deep worry. Employees can be hesitant to carry sensitive data for fear of loss – and the potential legal ramifications. With such data often crucial to work roles, productivity can drop.
5. Work is Home
When work and home become one place, it can be difficult to keep boundaries between the two. Problems with ‘switching off’ from work can lead to diminished personal relationships and loss of time that normally involves leisure pursuits or relaxation.
Many creative freelance positions also require the kind of admin and sales support that a company would normally provide. As such, freelancers often find themselves in positions that are tightly confined by responsibilities they simply did not anticipate.
7. No Dress-Code
When there is no requirement to dress formally (or even dress at all) mental-wellbeing can deteriorate. More relaxed standards – whether that’s in dress, posture, presentation or many other areas, can lead to unrecognised impact to self-esteem in the medium to long term.
Working from home lacks some of the markers that personally identify you as successful or achieving. Where an office worker might move offices, get a parking space, or simply move in different work social circles, a remote work employee can feel like they remain stagnant, damaging confidence and feelings of worth – both within the organisation and personally.
There are some heavyweight issues in there. From damaged backs to ruined self-esteem, these are not things we want for ourselves or, if we’re someone who manages remote workers, for our staff.
How do we create and nurture healthy remote workers?
If we are to successfully engage with this new era of employment, we need to be absolutely confident that we’re doing everything possible to mitigate the health issues that remote workers face. If you’re an employer, it’s your duty to safeguard wellbeing; if you’re a freelancer or consultant, it falls to you to perform the duties of an employer, taking your own wellbeing seriously.
With this in mind, what can we do to make sure our working environment is conducive to health and productivity?
1. Create a professional space
Like it or not, you’re not going to do your best work sitting on your bed with Netflix on in the background. Aim to create a professional working space, with a chair and desk that won’t damage your posture. You don’t need to spend a fortune either – but it’s important to separate ‘work’ from ‘home’ – even if that’s just by dedicating one corner of a room to productivity.
2. Think about security
Working remotely doesn’t need to mean data (and therefore jobs – or even companies) are put at risk. Using a good VPN to connect your home office to the wider world will help you adhere to strict new laws. Surfshark for Android users is a professional standard choice that’ll help keep even freelancers in line with GDPR law around the handling of data. You can ask your employer for a VPN as well.
3. Ensure proper communication takes place
Make sure you (or your team) are in the loop. Facetime or Skype can help with this if you’re working remotely. There’s a big responsibility for companies to be more inclusive in their meetings, so don’t be afraid to push this agenda. There’s some responsibility to shoulder yourself though – check in daily, make yourself known, and make yourself contactable when it’s appropriate. In the other hand, managers can use project management tools to improve collaboration and keep the workflow organized and under control.
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4. Measure time
Either if you are an employee of the manager, you can take advantage from time management. Stop felling guilty! Sometimes the time is not enough to finish a demand – and you just can understand it if you control the time you and your team are investing in a project.
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5. Make time for movement
We did not evolve to walk bipedal to then slump at a desk without moving for most of our waking life. Get up and walk around every hour – and create a stretching regime that’ll help you to prevent a bad back and pain that stops you working. This tip is also useful for those who work in the office.
6. Be careful with notifications
The great (and awful) thing about mobile phones is that you’re always contactable. As manager, you should tell yout team to consider a work phone for work purposes – and don’t be tempted to get into the habit of being contactable by work colleagues or clients 24/7. Most understand the balance of work/home life – but some will overstep the mark if they can. Tell them to shut off work notifications or set airplane mode when you close your laptop – you need time to unwind.
7. Go to work – and come home from work
‘Go to work’ might sound counterintuitive when you’re remote working – but the message here is really that you need to separate work time from home time. An office space in your home will help you do this, but you might want to think about other things too – getting up, following a morning routine before sitting at your desk, being strict with break and lunch times, changing your clothes when it’s time to ‘come home’. They’re psychological tricks – but they work.
You can work from home with all the benefits you’d expect from an office-based job – you just have to know what they are. Awareness of the issues that go hand-in-hand with remote working is absolutely key – this cannot be overstated. Being honest about your feelings help – it’s easy to think “I’m lucky to be working from home” and force yourself to get on with work – but it’s a path that’s fraught with danger.
Likewise, managers can take advantages of a virtual team and keep the productivity on track. And it is easy if you have an online collaboration software like Runrun.it, that allows you to record information and organize workflow in a more collaborative way. With a time tracking tool, it allows you to download automated timesheets, so you don’t need to push your team all day long. Try it for free: www.runrun.it
Howard Dawson is a tech writer for SurfShark. He challenges himself with new projects as he grows his portfolio. When not working he tries to stay active by doing a bit of Muay Thai and strength training.