Enough has been said about how great remote working is. We know it can broaden your talent pool, save you money, skyrocket productivity, and lead to a much happier and healthier life for both employees and businesses.
But among all this hype and office-bashing, not much is being said about its downsides — and there are more than enough to be talking about.
It seems this may finally be changing, though. As more and more people are switching to the lifestyle and more businesses are setting out from day one as fully remote, the new way of working is being put under the spotlight, analysed, and torn apart by some of the world’s biggest businesses.
In line with this trend, this year, a few leaders in the remote field, including Buffer, Workfrom, Trello, and Hubstaff, teamed up to produce the first State of Remote Work report.
In it, they present data from nearly 2,000 remote workers (almost half from the US and the rest from around the world) on areas such as satisfaction, location, benefits, and earnings.
Here, in this article, however, we’re going to avoid the widespread love for remote working and keep it cynical — focusing on three downsides that are proving to be particularly challenging and consistent across the board.
In this way, we can ensure remote work keeps working for everyone. And that not one of us has to go back to a damn office again.
It’s no surprise that in Buffer’s report, loneliness was the biggest struggle among remote workers, gaining 21 percent of the vote.
It’s such a huge problem, in fact, that it single-handedly deters many people from going remote to begin with. No matter how strong their motivations are to leave the office culture, the prospect of isolation of loneliness keeps them from doing so.
So far, remote first businesses are trying to combat the problem by building a rich company culture and placing a firm focus on communications. For some of them, all that means is a slack channel and advising their team to use emojis and gifs to more closely represent body language and emotion. For others, though, it means weekly video conference calls (formal and informal) and bi-annual retreats to ensure their team gets together face to face.
It’s clear, however, that these actions alone are not enough. The major advantage of remote working, independence, is also proving to be it’s greatest downfall. It seems that a lack of real-life connection in the workplace and the absence of others striving toward a common goal is the ultimate recipe for burnout.
Going forward, companies dedicated to remote work need to create or at least offer guidelines for their team on how they how can work remotely while maintaining a socially integrated lifestyle. In the report, many of the same respondents who said loneliness was the biggest issue also said they were interested in increasing the amount of time they work remotely in 2018. They know loneliness is a huge problem, but they’re willing to stick it out until a solution arises.
Despite just under half of respondents stating that the biggest benefit of remote working is flexibility over their schedule, the report found that 55 percent of remote workers take fewer than fifteen days of holiday per year.
The reason behind this is somewhat blurry on the outside but incredibly clear for anyone who lived it on the inside. As the figures show, what many people prize most is control over how and where they spend their time. With the ability to work from wherever you choose and at whatever time of day, working hours are generally not decreased but increased — catching up on emails on the train, working late at home a night or two a week, getting a few hours in while on holiday with the family.
At just a click away at any given time, it’s becoming ever more difficult to find the balance between life and work. This shift has recently given rise to the term work/life integration — a word that points at the blurring between the two realms but really says nothing new. If it does say anything, though, it’s that a clear distinction needs to be made between personal and professional life to ensure remote working doesn’t turn into the energy-sapping, unproductive 80-hour weeks we were all trying to escape.
The majority of remote workers are employees, and over half of all employees will be remote by 2020. It’s what the people want and where the world is heading. Any business that thus wants to attract top talent will need to not only offer remote as standard, but provide a complete holiday, benefits, and support package to go with it in order to compete.
On a basic level, to make remote work work, it’s all about location. Without access to a location that’s free from distractions, has reliable internet, and is available as and when you need it, remote working can quickly become unsustainable and simply not worth the hassle.
It’s likely for this reason 78 percent of remote workers use their home as their primary office. However, the same percentage of respondents also don’t receive any support from their company toward the costs of working remotely — i.e. internet bills, coworking spaces, etc.
That means the reality of remote working for most people is sitting in the back bedroom in your dressing gown, waiting patiently for your crappy broadband to load and with the heating set on timer. Rather than hopping in the car in the morning, picking up a Starbucks, and commuting a half hour to the nearest co-working space.
But other than convenience and costs, what it comes down to, as the report found, is that home is where people want to be. It’s where their kids, spouses, and pets are (and the kitchen). And when working remotely and dealing with things like isolation, poor holidays, and iffy internet, this freedom and flexibility to be able to stretch your legs, take the dog for a walk, and make a sandwich whenever you want, is what makes all the difference.
As of yet, it seems us remote workers are still holding out for solutions for all the above problems. If you know of any or have any ideas, post them below and let’s get the conversation started so we can move toward a more sustainable and human remote culture.
Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Find him on Medium exploring remote working, technology, meditation, and everything in between.