All that glitters: The downsides of remote work, and how to deal with them

Culture
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It's no secret that we are big fans of remote work. We think it will help us democratize access to opportunities and talent alike. It will help us build better companies, that thrive globally and not just on a small tiny spot somewhere in California. But it's not the solution to all, and we need to recognize that.

The shift to a distributed workforce is not without sacrifice. Respondents to popular remote work surveys state the lack of interpersonal connections, or the overall communication as big struggles in their daily lives, for example. While we and many agree that the remote work model solves a lot of issues of the traditional office, such as long commutes, overall unhappiness and amount of distractions, it's not without flaw itself. Async communication can lead to a cold and sterile feeling in a team, people miss important social gatherings with their coworkers, sharing successes through a screen can feel less exciting, people start to feel isolated, communication is easier to break down.

Isolation as the worker's biggest challenge

The obvious one is isolation and loneliness. As local employees, we are used to talking and socializing with our co-workers. We make a constant effort to look presentable, talk to our co-workers about our weekends, exchange ideas over lunch. It's not something that is as casual and straightforward in a remote environment, where a lot of conversations and chats can be work-related, and the interpersonal relationships could come a little short.

Isolation from your peers also leads to issues with concentration and discipline. Given that we probably all have worked in our sweatpants at least a few times, it's important that this doesn't become the rule, and that we start to neglect our hygiene, as well as our personal social lives, physical and mental health. A combination of all of these is not only important for our productivity but also employee happiness and retention.

Isolation shouldn't be underestimated. It is the reason why we find communication to be so frustrating and so difficult. It makes us feel lonely, it makes it hard to disconnect from work and can be the main driver for burnout and depression. In short: Isolation is the main driver of today's leading remote work issues.

 

Isolation struggles of remote workers by Tech.co

 

As a remote company, it's hard for you to have a big say in your worker's personal lives. It's mostly up to the person, to make sure you are accountable to yourself, for you to build a social network you can come back to, and to have a clear work-life separation. When it comes to socializing, there are a few strategies that you could follow:

  • Scheduling no-agenda hangouts calls in groups of 3-4
  • Having gaming nights
  • Doing all-hands on Minecraft (build a fantasy office, it's fun!)
  • Doing team games and challenges
  • Discussing weekends and plans intentionally (bot?)

Additional to emulating a social workspace, make sure that your employees are set in their daily lives too. Pay a desk in a coworking space, ask people to sign up for a gym class or a social course, call it out when somebody seems to work too long hours. It will all pay off in the form of more productivity and better retention.

Career chances as a remote worker

It is known that increasing your visibility in the workplace can help you climb the ranks quicker. Whether it be taking some additional workload on, to show impressive leadership qualities in your day-to-day and push the team forward with great ideas and even better plans.

That seems to work great in your regular office environment. It can work well if you are somewhat close to your manager and can interact face-to-face regularly, but it can get extremely difficult if you are off somewhere in a very different timezone and may only talk to your manager directly during team meetings and possibly 1-on-1s.

While this is a known problem in hybrid remote teams, this can also be an issue in fully remote teams, where employees are distributed closer and far away from managers. In short: Claiming your next promotion may not be a reward of good work, but a reward of being close by location to your manager. It makes it easier to hop on quick calls, get on a brainstorming session together, and also often comes with similar cultures and languages.

It is needless to say that this leads to an unfair work environment where people cannot thrive. It is therefore important to formalize your career plans, make sure that everyone is on the same page and evaluated based on goals and/or KPIs, and not feelings of managers like it can be usual in may other environments.

Furthermore, it is a great idea to have 1-on-1 meetings between managers and employers in an environment like this. In that case, managers can receive uniform input from all reports without creating an unfair advantage.

Too many meetings that go on for too long

The "great" thing about remote meetings is that there is no physical limitation to when they are supposed to end. No overbooking of meeting rooms, no need to excuse yourself to grab a coffee or go to the toilet. That leads to many meetings being way too long and way too unorganized.

Additionally, meetings are the only communication outlet for many people who are uncomfortable with writing a lot and embracing async communication. That leads to the common recurring team update meeting to become an in-depth discussion about an issue that came up in the past week, in the worst case on that is only interesting to 10% of participants.

Having your meetings short and in order, in the best case with a strict agenda, has a bunch of positives:

  • You are respecting people's time, and letting them go back to their deep work
  • It makes meetings feel more productive, people look forward to them more
  • Engagement is higher, the shorter meetings are (because people get tired)
  • It makes sure that people don't need to drop out halfway in because expectations are clear

Meetings are one of the highest disciplines in remote work, but they are not that difficult: Start on time, end on time, have an agenda, solve as much as possible in writing, only invite the people that must be there and use the face-to-face time for a bit of personal talk as well.

When micro-managing fails

Micro-managing is a disease shared by some managers. It's too tempting to look over the shoulders of your employees, see whether their work is up to your standards, or whether you might need to step in and push something through. Now that your employees work from anywhere at any time, micro-managing fails.

To ensure some sort of micro-managing, new remote companies (especially the ones that are forced to do WFH due to a pandemic) discover really fun and absurd ideas to keep people in the loop: always-on camera feeds, online indicators and activity watchdogs. Don't do this.

The sad truth for many managers: Micro-managing really doesn't work well in a remote environment. You may schedule multiple check-in calls per day, have a (potentially illegal) watchdog installed or watch GitHub activities of your developers, but it's making nobody more productive, quite the opposite.

Remote work runs on output, and most people with a tiny bit of pride in their work can be trusted to finish their work and put in their best effort, even when left alone. Measure the output and not the time input (hint: it's also possible not to work at your desk) to evaluate how people are doing, and make use of one of the best parts you receive from going remote: more time for deeply focused work.

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