The hardest part of remote work - and how to tackle it - Part I

Resources Feb 12, 2020

It’s safe to say that the honeymoon phase of remote work is coming to a close. With more and more teams fully dispersing, the stock photo fantasy of reclining on a white sand beach, laptop and piña colada in hand, has started to dissipate as the reality of remote work comes into wider recognition. Sure, there are incredible perks, but many of those are double-edged swords.

Ask yourself: is it really a benefit to be able to work through your vacation? And what’s the WiFi situation on that beach, anyway? As any full-time remote worker can attest, leaving behind the traditional office setting presents its own, uniquely flavored challenges on the individual and organizational level in parallel to the long list of benefits.

The Biggest Challenges of Remote Work

Communication

Humans didn’t evolve to correspond online. For remote workers, our primary methods of communication are direct messaging and virtual conference calls - neither of which allow us to rely heavily (as we do naturally) on nonverbal cues and tone of voice.

Communication is typically represented by the 55/38/7 rule, where 55% of communication is nonverbal cues, 38% is the tone of voice, and 7% are the words spoken. That leaves remote workers with a serious disadvantage when it comes to collaboration, and can result in anything from simple misunderstandings and poor performance in the short term to dissatisfied employees in the long term.

Human Connection

Just like we didn’t evolve to communicate online, we also didn’t evolve to connect with others or build relationships online. Despite “talking” with co-workers constantly, remote workers often struggle with a lack of human connection in their day-to-day.

Always “On”

A friend once told me, “when you work freelance, you’re always working, and you’re never working.” The same feeling can apply to remote work. As the line between work and life continues to blur, it’s not uncommon for remote workers to find themselves responding to messages at the drop of a hat from the dinner table, family events, or on vacation.

Distractions

On the flipside of always being “on”, it can also be incredibly easy to get distracted and check out as a remote worker. Especially if you’re working from a home office, getting pulled away from work to do chores, turn on the TV, run errands, or talk with family or roommates in your workspace can happen without intention.

Time Management

With no built-in structure, it can be difficult to know how to spend your time and prioritize tasks as a remote worker. Days become more nebulous without the routine of arriving at an office, taking regular lunch breaks, and meeting face-to-face with coworkers.

Unhealthy Habits

Remote work can affect our physical health as well as our mental health. Often, we can work too many hours and fail to set aside time for our own wellbeing, so simple things like moving our bodies and eating regular meals can fall by the wayside.

How To Navigate the Challenges of Remote Work

Those of us who can address the inherent challenges of remote work can thrive despite them. By implementing some simple tactics, we can learn to be high-performers as well as satisfied employees in a remote setting.

Individual Tactics for Remote Work

Routine

Most of us function well with routine. There are a few different ways to improve your routine to avoid the pitfalls of remote work:

  • Create structured mealtimes, breaks, and off-hours - Set boundaries between your work and personal life by turning off notifications and checking out when you’re not actively working. To alleviate any stress around disconnecting, give your co-workers a backup method of communication to be able to reach you in case they need something urgent.
  • Use time blocking to structure your workday - Block off specific times in your calendar for daily tasks like responding to emails and working on different projects. Prioritize your time blocks so that your most important tasks are completed earlier in the day.
  • Make time for your health and wellbeing - Add regular times for meals, exercise, socializing, and hobbies to your schedule. Treat these activities like important appointments with yourself, and honor them.
  • Add face-to-face connection to your every day - An easy way to add regular social activities to your routine is to add a social component to the things you already do. Instead of going on your run alone, join a running club. Instead of living alone, consider living with roommates. Instead of working from home all day, join a co-working space or work from a coffee shop with a friend.

Environment

The environment we work in has the power to enable us or to greatly hinder us. Paying attention to your space can make a big difference in your performance and focus. To improve your workspace:

  • Designate an office area - Don’t get caught in the trap of working from your busy living room, or worse, your bed. Instead, invest in an ergonomic chair and clutter-free desk, ideally in a separate room from your living space. If you’re in a small space, you can create distance by sectioning an area off with a bookshelf or a room separator.
  • Establish boundaries with family or roommates - If you’re working from a shared space, let your family or roommates know that when you’re in your office area, you shouldn’t be disturbed.
  • Get out - When you need some variety, work from a cafe or co-working space instead. Make sure to bring your chargers and some sound-canceling headphones.  

Read on to Part II to learn tactics to address the challenges of remote work from the organizational level.