The Benefits And Challenges of Remote Work

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Drinking €5 caipirinhas at kiosks in Lisbon. Looking out my kitchen window at the mountains of Sarajevo. Eating three-course la comidas in Valenica. These are some of my most enduring memories of 2016. And it’s all because of working remotely.

Last year, I took a cut in compensation and benefits and accepted a remote position, reasoning that the freedom and flexibility that the new job offered was in fact the ultimate benefit. And, in many ways, that’s true. I journeyed across Europe for seven months with my family, because long-term travel became possible in a way that traditional, location-specific, two-weeks’ vacation gigs could never provide. The lack of commute freed up an extra two-and-a-half hours of my day, recovering not only more opportunity to spend quality time with my daughter, but the energy to do so.

Still, three months into my family’s Euro trip, I opted to leave my remote job, after about a year and a half with the company. The reasons are varied and largely due to personal considerations. So, I’m not going to get into them here. But I will tell you that, in addition to the many benefits, my experience gave me a first-hand understanding into the challenges of remote work, too. Here’s some insight into both.

The Benefits of Remote Work

I.  Happiness

Ditching my commute and regaining more than 10 hours a week was far and away one of the top benefits of working remotely. Indeed, the U.K.’s Office of National Statistics found that workers with commutes of 30 minutes or more (one-way) reported greater stress and anxiety than people with shorter commutes. That same report also found that commuters experienced lower levels of satisfaction and happiness than non-commuters.

Given this, you might anticipate that remote workers report greater happiness than the general workforce – and you’re right. Engagement software company TINYpulse asked 509 remote employees, on a scale of 1-10, “How happy are you at work?” Their score was then compared to responses from 200,000 employees across all work arrangements. Remote workers scored 8.10, compared to the all workers’ score of 7.42.

II.  Productivity

Something I noticed when I worked remotely was that I worked really hard. In a remote setting, without any way to physically signal my presence and commitment, I wanted to go the extra mile to make sure that my company knew I was getting shit done. Additionally, there were fewer distractions than typically exist at the office – chatty co-workers, unnecessary meetings, unwanted noise.

A Stanford economist studied call center employees at a Chinese travel website, and found that employees who worked from home completed 13.5 percent more calls per day than their in-office colleagues. Some old school employers are still of the mindset that if they can’t see their workers working, then no work is getting done – and that’s simply not the case.

III.  Retention

No surprise here: if employees are happy and productive, they’re less likely to leave. The aforementioned Stanford study found that employees who worked from home quit at half the rate of their office-bound counterparts. Anecdotally, in the year and a half I worked remotely, my company experienced 100-percent retention among its dozen or so remote employees (yes, that means I’m the one that broke the streak…Sorry).

IV.  Recruitment

Workers of all walks of life will find remote work appealing for all sorts of reasons. Maybe they’re an adventurous 20-something who wants to try out the digital nomad lifestyle. Maybe they’re a new parent who no longer wants to log endless hours in the office (to wit: 43 percent of highly qualified women leave or put their career on hold for a period of time). Maybe they live in an area where the opportunities aren’t on par with their skillset. Maybe they’ve read the happiness and productivity statistics and want to see first-hand if remote work is as great as people make it out to be.

Through offering employees the chance to work remotely, employers can harness all of these reasons and turn recruitment into a serious competitive advantage. By opening your opportunities up to workers across geographies, you’ll get a candidate pool that is highly qualified and diverse in every sense of the word.

V.  Cost-Effectiveness

Remember how I said I took a pay cut in order to work remotely? Well, I’m not alone. Economists from Harvard and Princeton studied the preferences of roughly 7,000 job applicants and found that workers were, on average, willing to accept eight percent lower pay for such an opportunity.

In addition to saving on compensation, employers also save on overhead. American Express has saved about $15 million per year on real estate costs alone by offering employees the opportunity to work remotely. And it’s not just rent that companies can save on – when you move away from the office, you’ll also save on utility, maintenance and supply costs.

So, with all of these benefits of going remote, why do most employers continue with the traditional office model? The fact is, there are plenty of challenges to consider, too.

The Challenges of Remote Work

I.  Communication

Communication is critical to any successful organization. At my last organization, we used tons of communication tools – Skype, Slack, Zoom, Trello, email and more. It’s incredible, the way technology has assisted in our ability to communicate – but there’s still no substitution for face-to-face interaction. Offices facilitate lots of opportunities to touch base with each other in both important and trivial ways. Tone or body language is evident in-person in a way it never will be over text or even video.

To that end, transparency is even more important in a remote organization than it is elsewhere. My company was better than most thanks in large part to the CEO’s commitment to not only receiving feedback, but making tangible changes afterwards. For example, when I first began working for the company, we had a daily, one-on-one call. After a month or so, I began to feel like this was way too much – we were usually in contact over Slack anyway, and I didn’t always feel like I had a lot to communicate beyond what we’d discussed the previous day or earlier that day on Slack. So, I told him I’d prefer to reduce the frequency of our calls, and we cut back to twice a week. When remote leaders go out of their way to establish an open, receptive environment, it facilitates trust among everyone.

II.  Camaraderie

I used to think that the small talk I made with co-workers in the office was just that – small talk. Early on in my career, especially, I sometimes felt guilty for taking time to socialize with colleagues when there was “real work” to be done. But small talk plays a big role in helping colleagues bond with each other, and with the organization. When you know that Christine in Accounting loves Judd Apatow movies or that Tim in Marketing makes a mean shepherd’s pie, you get a more complete picture of the person behind the desk. When colleagues see each other not just as workers, but as fully-formed humans, engagement and collaboration levels skyrocket.

With remote work, it can be all too easy for employees to get reduced to a set of tasks. You have to be more deliberate about creating opportunities for colleagues to get to know one another on a more personal level. To that end, at my last company, I created a program called Coffee Talk. Each week, colleagues who did not share office space were paired together for a 15-30-minute video chat. Initially, I created icebreakers, but most people didn’t need them as conversations tended to flow pretty naturally. The only rule was that absolutely no work-related discussion was allowed. I learned about my colleague’s favorite podcasts, how they met their spouses, their modes of transportation and much more – stuff that would naturally come up over the course of a traditional office workday, but not so much in a remote setting.

III.  Culture

No matter how strong a leader’s vision is, they can’t control culture. Influence it, sure – but when it comes down to it, culture is an intangible, dynamic element that’s going to shift a little bit with every new person that’s hired, policy that’s enacted and technology that’s adopted. Culture is challenging to convey even in the tightest-knit circumstances, but when you don’t have physical ties, if you’re not careful in a remote setting, it can be very easy for a few loud, gregarious voices to rise above the din and establish cultural norms that might not really be representative of the organization as a whole. Before you know it, your Slack channels may be peppered with Game of Thrones references when half of the company might be silently thinking, “Grey’s Anatomy is really more my speed.” To that end, gathering remote team members for a regular retreat is a great idea. I understand that this might be a challenging proposition. Earlier this year, Buffer, a pioneer in the remote work space, announced that they had overextended themselves financially and were taking cost-savings measures, including laying off 11 percent of their workforce and cancelling their upcoming retreat. But instead of taking a retreat every five months to a far-flung destination like Buffer employees do, how about picking a place where a few employees already live and seeing if they’d be willing to take on hosting duties for a long weekend?

IV.  Discipline

Going to work at an office requires people to establish a certain routine. When rolling out of bed and immediately starting work in your pajamas is an option, you inevitably lose elements of that routine. As much as I’d love to call myself a free spirit who can thrive in any situation, I know I’m better after I’ve showered, put on real clothes, listened to NPR and fixed myself a cup of coffee. While I could have made a point to do that every day when I worked remotely, I’ll admit it – I didn’t. And there are obstacles beyond the optional morning routine – when you work from home you’ve got additional distractions like dishes in the sink, whining pets and unexpected knocks at the door.

Remote workers also have to be especially disciplined about stopping work. I worked significantly longer hours when I worked remotely, because there wasn’t physical separation between my work life and my home life. And even after I’d put the laptop away for the day, I always had my phone at the ready, feeling on-call in a way that I never did with my office jobs.

The obvious solution to these conundrums is for remote workers to work outside the house at least a few days a week. Though I didn’t do it as often as I should have, I can definitely say that many of my most satisfying, productive workdays were spent in a coffee shop. I enjoyed the buzz of human interaction, and the change of scenery was always invigorating. Employers can encourage remote employees to work outside of the office by providing a stipend to join a co-working space. These tend to be highly collaborative places, so the added bonus is that employees are almost certain to connect with and learn from people in similar or complementary professional circumstances.

V.  Time Zones

I mentioned earlier that I had trouble stepping away from work. One of the reasons I felt like I couldn’t call it a day at 6 p.m. was because my boss was two hours behind me. (He was actually eight hours behind me while I was working in Europe, but I embarked on those travels knowing full well that I would have to adjust my work schedule, and started my day at noon.) Occupying multiple time zones is not particularly convenient – it requires extra coordination and frequently means delays. When we had company-wide meetings, it meant our India team would stay late at the office and start the call at 8 p.m., and our West Coast team would get up early to start the call at 7:30 a.m. When I had a technical or design request, the time zone difference usually meant that it wasn’t fulfilled until the next day – maybe several days later, if there were follow-up questions.

Beyond a teleporter, I don’t know if there’s really a great solution to address the time zone gap. You just have to go into remote work with the understanding that it will probably be an inconvenience, and exhibit flexibility and patience accordingly.

Parting Thoughts

From 1995-2015, the percentages of workers who worked remotely increased fourfold. Advancements in technology and changes in perception means that remote work is only going to rise. I think it will be a long time, however, before the majority of the workforce works remotely. Though the benefits are significant, so are the challenges. But hey, the Cubs won the World Series last year and Donald Trump is now our 45th President, so anything can happen. Who knows what working conditions will be like in another 108 years?

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