3 downsides of remote working and how to resolve them

Rynagh Cornish
There are more people working remotely than ever before. The demand for flexibility is ever gaining traction, and employers are becoming far more accommodating of non-traditional work set ups.

The benefits of remote working for the employee are well-documented: more free time, lower travel costs and less distraction. Some studies suggest it may even boost productivity.

But we haven’t found utopia yet. While remote workers may never have to deal with a shared fridge again, they face their own set of challenges, and so do their employers. Here we look at three of the big ones and how to overcome them. If these issues are dealt with properly, remote working might just be the secret to a business’s success.

1. Loneliness

Isolation is one of the most obvious downsides of remote working. Digital communication doesn’t replace face-to-face contact, no matter how many emails and texts there are in a day.

A global study in 2018 found that a third of remote workers felt lonely ‘always’ or ‘very often’ at work. This was especially true among Gen-Z and millennial workers, who showed greater need for social connection.

Some aspects of lone-working are positive. Employees tend to cite lack of interruption and quiet as perks of working from home. But in the long term, isolation can make home workers feel less engaged with their tasks and the business in general.*

  • Regular phone calls: Check in with home workers often over the phone. Even if emails will suffice in getting the job done, phone conversations help build connections and reduce isolation. It should not just be the boss who makes the calls either, home workers should speak to their whole team on a regular basis.
  • Hot desks: If possible, make spare work spaces into hot desks for remote workers. Even if they are only used weekly or monthly, they allow home workers to work comfortably from the office when they do come in.
  • Co-working spaces: If remote workers live far away, or hot desking in your own office isn’t possible, consider giving them access to a co-working space. Simply being among other workers, whether part of your firm or not, can reduce loneliness.

2. Less team cohesion

The value of ‘team’ is inarguable. From the start of time humans have bound together to build, create and progress. At the heart of every successful business is a cohesive team.

But cohesiveness is key challenge for teams that operate in part or completely remotely. For organisations that have a main office, plus a number of remote workers, research shows that those at home tend to feel left out of the office culture.

For businesses where remote working is standard, the company culture may be hard to establish, and a sense of team work lacking.

  • Leadership: Great leaders are essential for any organisation. In the ones that offer remote working, leaders play a particularly important role in bringing employees together to reach the shared goal. Hold regular department meetings, distribute internal newsletters and set universal targets for all staff to work towards.
  • Team building activities: Make time for your team to get to know each other. These activities don’t have to be costly or time-consuming; they can even be conducted virtually. One idea, courtesy of Harvard Business Review, is to have all staff read the same article and discuss it, each person given time to voice their own thoughts.
  • Social events: Invite remote workers to office social occasions, such as birthdays, post-work drinks and leaving dos. Arrange regular events to bring remote and office workers together, such as a quarterly meal out.

3. Blurred work/personal life

Flexibility is one of the biggest appeals of home working. But the tradeoff is a blurring of the lines between home and work, with remote workers far more likely to see an overlap between work and personal life.^

When you are based from home, it is easy to intersperse work with personal tasks. Doing the school run for example, or loading the washing machine. While this is advantageous, it means the opposite is also true – work tasks can infringe on personal time. It’s not unusual for home workers to end up working much longer hours than their office-based colleagues.

The blurred line is not just an issue for the home workers themselves, but for their managers. When hours are stretched around personal demands, managers are not always sure if employees are ‘at work’ or not. This also leads on to flexibility going both ways: if the company is flexible with the employee, the employee should be flexible with their time in return.

  • Clarify the terms: Remote working arrangements need to be discussed on an individual basis. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for someone else. Some staff will want to work a traditional 9-5. In these cases, working hours should be respected and clear work/life boundaries maintained by both worker and employer. Others will be happy with a partially or fully flexible approach.
  • Designated office: For employees who want to replicate a standard working day at home, a designated home office is very useful. It is much easier to draw a line between work and personal lives when your computer isn’t on the kitchen table. The office can be locked of at the end of the day and not returned to until morning.
  • Set rules: Everyone needs a break at some point. For workers who opt for a flexible home working arrangement, it is useful to set guidelines to ensure they have some time off. It could be limiting calls to a specified period, or halting communication during annual leave days. Anything that both employee and employer can realistically keep to while still meeting the needs of the business.

In summary:
  • Chat regularly with remote workers, especially over the phone
  • Offer alternative desk space in a communal environment
  • Schedule team building activities, meetings and social events that bring remote and office workers together
  • Agree a clear working pattern tailored to the individual employee

* The Work Connectivity Study, Workplacetrends.com
^ Working anytime, anywhere: The effects on the world of work, ILO–Eurofound

Other references:

Home is where the work is, ACAS 2013
Ideas for Helping Remote Colleagues Bond, Havard Business Review, 6th February 2019