More than two-thirds of all professionals are working remotely at least once per week, while 53% are working remotely at least half the week. No matter how you slice the numbers, the conclusion is clear. Remote working is continuing to increase.
It’s not hard to see why it is a popular option. Even if you’re a full-time employee, you gain a substantial amount of autonomy with remote work. You can take breaks whenever you want. You can work from your living room in your pajamas. You can even take a conference call with your dog on your lap.
Instead of an open office, you have the peace and quiet of home. If you want to get out of the house, you can just set up shop in the local café.
Remote work is also beneficial for employers. It expands the talent pool from which you can hire. You also have lower costs due to space, furniture, and equipment.
So, on the surface, everybody wins. The employer is happy and you will be the epitome of productivity in your remote setup... until a construction crew starts jack-hammering the sidewalk outside.
What if your dog won’t stop barking at the neighbors doing yard work? What if the other customers in your favorite café are loud and obnoxious? What if working on your own makes you feel socially isolated from your colleagues?
While the benefits are certainly strong with remote work, it also comes with its own set of challenges. Here are some of the most common challenges remote workers face every day, and how to address them.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but overwork is a growing concern among remote workers.
When you remove the workday commute, you remove a barrier between the individual and the workplace. Instead, the home becomes the workplace, which makes it difficult to “switch off” at the end of the day.
Remote workers by nature are tied to their devices. Whether it’s chat, email or video conferencing, notifications are coming in consistently throughout the day.
The challenge is finding a way to step away and take a break. In an office environment, you have a clear ending point when you walk away from your physical space. That’s not so easy for the remote worker who can still hear the ding or buzz of the next notification. Whose desk is just a few steps away, enticing them to sit down and check in.
Some people solve this problem by doing their own version of a “commute” every morning. This often means working somewhere other than home, like a coffee shop.
Communal remote working spaces are popping up in cities and towns throughout the world. They serve customers with high-speed internet, comfortable chairs, coffee, and other amenities.
But even if you work from home, you can still perform a “commuting” ritual to help yourself wind down. For example, you could dress for work in the morning, then change at the end of the workday.
It’s important to emphasize this point. You must end your workday. That means defining a time to be done and learning to be content with a good day’s work. Then you can shut down your computer and be present wherever you go next.
This is not only important for your productivity, but also for mental health.
Dr. Christine Grant is an occupational psychologist at Coventry University’s Centre for Research in Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement. In a deep-dive by BBC on the challenges of being always-on, Grant explained the concerns.
"The negative impacts of this 'always-on' culture are that your mind is never resting, you're not giving your body time to recover, so you're always stressed,” Grant said.
"And the more tired and stressed we get, the more mistakes we make. Physical and mental health can suffer."
It helps to stick to a schedule and set hard deadlines for yourself. If you want to stop at 5 o’clock, set an alarm and shut everything down when it goes off. Try to avoid working on projects into the night, even if deadlines are looming.
Interruptions and distractions
Distractions are perhaps the most obvious challenge for remote workers. They can do serious damage to your productivity. After a distraction, it takes a long time to get back into the kind of deep focus that leads to excellent work.
When you work at home, for example, how do you tune out the demands at home? A load of laundry can get done. The kitchen floor needs cleaning. This could be a time to knock out a little grocery shopping so you don’t have to deal with it later.
Even if you’re able to tune out all the physical distractions in your remote workspace, the devices we use are essentially attention-demanding factories.
A breaking news update. 14 new notifications on Facebook. A group messaging thread about plans for the weekend. The world is constantly competing for your attention and will not stop throwing distractions in your face.
So what can be done?
For physical distractions, not everyone has the luxury of a separate room in their home to call their office. But it does help to designate a part of your living space as your work area. Make it clear to your family that you can’t be disturbed when you’re working.
Invest in noise-canceling headphones if you listen to music while you work. They can also help you work in crowded environments. If you need to keep conversations private, consider placing a noise-canceling device by your office door.
For digital distractions, you’ll need to have discipline and a plan. Prioritize your day and shut down any apps or windows that produce your most common sources of distraction. Block out focused time and make sure you complete your most important priorities.
Being part of a team has a huge social component. But much of that gets taken away when your team works remotely. Video conferencing just doesn’t feel the same as sitting in a room together and sharing a cup of coffee.
Because of this, remote workers can sometimes feel isolated and lonely, especially if they live alone. Someone working from home could theoretically go from Monday to Friday without ever stepping outside.
Naturally, communal workspaces are a good answer to this problem. Your “coworkers” may not be the same people employed by your company, but they can still become your community.
At the very least, schedule yourself some time to get out of the house every couple of days, even if it is just working from a nearby cafe or a library for an hour or two. Join local groups is you can. Something as simple exercising with friends once a week can do wonders to keep you connected.
At some point, everyone has received a text message from a friend that they misunderstood. When you’re reading SMS or an email, it can be difficult to understand context.
Miscommunications lead to errors and disruptions in productivity, not to mention a lot of headaches. According to one report, the costs of poor communication could be as high as $37 billion.
Thankfully, there’s plenty of software out there to help you communicate. Workstream collaboration software is great for remote teams and can give everyone a clear view of team projects, tasks and their role in them.
Most importantly, software does a great job of eliminating long and confusing email threads.
Remote teams can also use instant messaging tools like Slack to stay in touch and for ‘watercooler’ talk. Creating your own team chatroom helps to keep conversations casual and constant. That means there’s less chance of miscommunication or misunderstanding.
When you telecommute, technology is your lifeline. If that technology isn’t working, you don’t have an alternative—you can’t do your work.
The most common problem remote workers face is the issue of internet connectivity. Despite the progress we’ve made toward broadband implementation, everyone is still beholden to their ISPs.
Some remote workers invest in business-class internet at home. Others rely on the WiFi networks of their restaurants and cafes. Some even just switch venues when their home service goes down.
Of course, the other challenge is maintaining a computer. Some companies give their remote workers their own laptops. But others adhere to the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) concept, letting employees use their own hardware for work.
That means the employee is responsible for repairs, internet security, and other costs.
If you rely on your own computer for work, you need to take extra care of it. Don’t take unnecessary risks while using it your free time. If you carry a laptop, use a protective case. Install anti-virus software (not the free kind) and avoid sketchy links, emails, and websites.
These issues are important regardless of where you work, but in a remote environment, you may not have that tech-savvy employee you can turn to for help.
Embracing remote work
These days, there are many ways to work. Enhanced broadband and the penetration of internet services to new regions have created countless opportunities. Even workers who live in rural areas can work at firms in major cities, or across the world.
A freelance writer in the mountains of West Virginia can work with a design firm in New York City. An accountant living in the deserts of Arizona can collaborate with a business owner in Bangladesh.
Many businesses won’t even need to rent office space in the future. As remote work continues to expand, we’ll discover what new benefits, and challenges, it brings to the workforce.
Yes, there are challenges with remote work, but with deliberate effort and self-control, the advantages outweigh the cons.
Workers can cut out wasteful commutes, while businesses can save on real estate and equipment. Flexibility gives everyone more control over their most precious resource: time. And work accountability becomes more about specific tasks and production instead of punching in a clock.
Ultimately, remote work is something to be embraced. To maximize the benefits, you’ll know the challenges and how to set yourself up for success.