Remote work is getting a lot more common, especially in countries like the US, but is it a good idea for everyone?
We can definitively say that no, remote work isn’t a great fit for everyone. However, it’s really important to look at this question with a little more nuance.
If you’re working remotely or considering it, you need to be aware of the unique challenges involved, the downsides to remote arrangements, and what it takes to succeed. Then, you can make the decision for yourself about whether you should keep it up or seek other options.
What Is Remote Work?
There are a lot of mixed definitions of remote work. Broadly, you can break remote work into 2 categories: full-time and part-time.
Full-Time Remote Work
This applies to you if you’re working in a full-time capacity as a location-independent person. It could mean anything from being a digital nomad to working out of the office for a local company. Whenever the norm for your job is working from your chosen location, even if there are a few specific occasions where your presence is required, you are a full-time remote worker.
Part-Time Remote Work
Working remotely part-time would be a situation where either your main source of income is a full-time traditional working position with some allowance for location-independent work, or if you’re doing a fully remote work on the side. Examples include a company that allows 2-3 days per week to work from home, or if you’re doing a freelancing gig on the side while continuing your main career.
There’s a major difference between working remotely part-time or full-time, mostly in terms of the skills you need to make it a success. As a part-time remote worker, you’re still likely to have a lot of support from co-workers, management, and the general office environment. When you’re remote full-time, it’s up to you to make all that extra stuff happen.
For the sake of addressing the topic more thoroughly, the focus here will be on full-time remote work rather than part-time work.
The Hidden Skillset of Remote Workers
Working from your favorite coffee shop or from a home office sounds awesome, and it is for many people, but it’s not without its own drawbacks. You’ll need a number of specific skills to make it work well for you:
There’s no boss sitting behind you at Starbucks breathing down your neck as your deadline approaches. It’s a bit of a blessing in disguise. You have to arrange yourself and make sure you’re handling things when they need to be handled. Otherwise, you’re the one whose neck is on the line for not getting everything done by the deadline.
When you remove yourself from the structured work environment of an office, you have to replace that structure with your own system to make sure you don’t fall behind, stress too much, double book your time, or accidentally overwork yourself.
If you’re the one in control of when and where you do your work, you have to put a firm separation between your work and your daily life. Otherwise, people who run into you at home or out might district you and pull you out of valuable working hours. If you’re working, you’re working. If you’re off the clock, you’re off the clock.
This sounds easy, but it’s one of the really difficult parts of remote work. Since you’re not physically separating yourself during working hours and there’s no office to leave at the end of the day, it’s often difficult to keep yourself from mixing activities at inappropriate times.
Just as with time management, self-discipline is essential for remote workers. There is no supervisor to look over your shoulder and tell you to get back to work. Instead, you just have messages, emails, and occasional phone calls checking on your progress.
It’s really easy to slip into an unproductive lifestyle. You might be tempted to sleep in a bit later, since you don’t have to drive to work. Or, you’ll want to take longer lunch breaks or watch something on TV during the day. A friend might want to stop by, or you’ll be invited to an event… Anything can happen. Since you feel like you’re flexible, you’re going to have to be very disciplined to make sure you prioritize your work properly.
Remote workers have to maintain a useful schedule. There’s no clocking in or clocking out, so you have to enforce your working hours for yourself. When you don’t feel like working, you have to remember that even though you’re not in the office, you’re still at work. The flexibility is a perk, not an excuse to waste time.
You can’t just walk down the hallway to have a quick word with your teammate or your supervisor. As a remote worker, especially if you’re part of a mixed or fully remote team, you need to be an excellent communicator. Be purposeful and keep in touch with people regularly, giving and asking for updates as well as proactively communicating about any ongoing projects.
Some remote workers make a point of having regular phone or video chat meetings with each of their team members or leaders, so they can stay top of mind. Keeping in touch as a remote worker can involve a bit of overcommunication, which you’ll probably have to come to accept if you want to make sure what you’re saying isn’t getting lost in the noise.
When you work outside of the office setting, people don’t always look out for you. Often, you need to be assertive to get your voice heard. It may be up to you to take the initiative and act as your own workplace advocate. As a remote worker, there’s an unfair expectation put on you to prove your worth more than your results, especially in a mixed work setting.
If you work remotely for a business that has a mix of remote and local employees, it’s easy to get blamed when things go wrong or to be on the receiving end of sentiments like “they’re not pulling their weight”, simply because no one can physically see you working.
Remote workers must be confident and willing to interject on their own behalf. It may be up to you to sing your own praises, so you have to learn how to make your contributions known respectfully and professionally, but effectively.
Benefits of Remote Work
There’s a lot out there about the benefits of remote working and why everyone should be doing it, so we’ll just touch briefly on the main benefits here, for comparison’s sake:
Working from the place of your choosing allows you to be more productive. Remote workers and their companies tend to confirm that working remotely makes you more productive overall.
More Engaged at Work
Remote workers are more engaged in their work, generally speaking.
Agency Over Your Workspace
It’s great to be able to control where, when, and how you work. As long as you’re getting it done, you can control the specifics of how your work happens. This is great for people who work well in specific conditions or conditions opposite of a normal office environment.
Many people working remotely feel less stressed. There’s no commute, less distraction (maybe, and more control over your life in general.
Problems with Remote Work
Despite the benefits, there are plenty of things to hate about remote work as well. It’s not all productivity and freedom. These are some of the real struggles of working remotely:
Longer Working Hours
Many remote workers struggle with disconnecting from work after working hours are over. In Buffer’s 2019 State of Work report, 22% of remote workers surveyed said their biggest struggle was unplugging after work. It’s easy to overwork to get things done. Because most remote jobs are measured on a performance basis, you may find that you have to work extra hours to get things done if you didn’t manage to do them during normal hours.
Alternatively, you may struggle to separate your work and personal space, especially when you’re working from a home office. It’s easier to think you should just continue working when all you have to do is turn your computer back on. There’s a strong temptation to work all the time.
Burnout is a serious problem.
Fewer Breaks & Sick Days
The same Buffer report showed that remote workers tend to take fewer breaks and vacations, even though their companies often offer them more vacation time. One potential reason for this goes back to unplugging. Because you’re working remotely, you may feel you can work while on vacation rather than taking the time off, since you’re location-independent anyway.
A lack of breaks also shows up on a smaller level throughout the day. There is no mandated lunch break, and fewer remote workers take regular breaks throughout their workdays. Breaks you do take may be shorter than they would be in an office setting.
Weak/No Interpersonal Relationships with Co-Workers
It’s difficult to create, maintain, or be part of a company culture when your team is rarely or never in the same room together.
Stifled Career Progress
Studies have shown that working remotely tends to lead to fewer promotions for many people. You have to actively work to make sure you’re not left out of the running for job openings and career advancement.
Loneliness & Isolation
When you lack the personal contact with your co-workers and the physical presence of others around you, it’s easier to feel chronic loneliness. You may unintentionally isolate yourself even outside of working hours, exacerbating your loneliness. It’s a harsh cycle that some remote workers can get caught up in.
Does It Fit Your Life?
No matter what the proponents say, remote work just isn’t for everyone. The benefits we talked about don’t happen for every person that tries remote work. You may feel more stressed or less productive in a remote position, losing engagement and connection over time.
Your preference may be to work in an office with other people. If you’re a social person that likes that part of an office environment, it’s difficult to navigate a remote work position that keeps you alone most of the time.
For anyone that has difficulty separating work and home life, remote work is intensely difficult and can erode your mental health over time. You may not be able to spend quality time with loved ones because your work is constantly getting in the way.
Whatever your reason for not liking remote work (and there are many valid reasons), it’s time to look closely and see what kind of solution would improve your quality of life.
Remember that list of hidden skills remote workers need? If you’re lacking any of these skills, it’s going to be harder to thrive in a remote work job. This is a problem you can potentially fix with training, if you’re willing to intentionally learn the necessary skills to bridge the gap.
If you’re a single person living alone, you have a difficult/busy living situation, you’re prone to chronic stress, or other life circumstances tend to negatively affect your work, this is a huge problem. Working at an office can shield you from some of these problems, because of the distinct physical separation between your work and your life.
In these cases, you might be able to work on some of the problems individually. For example, living alone and working at home can increase your feelings of loneliness. But, you can try to balance this out by seeking to build a more robust social life, taking up a hobby, or working regularly from public places that allow for some social connection throughout the day.
You may not like working remotely. Whether it’s the communication, need for self-discipline, or work/life balance that drives this preference, it all comes down to what you do or don’t like. Personal preference is difficult to change, no matter how long you try.
When Remote Work Isn’t Working for You…
It’s okay to give up on full-time remote work when your situation is completely incompatible with it. If your preference is to work in an office, don’t try to force yourself to succeed in a remote job, unless it’s a great step for your career.
When skills or life situations are the problem, why not seek out a solution first to see if you can continue working remotely? Sign up for training courses and actively work on your soft skills. If life is getting in the way of your work, or vice versa, you might consider switching to part-time remote work as opposed to full-time remote work, if that’s an option for you.
Productivity may be a benefit to remote work, but it doesn’t just happen. You have to put in the work to get to that productivity. If you’re struggling to stay productive, see if you can address that first with a few simple fixes.
At the end of the day, it might not work out. Just as some people have a life that’s incompatible with night shift work, working holidays, 9-5 jobs, or office work, your struggle with remote work may not be worth the fight. For people that struggle to stay organized and create structure in their own lives, remote work is far more challenging than working in an office where structure and organization are the defaults.
When the difficulties outweigh the benefits, there’s little reason to continue.
The prediction may be that remote work is the future of work, but that will never be true for 100% of jobs or employees. Don’t be afraid to make up your mind that at least for now in your current circumstances, remote work isn’t working.
About the Author
Nikola Baldikov is a Digital Marketing Manager at Brosix, a secure instant messaging software for business communication. Besides his passion for digital marketing, Nikola is an avid fan of football and he loves to dance.