Remote workers consistently report feeling isolated and lonely.
In the first part of our deep dive into remote working we examined it’s rapidly increasing popularity and the various associated benefits.
As yet another Christmas comes to a wrap, one starts thinking of heading back to work. Going back to work in the office is a dreadful thought for most, yet it might be far better than staying or working from home for some. The reluctance to embrace the movement by tech giants like Facebook, and the retraction of remote working policies from its trend setters like Yahoo, should give anyone considering remote work some pause.
Why would IBM, who gained nearly $2 billion selling off their office real estate after implementing remote working, bring their workers back to the office? Why would Google, who boasts one of the world’s most progressive work cultures, adamantly reject telecommuting?
We did a deep dive into the world’s best workplaces to identify the pitfalls and serious drawbacks of remote working and why at times, it’s best avoided. Flexible and remote working have taken center stage in the debate for the future of work. While there is plenty to gain, remote work does not come without some serious side effects. Beware!
Isolation comes at a concerning cost
Stress at work comes home when one works remotely.
In the previous piece I discussed the success of Nicholas Bloom’s 2-year remote working study. However, a significant number of subjects in the remote working control group asked to return to the office. The main reason? Loneliness.
Loneliness and isolation are the largest reported concern amongst remote workers and its effects can go further than affecting just the individual. Some symptoms of isolation include increased stress levels and bad decision making. For an employer, these are concerning characteristics for someone who has crucial responsibility. Unfortunately, being isolated also means these symptoms are difficult for employers to detect.
Rapid changes require rapid responses
Impromptu responses to rapid actions slow still require physical collaboration in most companies
Both Best Buy and Yahoo called their workers back to the office over claims of better ‘impromptu collaboration’ increasing productivity. Each faced criticism, internally and externally for their decision, and were subsequently perceived as traitors to the movement and mutineers of progression.
“Bottom line, it’s ‘all hands-on deck’ at Best Buy and that means having employees in the office as much as possible to collaborate and connect on ways to improve our business”
However, when a company makes rapid changes, it is beneficial to have its employees physically close to accommodate snap meetings and communication that would require a rapid response. Even with instant messaging services like Slack, communication issues are likely to occur that wouldn’t exist if a team member was sitting close by.
Unknown working environments increase vulnerability
Unprepared remote work can often increase vulnerability
As companies grow and expand their client base, the data which employees possess becomes more sensitive in nature. As a result, they become increasingly vulnerable to cyber-crime. This is a threat that is significantly harder to defend with a workforce located in networks and spaces they cannot control.
Google believes that situating employees under its own roof restricts the avenues for conspiracy, and they may have a point. Facebook and Google are among some of the largest data collectors in the world, and while the risk of an employee navigating through highly confidential data amid a busy café would worry most employers, for Google and Facebook it’s catastrophic.
Lack of face time creates lack of opportunity
An employee, in the run up for a promotion, is not judged solely on their quality of work, but also their leadership skills, positive attitude and ability to collaborate with the team.
Out of sight, out of mind is still a concerning problem with career progression
Without the right digital tools, employers could struggle to make this judge of character with remote workers, reducing the speed and likeliness of employees being awarded growth opportunities.
In the long run this can cause significant damage to the hierarchical structure of a company. While the prolonged period of time taken to replace senior employees will lead to delayed projects, the lack of supervision in the interim could also result in a managerial crisis. For an individual in the early stages of their career, this could slow down their growth by years.
The culture of remote work is new and difficult to adapt to
There are a few pre-requisites to facilitate remote working, like having the right tools in place for collaboration and workload management, but successful adoption of these tools within the company is crucial. People who are used to working in office settings can find it difficult to adapt, hence making it harder to collaborate and work productively in remote settings.
While the points listed above should promote caution, they should not discourage you completely. All the drawbacks mentioned could be countered with the argument of its relevance to your workforce, company and technological capabilities.
If employers are hesitant to award progression to an employee due to lack of physical presence, then perhaps their criteria for a promotion is slightly superficial. In today’s world, AI and people analytics tools can now detect how people collaborate without the need for them to be physically present in the office.
Best Buy maybe on to something when speaking about the benefits of spontaneous collaboration with people in the office, as since the recall of their remote workers in 2013, they subsequently recovered from a reduction in sales to significant growth. However, other tech giants like Cisco and Salesforce who have embraced remote working not only boast record breaking fiscal years but also rank high in the World’s Best Workplaces 2019.
Remote working may be the future, but it is certainly not a conclusive part of our present.
Failures due to lack of awareness or preparation are abundant, while successful implementations tend to be short lived. In the end, the future of work is distributed, flexible and remote. But that future isn’t coming until we solve these problems that stop us from moving forward.
(Shout out to Dylan Fernando for assisting with the content and research for this article)