2020 was the single biggest case study on remote work in history and it began with glistening reviews. Once the 42% of the US workforce who worked remotely got past the technical hiccups, the flexibility, lack of commute, cheaper lifestyle and increased family time were loved. Even our pets were living out the dream of having parents around all the time.
However, as the novelty wore off, some drawbacks became apparent. The remote employee experience may not be living up to the hype to be and businesses and teams are feeling it. The 1500% increase in Google searches for “virtual team building” is telling.
There’s no doubt that remote working has its advantages but let’s look at these 4 pitfalls of remote.
What are these drawbacks of remote work?
Many will blame the pandemic for negative remote experiences but in truth, the issues existed before and since. They may have been amplified throughout Covid-19 but to create a better remote environment, we need to recognize failings.
1. Communication Becomes Transactional and Inconvenient
When once we could lean back on your chair to ask a colleague a question, we now have the added friction of checking each other’s calendars and setting up a zoom call or pinging someone on slack to only hear back the next day or get lost in the conversation stream.
Because conversations have these added bits of friction, we try to keep things strictly business so to fatigue our colleague with fluff.
We are less likely to have impromptu conversations about all the intangible things that go on in a rewarding workplace. The chats become transactional for information exchange. This is diminishing our ability to forge and maintain relationships at work and collaboration is decreasing.
Passive learning through osmosis is on the wane and our overall sense of belonging and community is deteriorating as a result.
“I think you are on mute”
We are having more group meetings that achieve less. The mechanics of a virtual call mean that group interactions are far less cohesive. As much as 92% of people are multitasking on virtual calls and as soon as any two people speak at the same time, messages get lost and diminished.
This is your brain on Zoom
Virtual calls are tiring, our brains have to work much harder when we are talking virtually.
Your brain is busy trying to make up for the non-verbal communications, seeing yourself in real-time is distracting, the excessive eye-contact is draining and you are far less mobile. This is what is happening below the surface every time you’re on a virtual call.
The more time spent on calls, the more tired you become. It puts people off and it means communication and conversation productivity become negatively correlated. Remote work demands more communication but the virtual calls are draining employees.
“They are going to fire me any day” – The Hanlon’s Razor Effect
Social psychology is a wonderfully interesting field when it comes to communication or lack thereof. For example, when employees don’t hear from their management team for a while, they have a strange tendency to assume the worst. When we don’t see or hear from people intrusive thoughts say “They must not like me” or “I must have messed up”.
Hanlon’s Razor states you should “Never attribute to malice, that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” I.E. Don’t just assume someone is intentionally ignoring you if it could just be down to forgetfulness or something else. Unfortunately, in the remote world, we can be left with too much time to think which often leads us to thinking the worst.
2. Remote Employee Mental Health is Declining
A collaborative study by Qualtrics and Mind Share Partners has revealed some worrying statistics associated with remote work.
44% of 2000 employees surveyed reported a decline in their mental health since going remote. The number of people who rated their mental health 0-3 out of 10 has also doubled. While you might think Covid-19 is the sole driver of these statistics, that is not the case.
Exhaustion from video calls, social isolation, “always at work” longer hours, home distractions, burnout and performance anxiety are all playing into the decline. Employees who are motivated and satisfied with their jobs have fallen from 57% to below 35%.
Management is also experiencing issues. Stress across managers and leadership is on the increase given the change in duties and responsibilities. Most managers are striving to keep the team engaged whilst 67% report feeling more stress in the remote setting.
Not only have duties changed but distractions are everywhere. Half of stay at home workers are frequently interrupted by family on a daily basis. Parents continue to tackle challenges in minding and educating children. This is throwing routines out and putting stress on employees to perform at work and at home.
Most of all, work life balance has shifted for everyone. Many have experienced improvements but more are losing their sense of work life balance. We are struggling to switch off and ‘leave the office’. 40% of people are working longer hours remotely because they feel they don’t work as efficiently.
The business impact of declining mental health will bring burnout, absenteeism and disengagement if not corrected.
3. Onboarding has Become More Challenging
If you have ever been new to a company before, you understand there is a certain awkwardness. You’re trying to fit into the culture, make some friends and get up to speed all at once. The issue with remote work is that the window to doing these things is much narrower. There is far less colleague visibility for new hires.
Onboarding is a challenge because casual conversation and knowledge sharing is severely compromised. In a 2019 study, the Harvard Business Review found that new hires should be co-located with colleagues long enough to benefit from informal organic learning. They need every opportunity to get to grips with your company and shortened or cumbersome interactions don’t quite do it.
In addition, your new recruits face a culture fit problem. They don’t get the opportunity to sit at the proverbial lunch table and get to know the team. As community and togetherness is already being challenged by the remote environment, the new employee can contribute to a team identity problem. These issues are affecting collaboration, psychological safety and overall engagement.
4. Fostering and Festering Inequality
Educational elitism and resentment have become quite contentious in recent times and this is festering with the remote workplace.
The problem is that remote working is not equally available to all employees. Retailers, manufacturers, transporters, warehouse staff, healthcare professionals, hospitality, laborers and more don’t have the option to work from home but certain departments in those businesses do.
Managers, professionals, accountants, HR, IT and more can all operate fine remotely and this is creating division. While they get to avoid the commutes and hassle, in-person teams experience a comparatively longer day. The sentiment of “one rule for the higher educated and another for everyone else” grows quickly. Where this is possible, disenfranchisement and disengagement follow.
Equally, remote work is becoming a societal issue as many who don’t have the necessary internet speed, dedicated home office space, hardware or computer skills. Unfortunately, many of these people are getting left behind entirely as prospect erosion occurs in an increasingly remote economy.
There’s no doubt that remote working has its advantages and 74% of companies are planning to make remote work permanent for at least part of their staff.
But, there will be trade offs. Do we fully appreciate that communication, mental health, recruitment and more may be damaged going forward?
Without paying proper attention, disengagement, absenteeism and turnover could become a major problem for the remote enterprise and not one which should be taken lightly.
Now, nobody is advocating against the freedom to work at home in pyjamas but it should not come at the cost of your mental health or your businesses ability to maintain productivity.
These trade offs should be considered before you decide which roles and people should be working remotely.