The Challenge of Working Remotely That’s Gone Most Unappreciated

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To see so many businesses finally catch up to the technological reality—that many jobs can be remote—can feel like a wonderful side effect of the pandemic lockdown.

The option to work remotely is wonderful and worth fighting for. It’s a good thing that millions of people, including employers and employees, have been getting a taste for what it’s like to consistently work from home. Or if not from home, at least away from a dedicated office. Of course, the situation’s raised a number of challenges. I’m sure you’ve already thought of one—the lack of appropriate working conditions at home, feeling isolated or bored without coworkers, losing a sense of how much time you spend working…I could go on. But I’m sure some benefits of this predicament also spring to mind, like being free from micromanaging superiors.* We’re even hearing about a “great resignation,” driven by many factors that include resistance to returning to offices or a desire to live a more free and fulfilled life. 

Over the last year, I have been watching companies grapple with how to best deploy a remote workforce with great interest. Considering why some companies are adapting to remote work better than others is something I find fascinating. This is because I’m no stranger to working remotely. I’ve been at it for nearly 20 years—accountable, across different jobs, to many bosses and clients, including myself, when I was self-employed. Over that time, I’ve been a strong advocate for remote work, since so many jobs can be done this way, improving people’s lives and offering them greater control over their time. So, to see so many businesses finally catch up to the technological reality—that many jobs can be remote—can feel like a wonderful side effect of the pandemic lockdown.

Organizations arguably have a responsibility to help employees grow, or at least adapt to their workers’ needs.

The remote-working challenge that has gone most unappreciated (and therefore is the least addressed) is, in my view, being able to build the skills employees need to succeed when they’re accustomed to working in an office. Ideally, organizations and employees would self-select into this arrangement, rather than have the pandemic decide. But here we are—the struggle to be effective at distance goes on. It doesn’t have to be an unpleasant grind, though. In fact, it would go a long way if leaders were to shift from a crisis-management approach on remote work, to long-term success strategies. This starts with recognizing that, in many cases, office work can’t easily be transplanted in a home setting. The company and job title may remain the same, but what it takes to be successful from one setting to the next can change drastically, and not everyone adapts quickly or effectively. 

I used to witness this sort of dynamic first-hand, as a dissertation-committee member and director of research in a university setting. Straight-A students would reach the dissertation phase of their program and fall apart in terms of productivity. The extrinsic motivators of due dates, grades, and looking your professor in the eye to admit you hadn’t completed the week’s assignments simply vanish. In their new-found freedom, students are asked to make progress: Complete a chapter by the end of the quarter, say. There’s less pressure, in a sense, but many (perhaps most) get more stressed, less productive, and discouraged. Many don’t complete their program at all, and those finishing do so at different speeds depending on their personality, committee support, and university resources. Just as a student struggles when incentives to work change, employees transitioning to remote work may need some time, and significant personal development, to succeed. 

It also seems plausible that remote work just suits certain people more naturally. In a 2009 study, researchers have found that “different personality traits are relevant for the prediction of teleworker, as opposed to non-teleworker, effectiveness.” Greater need for autonomy and achievement were related to more successful remote work (teleworking), while diligence was not related to performance for remote workers. This makes sense, as needs for autonomy and achievement are internal to the individual and will be expressed in any environment regardless of oversight. Diligence, however, may only describe how work gets done. Less diligent employees in a home office may be interrupted more, but make up for this by completing the work at different times. 

To me, being able to use that flexibility effectively is one of the keys to successfully working remotely. A happy remote worker likely exercises during the day, customizes their working environment to their needs, voluntarily tracks their own time for their own sanity, recovers from draining video conferences in their own way, and sometimes works a Sunday in order to take Friday off. Their employer is probably aware of and has given permission to complete work at odd times and from multiple locations, judges work by quality and timeliness, and trusts the employee instead of micromanaging. 

It’s easier, though, if that trust had been earned through close contact, in the office. In the on-site world, our coworkers have more depth and complexity, we know the person and our trust is in their character and possibly their charisma. 

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Building trust remotely is a different story, according to Shawn Belling, author of Remotely Possible: Strategic Lessons and Tactical Best Practices for Remote Work. “In remote environments, trust evolves in different and important ways,” he writes. “There are fewer non-work social opportunities, and so trust and accountability tend to be developed through delivery of work and follow-through on work and project-related commitments.” Remote work, in other words, typically becomes more transactional, leading to additional stress when we are late with work, and the very real possibility that we are also being judged as wholly unreliable instead of trustworthy despite hitting a rough spot. 

Being able to demonstrate a real capacity to self-regulate—by meeting self-imposed deadlines you’ve shared with your boss, say—can help foster trust. As well as a sense of empowerment. Research from Tilburg University’s Dorien Kooij suggests that specific self-regulatory skills may be good targets for further development. Older workers in his study adapted very effectively to work changes during the COVID-19 pandemic in part due to emotion regulation and the ability to proactively initiate and adaptively manage goal pursuits. Kooij suggests that interventions to help employees improve in these areas include High Involvement Management and job crafting.

While traits, like self-control, and needs for autonomy and achievement are important, employees working remotely shouldn’t be left to float or sink based on their personality, or level of preparedness. Organizations arguably have a responsibility to help employees grow, or at least adapt to their workers’ needs. So, it should make sense for organizations to invest in their employees’ personal development for working remotely. Providing them with training and tools surrounding the critical psychological infrastructure of remote work will equip them with a firm virtual footing from which they can operate. 

In a recent paper, virtual mentoring was found to be one way of “helping employees discover a balance between work and life, implementing a reward system, and enhancing an overall sense of well-being and belongingness for employees working in virtual/remote environments.” 

The actual distance between workers, temporal disconnects from time zones and schedules, and increased worker autonomy are easier to manage when you have quality metrics on things like trust and perceived distance (how far away coworkers seem to be, emotionally and cognitively), as well as organizational commitment. Trust is difficult to establish, yes, but it’s practically indispensable, being so but crucial to successful collaboration. These metrics can be measured as part of a culture survey, or through broader organizational assessment initiatives, and tracked over time to ensure that the potential pitfalls of remote work are in check. 

Brian Harward is a research scientist at Ethical Systems.

* Below, a table listing more challenges and benefits of working remotely.

Lack of appropriate working conditions in the homeAbility to customize one’s work space
Inability to self-motivate or stay on taskFreedom from micromanagement
Feeling isolated or bored without coworkersLess time being “on stage,” managing one’s image/appearance
Weak emotional connectedness to the organizationGratitude for an organization granting freedom and trust to work remote
Blurring of the boundary between work and home lifeGreater autonomy over work schedule
Poor technology or difficulty in using itGood technology and training facilitate collaboration between any locations
Temptation from entertainment, family, leisure, during work hoursMore natural flow and take part in restorative activities
Distorted awareness of time spent workingWork can be completed at any time or on any schedule
Less feedback on work, leading to uncertainty about performanceOpportunity to work independently and submit work only when ready
Management and leadership may require different techniquesEmployees are more empowered to self-manage and self-motivate
Distrust of employees can lead to monitoring and surveillance Employees given autonomy are more satisfied with their job
Remote challenges disadvantage certain people more, creating inequityIndividual employees can adapt the working environment to their needs.

Lead image: Avi Richards / Unsplash