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Working From Home - What Are The Challenges To Making It Work?

Work From Home.jpgThe world of work continues to evolve to be increasingly remote.

Work can – and is expected to be – done anywhere and anytime.

Working from home can be incredibly liberating. It can help provide work/life balance, increased productivity, and employment opportunities for people outside of the corporate headquarters location.

The recent State of Remote Work report from Owl Labs showed:

  • 52% of the working population works remotely at least once a week.
  • Small companies are 2X more likely to hire remote workers
  • Full-time remote workers are 2X more likely to be individual contributors than managers
  • Fully distributed companies (those that have a mix of remote and in office employees) are able to recruit 33% faster than organizations that offer only in office employment
  • Companies that support remote work have 25% lower turnover
  • Employee engagement levels are not that different between remote and in-office employees.

The statistics continue to come in showing the positives of remote work. There are however some big challenges that still need to be addressed.

Bias Towards In-Office Employees

Rebecca Corliss, VP of Marketing at Owl Labs, outlines the unconscious bias that exists and how to fix it:

Here’s a quick exercise: What does your team look like when it’s working hard and being effective? How do you know when your employees are running on all cylinders?

Got a picture in your head? Good.

Now, if what you just pictured includes individuals hustling around the office, coming in early and leaving late, or something similar, you most likely are suffering from an unconscious bias that’s going to make supporting remote work really difficult for you.


Because you’re used to relying on visual cues to determine when people are working hard, and you’re not going to see that happen when a remote employee is kicking ass.

The fix?

Managers need to back away from their conventional views of what “working hard” looks like and instead set specific targets, explain what success looks like, and trust the team to get it done where, when, and however works best for them.

Remote Work Can Create Two Classes of Employees

One unintended consequence of having a fully distributed workforce is that it may create internal resentment among the in-office employees who feel that they are not given the same set of options as their remote teammates. The Owl Labs State of Remote Work report shows that:

57% of on-site employees chose not to work remotely because the nature of their work does not allow it.

Rebecca Corliss points out that smart organizations need to challenge their assumptions regarding what roles are eligible for remote work status. In her Medium article, she referenced an MIT Sloan Executive Education department study by Dr. Peter Hirst that looked at how MIT was able to allow their entire team of 35 employees the option to work remotely at least two days a week. The study showed that management needs to rethink:

  • How they managed productivity – less visual monitoring and more management by goal setting
  • Rethinking how work can be done to allow for remote work – this is much easier to handle today because of shared calendars, video conferencing, Slack, and all of the other technology enablements that allow us to connect remotely.

Remote work can also present a challenge for career advancement. It is not surprising that the State of Remote Work report showed that remote worked are 2X more likely to be individual contributors than managers. This is mainly due to the nature of remote work is often either project-based (example – software development), or performance-based (example – sales).

Remote work by its very nature does not provide the visibility that in-office positions provide. This can make it very easy for someone to be forgotten or overlooked in succession planning. We may be dismissive when it comes to ways that face time, socialization, and group participation can help career advancement but we also have to recognize that they do play a part. Remote work removes someone from these avenues to advancement.

There is no easy answer on how to address this. Some suggestions would be making efforts to check in to the office in person (if possible) and find ways to participate in special projects that will raise visibility.

Remote Work and Connectivity

The biggest challenge to the growth of remote work may actually be loneliness. For all of the downsides of commuting, open office noise, and bothersome co-workers there is still a connectivity that takes place when someone goes to work. It makes us feel part of something bigger, it helps us to not feel isolated.

Loneliness is emerging to be a real issue that has some major health impacts.

Harvard Business Review recently had an article “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic – Reducing Isolation At Work Is Good For Business”.  In the article Vivek Murphy, the former USA Surgeon General outlines why we need to be concerned about social connectivity:

There is good reason to be concerned about social connection in our current world. Loneliness is a growing health epidemic. We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.

Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher. Additionally, the number of people who report having a close confidante in their lives has been declining over the past few decades. In the workplace, many employees — and half of CEOs — report feeling lonely in their roles.

Vivek Murphy goes on further in the article to explain how loneliness can impact health and well being. He believes that loneliness was the most common pathology that he encountered during his time as a physician.

Chances are, you or someone you know has been struggling with loneliness. And that can be a serious problem. Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity. But we haven’t focused nearly as much effort on strengthening connections between people as we have on curbing tobacco use or obesity.

Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making. For our health and our work, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly. 

The importance of connectivity and remote work will be one of the key challenges to making the process work. While you can feel isolated and alone when you are in an office environment, the chance of feeling alone dramatically escalate when your connection to work is a high speeded internet connection.

Business leaders will need to address this or risk increased turnover due to lack of engagement, higher health care premiums (if they actually offer insurance), and a loss (not gain) of productivity.

Our understanding of biology, psychology, and the workplace calls for companies to make fostering social connections a strategic priority. A more connected workforce is more likely to enjoy greater fulfillment, productivity, and engagement while being more protected against illness, disability, and burnout.

Vivek Murphy outlines several smart suggestions on how to improve connectivity:

  • Go beyond engagement surveys and have management talk individually with their employees (in-house and remote) about what they value and care, how they see their role, and what ideas they have to make an impact.
  • Make internal communication a priority. Go beyond the newsletters and weekly email announcements and find ways to connect. Video has the potential to help in this area.
  • Encourage coworkers to reach out and help each other and to also accept help when it is offered. This is an “easier said than done” suggestion that will take commitment to finding ways where people can have the time and place to help others without sacrificing their work responsibilities.

Remote work does promise to be a great breakthrough for both business and the employee. The productivity and cost savings gains for business are significant. The improved work/life balance for employees are major wins. Some major challenges will need to be addressed in order to make this work.