Even before the coronavirus, the number of remote workers has been on the rise, with some 70 percent of the workforce operating out of the office at least one day a week. An adaptable work arrangement that enables one to work from home or a co-working space isn’t just a perk; for many it’s a demand: in a new survey, FlexJobs found that 30 percent of respondents left a job because it didn’t offer such flexibility, while 80 percent said they’d be more loyal to their employer were they given more flexibility, including the option to work from home.
It’s been more than four years since I left the land of cubicles and keycards and embarked on fulltime freelance self-employment. I don’t miss most aspects of office life, yet sometimes, I find myself nostalgic for the notion of gung-ho solidarity and team spirit that working in a shared space with colleagues can provide. It’s not uncommon for me to look up from my computer, see that it’s 5pm, and rather than feel that old little stir of excitement that the work day is almost over, experience a bolt of dread in realizing that it’s been 8 hours since I talked to another human being in real life.
In his recent book “Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation”, Dan Schawbel highlights the rise of remote work as a potentially harmful trend in the modern workplace. Among his key conclusions (largely based on interviews with numerous managers at major companies such as American Express and Intuit) — is that the more we work apart, the less we work together, and this can hinder both our productivity and our sense of community.
The remote life is liberating, but it can be lonely
“People talk about the freedom of working remote, but not the cost,” Schawbel says. “There is a dark side of working remote and that’s the loneliness [stemming] from lack of interaction. Remote workers are more likely to quit because of loneliness and low engagement. One study found that a third of employees globally work remote always or very often, and two-thirds of them aren’t engaged. Only five percent of remote workers always or very often see themselves working at their company for their entire career compared to 28 percent who never work remote.”
Schawbel isn’t arguing that managers summon employees back to their cubicles (as some behemoth companies like IBM have done in recent years), but he does see a need for a stronger bond between the employee and their workplace.
“What I’m saying here is a reminder that human connection is important,” Schawbel says. “If you feel lonely as a worker, you can’t do your best work because psychologically a need is not met.”
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“[So much of] communication is non-verbal,” says Schawbel. “You get a better feel of how someone is in person. If you’re sending tons of emails, it’s almost a reflection that you’re not getting your point across. People may take you the wrong way or get confused.”
The simple solution to this is to up your face time with peers and managers, even if you’re using technology to do that.
“There is a big difference between being able to walk over to someone’s office for a quick chat or question versus scheduling time for a call. Doing meetings and calls via video or FaceTime to stay connected and on point helps,” says Diane Stadlen, director of agency services at Sakas & Company. “You also have the option with a video call to share screens if there are questions. If there are opportunities to have face-to-face days in the office take them — we all still need that human connection.”
As a remote worker, I often feel like I’m bothering my managers by asking for time with them. It’s hard to read the room when you’re not in it, and I never know whether I’m interrupting something important. The trick here is to schedule recurring one-on-one time with your boss.
“Be proactive even more than you would be in the office,” says Vicki Salemi, career expert for Monster. “Schedule time on your boss’s calendar to catch up once a week (even if it’s a 15-minute call just to check in). You don’t want to be out of sight, out of mind when working remotely, and that’s why it’s important to keep both communication and rapport in motion.”
3. Match your work schedules with colleagues
“If everyone in your office works on the west coast and you’re based in New York, consider trying to adjust your work schedule so more of your day overlaps with the rest of the office,” says Emily Price, author of “Productivity Hacks: 500+ Easy Ways to Accomplish More at Work — That Actually Work!”. “While there are jobs that might require you to work that ‘east coast shift,’ if yours isn’t one of them it can be useful to spend at least a few days a week working the same hours as your co-workers. Working the same hours can help the rest of the team get to know you, and can help everyone work together more efficiently.”
4. Stay connected with at least one co-worker via video chat
Occasionally I miss swiveling in my chair and asking the writer or editor beside me a quick question. While this kind of spur of the moment interaction may be difficult, it’s not impossible.
“If you’re working with another person regularly, consider spending a few hours of the day connected to that person via video chat,” says Price. “Video chat will allow you to ask questions and communicate with that person just as if you were both in the same room. Having a bit of face-to-face time can help you feel more connected to the office, and can make your interactions with the person you’re chatting with go much smoother.”
Pro tip: If video chatting with a colleague isn’t an option, Price recommends checking out FocusMate, a site where remote workers video chat with a stranger in the same boat for an hour such that you’re one another’s accountability partners for that time.
“You start the hour by telling each other what you plan on working on and end it by letting each other know how you did,” Price says.
5. Even a small space needs work boundaries
I don’t miss being in a cubicle, but I do miss being in a space with defined work boundaries. (I’m presently working in bed, which is a very big no-no, but I’m blaming a pulled hamstring). Even in a small apartment or a co-working space that is always changing, remote workers should clearly define their workspace.
“A common barrier to productivity that I’ve witnessed among [remote] employees is an inadequate workspace,” says Tara Lopez, Benefits Manager at Konnect Agency, where she manages work-from-home privileges for a company of more than 40 tri-coastal employees. “When people think about working from home, they often envision staying in their pajamas and being on their couch. While there are certainly moments where that can be the case, this can also lead to blurred lines of when the mind is supposed to be at ease versus active. I always encourage employees to create a space that is dedicated to work, just as an office would be. This can help many remote workers [determine] where they can and cannot be productive. For employees with limited space in their household, even something as simple as a folding table and chair can make a world of difference in avoiding the lure of working in bed.”
6. Stick to a set schedule for work/life balance ease
If your boss doesn’t require set hours, implement them yourself. This too will help in creating boundaries.
“A major risk with remote working is that it bleeds into your non-work life. Set primary working hours and stick to them,” says Jono Bacon, a community strategist and the author if “The Art of Community: Building the New Age of Participation”. “Sure, if you need to check-in on an evening, or if a work emergency crops up, tend to it, but focus [on using down time] for you, your family and your hobbies.”
7. Slack it up
Most companies with remote teams use Slack or a similar cloud-based collaboration service. Don’t be shy to stay super connected with co-workers via this service.
“Slack is an awesome tool. I send virtual updates and requests via Slack, and it’s a casual conversational channel that makes it easy to check in with your boss once in a while and let them know you’re still doing your job and getting results,” says Rachel Go, a remote content strategist and inbound marketer. “You can also use Slack to highlight any ‘wins’ on your end. For example, I handle a lot of content exchanges. When a blog post I’ve written on behalf of a client goes live, I’ll send the link along via Slack.”
8. After work, “go home” (even if you’re home)
“When I stop working, I clear my desk, turn off my computer and ‘go home’ by changing my clothes and leaving the office for the evening,” says Phil La Duke, a remote global business consultant and author. “There is a real danger of working yourself to the point of fatigue and one way of transitioning from work life to home life is to change the atmosphere. Having a working from home wardrobe that is different from your other wardrobe is a surprisingly effective way to make this transition.”
9. Download apps that block out internet distractions
Rebecca Safier, founder, Remote Bliss, champions anti-procrastination apps as a great productivity hack for remote workers.
“The Checky app, for instance, tracks how much time you’re spending on your phone, so you can become more aware of your habit of scrolling through Instagram when you should be working,” Safier says. “The Focus and Freedom apps actually block certain websites (Facebook, Pinterest, etc.) for a designated amount of time so you can get work done. Sites like Strict Workflow help you structure your time with the Pomodoro method, a time management technique that has you divide your time into 25-minute sessions of deep focus with breaks in-between. Experiment with different techniques.”
“At the end of each week, send your boss an email letting her know what you accomplished this week and what you hope to accomplish the next,” says Price. “The check-in can ensure all your wonderful accomplishments don’t go unnoticed and can make sure both you and your boss are on the same page moving forward.”
Working remote can be tough. Speak up if you’re struggling
If you’re new to working remote, it can take time to adjust. You may struggle in the beginning, and ultimately decide that you’d rather work among your colleagues in a shared setting.
“Remote work is not for everyone — it requires extreme focus, independence and reliability,” says Mady Peterson, content marketing manager at Limeade who works remotely. “If you thrive in a busy environment and require social interaction to get through the day, it’s possible you’ll struggle.”
Give it some time and consider the aforementioned tips which are all essentially ways of making your home-work life more like an office-work life. If you’re feeling left out or burned out, speak up to your supervisor.
“Keep consistent and transparent communication with your manager to let them know how you’re doing — both professionally and personally,” says Peterson. “Find what works best for you. When you’re happy, it’ll show in your performance — and being a happy, engaged employee is what your company wants.”
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