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The Secret Toll of Remote Work

the-secret-toll-of-remote-work

If you had asked me five years ago what I thought of remote work, I’d say to you the typical answer that it was everyone’s dream job. After all, who wouldn’t want to work flexible hours and from anywhere in the world? Immediately, thoughts of traveling the globe while carrying your work inside a backpack invade your consciousness. Dreams of shuffling through a variety of Starbucks cafés everyday are finally coming true. You can work at your own pace, have your own say on what constitutes a standard work attire, and you can even insert leisure moments like kitesurfing and wakeboarding in between tasks. Doesn’t all this just sound great?

But fast forward to today, 2021, the year where we probably will have a clearer idea of what the new normal looks like – remote work doesn’t sound too fancy anymore. In worst cases, remote work has led to worsening depression to workers already suffering this before their work lives transitioned into work from home. Burnout has become more common, as there seems to be no ‘off’ switch when your workplace is also your home space.

The pandemic looks like it will have a permanent effect on how work arrangements will look like, with most big companies already identifying a sector of their workforce that will permanently have a remote work setup. It's worth noting that this whole remote work setup was spearheaded by IBM in 1979, a time where offices where the thing. And in the 2000’s IBM even had as much as 40 percent of its workforce categorized as remote workers. However, in 2017 IBM did a full 180 and called its employees back into the office.

With COVID-19 vaccinations in full swing especially in the United States, we will see a return to office of most of the big companies – some slowly trying to return as early as now. As to what extent – this remains to be seen. While it varies per company, some part of the workforce will remain to under a remote work setup, and so it’s important to highlight that remote work isn’t really as glamorous as I’d described at the beginning of this article. Let’s focus on each of the downsides remote work brings with it.

the-secret-toll-of-remote-work

An Isolated Worker

Collaboration in the office isn’t always intentional. You don’t have to intentionally ‘run into’ someone who might just have a solution to your problem – you just do. And when you need light-hearted chats and small talk to make the atmosphere around work less mundane, you don’t need to chat someone up from your team who has an ‘Active’ status on the online messaging app – you just glance on the desk next to yours (sometimes glancing isn’t even necessary) and strike up a conversation.

The human component of working at the office is heavily underrated, and when you’re a remote worker, you tend to become an isolated worker. This isolation doesn’t just impact your productivity or career in general, but it can easily impact your personal life. Those who’ve been remote workers for a long time attest to the lesson that remote work isn’t for everyone, and for those who tend to become depressed when they work in an environment that provides little social stimulation, it can hit very hard.

On a personal note, it took me a while to fully adjust to the work-from-home transition. Don’t get me wrong – I’m absolutely thankful and feel abundantly lucky that my company has allowed its employees to transition into remote work when the pandemic hit hard last year. In addition, I’m the type of person who thrives in an environment when there’s not a lot of social stimulation – I find that libraries are one of the best places to get work done, and you could easily class me as a highly introverted person based on Susan Cain’s book, Quiet. But transitioning into remote work was harder than I imagined. Energy levels were difficult to maintain throughout the day, and it was hard to start a workday without a set routine. Less than a month in, I felt that if there was a safe way to get to the office without the risk of getting COVID I would be more than happy to be back working at the office.

The Disengaged Employee

The concept of teams functioning within an organization means that there’s a group led by at least one person, and other people functioning as members within that group. It’s easier to see what a team looks like when its members are physically present, and especially if they’re gathered in a space together. In remote work, it’s not impossible to recognize a team as well, especially when there’s an org chart with the leader or manager at the top, and at the bottom are the members.

But as the leader of a team, how do you keep members of your team engaged when you aren’t able to meet with them physically? There are some straightforward solutions often suggested by teams who have been in the remote work setup longer than most have – ranging from setting informal meetings and virtual team building activities. However, we are yet to see what a long-term solution looks like for a disengaged team member because of working remotely.

Seeing your fellow team members in the flesh and being able to engage with them naturally is not just a way to keep the whole team together, it’s also one way to keep an employee and prevent attrition. It’s a disengaged employee who often finds a reason to look elsewhere, and as teams continue to work remotely, it becomes difficult to spot an disengaged employee unless you as a leader consciously keep tabs and monitor your team members closely.

the-secret-toll-of-remote-work

Work Without Structure

In just the first two weeks transitioning to work-from-home from working in the office, I suddenly realized how a lot less structured things suddenly became. The routine, auto-paced rhythm of an ordinary workday was suddenly lost. The time to switch into self-reflection mode while commuting was also lost. And the chunks of time we unconsciously assigned meanings to – ‘in-the-zone mode,’ morning snack time, lunch, afternoon coffee, 4:30 pm booting down – all these were gone, too. I found myself missing a structure that I so badly needed to make my day feel more a lot like real work rather than having some work to do while lounging at home.

I’ve written on one of my previous works how working from home is a tad bit overrated and how the lack of a proper work routine while at home can be detrimental to one’s productivity. Keeping energy levels and motivation without structure is a tougher challenge than one might expect. One of my favorite YouTubers, TechLead, talks about in one of his videos how as a remote software developer he found himself looking for a place outside his apartment to work because being holed up inside four walls can be so miserable. And even working outside his home, he found himself having had to consciously ‘restart’ himself as he moved from coffee shop to coffee shop.

I’d like to reiterate that the structure the office brings is so underrated, and the office was designed in such a manner for a reason – to be conducive for productivity and to help workers organize their workday. When you’re in an office, you normally don’t have to consciously start your workday. That’s because once you arrive (or for some after a cup of coffee), the workday has officially begun.

No Boundaries Between Work and Life

When you are working from home or from one of your favorite spots in the city, when does work stop? Some roles or job descriptions are fortunate enough to have an ‘off’ switch – those working in customer service, for example. Some roles are designed to be judged or assessed in terms of how many hours you put in or were available. Other roles, however, are not.

If your job description is judged by the results you deliver, and that once you reach those targets your workday is done – you’re also one of the fortunate ones. Again, these are the types of jobs where there’s a more distinct ‘off’ switch. Because of this, you’re able to draw a clear boundary between work and life. There are roles however, where it is impossible to draw that boundary. Often, these are leadership roles, wherein you are expected to be available especially when a crisis or a hot escalation occurs.

During the pandemic, based on shared experiences from colleagues, it has been harder to draw the line between work and life – even for roles that aren’t really leadership positions. More work seems to have been created because of the absence of the office. An earlier theory was that workload would eventually decrease because at home there’s simply not as much to do compared to being at the office. But the opposite came true – as workers transitioned to working remotely, more workload created because employees were expected to have more time available.

As a remote worker, you need to find a way to unplug from work and not be tempted to work (even if it sounds fun) because burning out is a real phenomenon. Burning out isn’t unique to office workers – it happens to remote workers alike.

Conclusion

The secret toll of working from is a topic we should continue to enrich. As companies drive their employees back to the office, it is expected that such an effort will not cover the entire portion of the workforce. With the pandemic still wreaking havoc unevenly around the globe because of vaccine distribution inequity, there will be employees who have no choice but to work from home. It’s worth being mindful of what these employees continue to bear and not just assume that working remotely is everyone’s dream job.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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