For years, several dedicated individuals and organizations have tried to push the envelope on remote work. They’ve encouraged companies to adopt more flexible work policies and try allowing remote work. In 2020, all of that changed when many office workers were required to work from their homes whether they wanted to or not.
This past year hasn’t been a true remote work experience for most of the world, however. Remote work implies the flexibility to choose where you want to work from, whether it’s a coffee shop, a library or your own home. By contrast, people have been required to stay primarily at home throughout the pandemic. Still, this forced experiment has introduced many people to the possibilities of working outside the office.
Despite both the speed and volatility associated with this shift in the way work is done, people are enjoying the freedom they’ve found. In Buffer’s 2021 State of Remote Work report, more than 97 percent of respondents said that they’d like to work remotely for the rest of their careers. Another 97 percent would recommend remote work to others. Even without optimal conditions, the majority of the 2,300 remote workers surveyed still recommend and want to continue working remotely.
A huge number of people are awakening to the benefits of remote work. This evolving attitude will change a lot of things for organizations now that their workforce has had a taste of the freedom and flexibility it offers. As remote work becomes more common, companies need to be prepared to help their remote workforce flourish outside the office. To that end, I want to identify some of the top struggles that remote workers face and what organizations can do to help them overcome those challenges.
Major Struggles of the Remote Workforce
Although its detractors have long glamorized remote work as sitting on the beach with a laptop and a frozen drink, the reality is more complex. Remote work comes with many undeniable benefits, but it also presents some very real and sometimes serious struggles.
The top struggle remote workers identified in the State of Remote Work report was not being able to unplug, which 27 percent of respondents selected.
One of the things I often point out is that, when you work remotely, your devices become your office. That’s where work happens, where you get notifications, where you hear from colleagues. If you’re like most people, though, your devices are also a big part of your everyday life. Your cell phone is both the place where you respond to Slack messages and how you call your family. Similarly, many people use their laptops for work during the day and for watching movies and videos at night.
Although not being able to unplug has been a consistent problem for remote workers, in the 2020 State of Remote Work, only 18 percent of respondents selected it as the top struggle. Clearly, the past year has exacerbated this issue.
Remote work absolutely means that many people will have a hard time unplugging, but I wonder how much living through a pandemic has increased that struggle in the last year. One of my tactics for unplugging is to schedule things for after work. I gravitate toward activities like exercise classes, dinner with friends or anything else that forces me to put my devices down and do something else.
This year, those activities primarily happened on devices as well. Of course, I don’t bring this up to suggest that this problem is entirely due to the pandemic. The inability to unplug is absolutely a very real struggle. Nevertheless, I think we need to understand the context that may have pushed this issue to the top of the list in this year’s report.
Regardless of the reason for this problem, there are strategies for mitigating it. At an organizational level, a company should develop best practices for ending the workday and managing notifications. Companies that have an “always on” culture will have more employees who struggle to disconnect.
At Buffer, although we stress that it’s up to each individual to manage their notifications and downtime on Slack through our Slack agreements, we also create a culture in which people don’t expect an immediate response. This is especially true for messages sent outside of someone’s working hours. Another principle that can help with this is called leaving loudly. People who are signing off for the day or weekend should leave loudly by specifically saying they are signing off in their team’s Slack channel. This technique is most effective when a manager leads by example.
Collaboration and Communication
Collaboration and communication are always near the top of the list of remote work struggles. This year is no different as 16 percent of remote workers chose it as their top problem. Digging into the data, however, reveals a split between respondents who were forced into remote work by COVID-19 and those who were remote prior to the pandemic. Of the first group, 20.5 percent identified this as their biggest challenge compared to 13 percent of longer-term remote workers. This gap makes sense, of course. People and organizations who chose remote work had more time to prepare and set up internal processes for communication and collaboration than those who had it sprung on them by COVID.
I always find the prevalence of people struggling with this issue fascinating. A quick search shows no lack of tools on the market for facilitating communication and collaboration, with many specifically designed for remote teams. At Buffer, we’ve made excellent use of Dropbox Paper, Notion, Threads, Slack and Zoom over the years, to name just a few.
What this tells me is that tools aren’t the problem. The problem is the processes and systems within an organization aren’t set up to encourage collaboration and communication. This kind of atmosphere is crucial for any organization, but especially those where everyone works online and can’t fall back on gathering in a conference room several times a day to talk things over.
Setting up remote work collaboration takes a lot of clear intention. At Buffer, we have a People team that keeps our tools and processes top of mind and up to date. Other companies have a dedicated head of remote. Either way, it’s important to designate someone who takes responsibility for how work happens remotely. Without clear ownership over that experience, no one implements best practices, and communication can deteriorate over time. Having a person or team responsible for overseeing remote workers and their guidelines for getting work done will go a long way toward alleviating a whole host of problems.
Loneliness is another major challenge that often accompanies remote work. This year, 16 percent of respondents selected it as their top struggle.
Loneliness is a problem outside of remote work contexts and the pandemic as well, though I’m sure that combining the two has exacerbated its severity. Regardless of its origins, loneliness has very real health impacts on individuals and has been compared to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Loneliness can also be very damaging to organizations. Lonely workers say they’re less engaged, less productive, and they even report lower retention rates. Read the 2020 U.S. report on loneliness and the workplace for more data on this issue.
This is an enormous topic, and I won’t presume to solve loneliness in a few sentences. I can, however, offer a few examples of steps organizations can take to help remote workers create more connections at work and be more vulnerable, both of which have been shown to help when combating loneliness.
Once again, organizations must act with intention to create space for their teammates to connect and be vulnerable. At Buffer, we have a team engagement manager who regularly surveys our team to see how engaged they are and facilitates new ways to connect. We do a few things at Buffer:
- Teammates can opt into a Mastermind program where they’ll be paired with another teammate to do regular calls where they discuss their current challenges and share successes.
- Teammates are encouraged to join a pair-calls channel where we use Donut to pair two or three teammates for a quick, 30-minute social call every week.
- We have dedicated Slack channels that act as fun spaces for discussions around non-work topics like TV, pets and books.
These are just a few examples, and there are certainly many more ways that organizations can step in to help employees create more real connections at work. Doing so will improve everyone’s quality of life and also aid in retention efforts.
The Future Is Flexible
As many organizations are discussing whether or not their return to their offices, many may choose not to. I believe that the future of work is flexible and remote, although potentially not fully remote.
Working remotely presents some major hurdles, and many large companies have already invested in expensive real estate that they won’t give up anytime soon. Still, remote work has extremely high approval ratings, even considering that this past year hasn’t been a true or ideal experience with it.
The reality is that the global competition for talent just got even more difficult. With more and more companies embracing remote work, it won’t be just another perk or benefit to a workplace. Instead, candidates will come to expect it, making offering remote options a requirement to attract top talent.
The results show that organizations may be lagging on that front. Although their workforce wants to continue to work remotely, only 46 percent of respondents were certain that their organization would permanently allow remote work, 38 percent didn’t know and 16 percent knew that their organization would not. Organizations have a lot of work to do to catch up with the priorities of their employees and potential candidates.
Despite that, I still believe that remote work is here to stay. I covered the struggles for employees but there are also well-known benefits for organizations. To cite just one example, at Buffer, we have 24-hour coverage from our customer support team, which is located around the world. We also benefit from the diverse perspectives of a global team and aren’t limited in our search for talent to one city.
The future of work may not be fully remote, but it will certainly be more flexible than it has been in the recent past.