Remote work is a fact of life in most business environments today. Large corporations may lead in sheer numbers of remote employees, but smaller companies with budget concerns and a growing number of freelance workers are also participating in the remote work revolution.
There’s a wealth of information available regarding the positive aspects of remote work. And yet, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer famously ended remote work at the company altogether, based on a belief that eliminating remote work would be good for business.
It’s worthwhile, then, to honestly consider both the pros and cons of remote work before deciding whether or not it’s right for you. take an honest look at the challenges that businesses and individuals face with remote teams.
The Pros: What’s Great About Remote Work
When you open your company to remote workers, your potential talent pool expands immensely. If the best candidates don’t live within commuting distance and aren’t willing to relocate for whatever reason, your business can still benefit from their skills. Assembling a team of top employees from all over the country or even the world is doable, and thanks to a variety of interactive technologies, it doesn’t require faceless exchanges or glacial communications. Expensive business trips are virtually eliminated, requirements for physical office space are reduced, and employee productivity often increases due to the flexibility that remote working allows.
The benefits to employees are also clear. They can work during their most productive hours and handle inevitable personal issues with greater efficiency. Commute times that add stress and reduce productivity disappear, and employees also save money on all car-related expenses by driving less.
Contrary to managerial fears that at-home employees will slack off, many remote workers achieve more than in-office employees do. There can actually be fewer distractions and interruptions at home than in an office.
Also, while remote working hours may be less than traditional, the ability to check email or handle various tasks at any time often means more work is done, not less.
The Cons: Challenges of Remote Work Arrangements
Many people look for the ability to work remotely as either a requirement or at least a part-time option when considering a new position, and interest in such flexible work arrangements only seems to be growing. Consequently, it wasn’t too surprising that Yahoo lost a lot of people with its policy change.
But that doesn’t mean the policy change was a bad call. Remote working poses plenty of challenges for both businesses and employees, and some sources suggest that Mayer’s decision to ban remote work has had excellent results.
Here are some of the ways that remote work can make things harder for businesses:
1. The Limits of Remote Communication
There’s no question that video chat, messaging apps, emails, texts, and phone calls are all valuable tools. Likewise, the ability to share documents in the cloud definitely aids collaboration. Even so, such technologies have clear limits.
Written communication is notorious for creating misunderstandings. Whether due to an ambiguous tone or to poorly worded messages, back-and-forth communications for clarification waste time. Delays in response times, leading to additional prompts for answers, are another detriment.
It’s much easier to get your point across while directly viewing materials with someone. Interactions can be quicker and more straightforward in person, and it’s also easier to explain and resolve differing viewpoints face-to-face. An office environment additionally provides chances for passing comments, sparking ideas that might not come up in formalized meetings or remote communications.
2. A Lack of Team Cohesion
One offshoot of these varied communication challenges is team cohesion — or lack thereof. Remote meetings simply aren’t the same as in-person collaboration. There may be less of a sense of common purpose, and it may take longer to establish trust and smooth working relationships with a remote team than it would with an in-person team.
Employees working separately will understandably focus more on their individual parts than on the whole picture. It can be difficult to stay current with others’ progress and with the developments or roadblocks they’ve encountered, which eventually slows total productivity.
Collaborating in person allows additional viewpoints to arise before anyone’s work goes too far down a singular path. Office teams also perform individual work and may encounter similar consequences, but there are still greater opportunities for timely intervention than with remote teams.
3. The Difficulties of Ownership and Accountability
Reduced interaction and communication in a remote team can lead to confusion over assignments and to some tasks falling through the cracks. Following up for clarification requires additional time and effort, which could push offsite employees into making assumptions about work rather than enduring the hassle of emailing and waiting for answers. Such instability reduces confidence, making it difficult for individuals to establish ownership and accountability. This instability can also raise questions about an employee’s contributions or standing within a team, hampering trust.
While these incidents can certainly happen inside an office, managers may be more likely to intervene in person.
Motivation is another issue. Some people simply aren’t suited to remote work. They don’t have the discipline or the temperament to thrive in a solitary environment, which may not be clear upfront.
4. Little Recognition
An additional task that offsite employees must handle is ensuring that management and other team members recognize their contributions. Extroverted people will have no trouble speaking up, but introverted employees may have difficulties in promoting their work. It’s easier for a manager’s eye to fall on the quiet individual in a room than on the one in a remote meeting. Remote work environments may better suit introverted people, but they can also add stress by requiring a certain level of self-promotion.
Another potential problem for remote employees lies in missing out on work opportunities. Being out of sight might also mean being out of managers’ minds. Direct contact offers a fresh impression when new assignments roll around, and missing too many chances could harm someone’s career path.
5. Early Burnout
As mentioned, many remote workers are more productive than their in-office counterparts. Yet one of the biggest personal drawbacks to this type of arrangement is burnout. The very elements that help increase productivity, including being able to check emails at the breakfast table or finish up that important document right before bed, can create a mindset of never being away from work. Employees are always on call and may feel compelled to do more simply because they can. There’s little real downtime, and all those extra bits easily add up to overwork and burnout. Office employees may stay late, but once they go home, they’re home. For remote employees, home is the workplace.
Should Our Team Be in the Office or Remote?
So, what’s the answer? Remote teams provide solid benefits for both businesses and individuals, but the challenges can’t be ignored. Managers need to weigh both sides, possibly on an individual basis. Some workers fit better in an office; others may perform better when trusted to work on their own.
Managers also need to maintain regular communications with remote employees, not only to make sure they’re progressing, but also to ensure they’re not burning out. Regular face time is essential and invaluable, yet it also creates its own additional challenges.
Simply following a trend or acquiescing to employee requests isn’t enough. The decision to hire remote workers requires thoughtful consideration from any employer. What may be right for some may not be right for others.