Is Remote Work Taking a Psychological Toll on Your External Workers? Researchers Say Yes.
The prospect of working from anywhere, at any time, is becoming more and more attractive. Being able to “work flexibly and still be on track for promotion” was listed as the number one most important characteristic of a new potential job across sectors in a study from EY (Ernst & Young). And it’s particularly attractive for younger workers. In a survey from Bentley University, for example, 77 percent of millenials polled said that working remotely would make them more productive.
Companies, for the most part, have been willing to oblige people's wish for remote work because it does, in some settings, at least, make us more productive, according to this journal article from Stanford University.
In 2015, 80 percent of companies in one survey were offering work that was -- in some respect -- flexible. While some bigger tech companies out there, like Google, have built offices you never want to leave, smaller tech companies have relied more and more on software tools to better enable remote working.
Take Basecamp, for example. Though this project management software company rents a small office in Chicago’s West Loop, it encourages its employees to work remotely 100 percent of the time. And if its Instagram accounts are any indicator, employees are embracing this model.
The downside(s) of remote work
So, yes, remote work sounds good. But just as with everything else we think makes us our lives better nowadays, there’s a catch. A closer look at this phenomenon reveals that employees actually may have more to worry about than initially expected, because, it turns out, remote work can wear you down in several important ways:
Remote workers often find it more difficult to create boundaries between their personal and work spaces. The 89 percent of millennials surveyed in the Bentley University study said that they regularly checked work emails outside of work hours.
This tendency will likely get worse before it gets better, considering that more and more cloud-based software companies are sprouting up, making remote work, especially work from home, easier. The result is that many businesses are seeing these employees invest more hours into their work day, as they struggle to balance work and free time.
Fuel for the loneliness epidemic
Human beings are social creatures by nature, which is inherently in conflict with a remote work culture. And for every study that demonstrates the efficiency of remote work, there are medical and social scientists revealing the enormous consequences of social isolation, as this resident physician did in an article in the New York Times.
Limits on spontaneous interaction
Remote work may also remove some of the spontaneous interactions that are more heavily involved in creativity and that impact company culture. With studies showing that these sorts of interactions are crucial to our long-term happiness, remote work may not only suck up our creative energy, but make it more difficult for remote workers to be mindful too.
The solution? Your company needs a remote work policy.
Concerns about remote work are why a country like France has passed a “right to disconnect” provision to keep work at work. And while a similar provision was recently introduced in New York, it may be a long time before other cities -- let alone the nation -- embrace this kind of thinking.
So, where does this leave employers in the United States? Companies can’t just tell their employees “We know what’s best for you,” and revoke remote work policies. That could upset employees by removing flexibility, while also decreasing productivity.
The best compromise may be to add flexible policies, rather than remove them. To avoid the issues of isolation, companies can require employees to work in-office two or three times per month or per quarter.
Likewise, to keep employees from working around the clock, employers can build guidelines around how many hours are expected per week -- and educate employees on the benefits of practicing mindfulness in and outside of the office. The CEO of Basecamp, the company with a 100 percent remote work policy, has rejected the 40-hour workweek and written a shorter one into company policy. Setting up an employee's or contractor's enforced right to disconnect may let companies reap the rewards of flexible work, while keeping those workers actually ... happy.
With 40 percent of hiring managers expecting to be in charge of fully remote workforces within the next decade, it’s imperative that companies take a hard look at their own practices and hiring strategies to ensure that the model they’re implementing isn’t as problematic as the one they’re replacing.
Finally, if you think that your own remote work setup may be negatively affecting your team members' working habits, have them complete this free assessment on the Five Dysfunctions of a Team. It should help give both you and them a better idea as to whether there are any immediate areas for concern -- and improvement. Good luck, and happy remote working.