As a company that operates in a 100% remote environment, our team has deep experience with the pros and cons of working exclusively from home. Trust me, despite the multitude of warm fuzzy articles out there lauding the joys of working in your pajamas, there are definitely cons to working remotely. On a recent team call, we had a very honest dialog around being a remote team and what works well and what doesn’t. And it is worth repeating here. We focused on the actual work experience rather than how it affects us internally.
We acknowledge there are plenty of writers who have written eloquently about this topic from the perspective of how it affects people on the personal level , including a compelling piece in The Atlantic from Arthur C. Brooks that made the rounds earlier this year, titled “The Hidden Toll of Remote Work”. Brooks sounds an alarm for the impending loneliness fallout from the pandemic’s isolation protocols. It’s worth reading, for sure.
Interestingly enough, in our conversation, the cons surfaced first and there were plenty. In fact, one of my colleagues was obviously not having a good work-from-home day. She simply said “I’m not feeling any pros right now”. That’s fair. Here are the biggies on the con side of working remotely, in the order they were given.
Neighborhood and household background noise distracts
Lawn mowers, construction, barking dogs and other neighborhood sounds can be super frustrating when you are on a Zoom call or just trying to concentrate. Even a spouse in the other room on their own Zoom or 20th telephone call of the day can set your teeth on edge. How many times this past year have you heard someone sheepishly apologize on a Zoom call for the lawn mower or dog in the background? One person on our team shared her story of the recent week-long tree cutting festival next door, complete with the sounds of wood chippers. That is some serious distraction.
You are the IT department
Our work depends on the internet so when things go awry, and they do, we have to troubleshoot it ourselves. Someone on our team spent a ridiculously frustrating 6 hours last week dealing with internet issues including trying a new router and a new modem just to finally realize that an earlier storm-induced power surge caused a breakdown in communication with internet provider. I am not prone to envy but I have to confess to a slight tinge of it when someone refers to their IT department.
Silos are real
One of the joys/pains of offices are the many conversations that happen in hallways and post-meetings, or what used to be referred to as water cooler conversations. The upside is that overheard and impromptu conversations and non-verbal cues can add much needed context and texture to issues that inadvertently affect you. Admittedly, the downside is that they can distract from the very real tasks on your to-do list. However, when you work remotely, you miss out on critical information when no one thinks to include you on that call. Or maybe they intend to email you a summary of the conversation but it gets lost in the land of good intentions. Absence from the space can lead to detachment from the big picture. It’s as if you are looking at the color-by-number picture but missing part of the directions that tell you which color goes in which space.
Recently, a colleague undertook a several-step process and emailed the project admin midway through to clarify a next step. That’s when the admin realized she had neglected to send an important email at the beginning with detailed instructions. “Out of sight, out of mind” can leave you feeling like you are playing catch-up too often. The onus of making sure you aren’t missing something is weighty when you aren’t in the office.
Permissions can be a little abstract
Our team sees this issue crop up regularly. It can be difficult to scope out your level of permissions in a remote environment whereas in an office, clarifying conversations would more naturally pre-empt issues around expectations and permissions. It’s still a bit of a dance in an office environment to determine where one person’s role ends and another one’s picks up. However, in a remote setting, when most of communication is done through email or Slack, it’s much more of a tip-toe approach than a dance and that can leave things unsaid, which also means undone.
Urgency can be difficult to convey
Fresh off a situation where a colleague thought she was communicating the importance of taking immediate action on a matter but the rest of the team was slow to respond, we discussed how easily this happens in our setting. In an office, you would just repeat yourself, with increasing intensity, until someone pays attention. In a remote work environment, you send an email that points out an urgent matter and maybe a follow up, but the reality is that emails, with their facts and figures, don’t always capture the attention of the reader. Think about it. The very fact that it is email means it doesn’t require an immediate read or response and it can easily get pushed to the back of the line just simply by way of not being “in your face”. Conversely, if someone is communicating “in your face”, immediate feedback is necessary to get them out of your space. It’s very effective.
We are using this conversation around the hard parts of being on a remote team as a call to build in some safeguards for our own team. Working remotely is ultimately a great fit for our company, both clients and employees, but our team decided we can definitely take steps to do a better job of communicating, coming out of our silos to collaborate and making sure everyone is heard. Stay tuned for our next post where we delve into all the things we love about working as a remote team.