It’s been a few years and we all know about the positives of remote work (no commute, more personal time, working in your pajamas), but we rarely talk about the challenges of working remotely. Lots of remote workers and even remote managers are cautious about discussing the topic because they personally don’t want to go back to in person work. As the Covid health risks begin to diminish, the original necessity for us working remotely is also starting to fade away.
While I don’t think we are putting the toothpaste back in the tube anytime soon in getting rid of all remote work, I do think it is important to review some of the challenges that we are seeing. This is more from the perspective of a manager and the uphills of organizing people / projects remotely. There are no immediate and easy solutions for most of these issues, but perhaps by identifying some of these we can begin the problem solving process.
Conversations that used to be a simple leaning over to someone sitting next to you or poking your head in the door to the next office over are now layered affairs – checking to see if the other person is around, then if they have time for a phone or video call, then setting the time, and then finally having a weird video call to answer a 10 second question. Even just sending a message to someone can take minutes or hours to respond. It’s what I affectionately refer to as “messages to Mars” – beaming out a message and waiting for response randomly later.
No one likes being on camera all day – that often causes us to act in creating our stilted persona, so we are creating unintentional additional barriers through video calls. We all know that while the tech of video calls is great, it’s very limiting vs what we see in person in terms of body language, emotion, whether a person is understanding – it’s a flimsy replica of reality. Basically communication has become more inefficient and in turn, we are communicating less overall and also less effectively.
Video Meetings Shenanigans
People are constantly multitasking in meetings now, because unfortunately it’s now acceptable to look at a screen – in fact it’s necessary for us to do a video meeting. Remember the old days of an in person meeting, everyone sitting in a conference room. If you were in there, on your laptop clacking away at keys while the VP / CEO was talking you would get yelled at and / or look like an idiot. Now, for some reason, we accept this behavior (and probably do some of it ourselves).
You end up with a room full of people paying even less attention than they did in the past. Meetings should be a time for problem solving, communication and collaboration – all that gets increasingly diminished when everyone is multitasking during the call.
Depending on the job we are training people for, we have seen a significant increase in time to train to competency. We end up going over things numerous times that would have been simple to teach before. Part of that is the inherrent inefficiency of remote learning.
There’s two big factors – one, it’s boring to learn while looking at a screen. Trying to follow how someone is doing something while watching a cursor bounce around in a screen share to a database app has got to be the most boring, torture adjacent learning possible.
Second, as the person teaching, you have to be aware of how the person is learning and if they are getting the material down. Reducing the video feed to a postage stamp on your screen, your ability to detect student comprehension is probably going to be borderline terrible (also see prior point – the person you are teaching is probably multitasking). There’s more nuanced nonsense than this, but you get the idea – training remotely is slower and more cumbersome, and in turn costing more money and time to get our people up to speed.
No matter what someone tells you, the collaboration we have over video calls is not the same as in person – it’s never going to be as good. You can’t see the body language, people are self conscious of how they look on camera. They are distracted by chats, emails, and the Nordstrom / REI sale. All that stuff is disconnecting us because most people aren’t doing ‘airplane mode’ and focusing in meetings.
When we are in person, there is a weight and presence to being in a room with others. There is physical energy and focus to being in a room together and brainstorming, jamming on ideas / scripts / boards, and it’s just more fun. Here is something no one has ever talked about – how fun it is to collaborate on a video call and use a digital whiteboard. Video calls are an ok stopgap when necessary, but it’s a limited quality vs. in person collaboration.
Morale Taking a Hit
Have you noticed lower morale on your team? If you haven’t, you might want to take a second look. While people might initially prefer the conveniences of working remotely, it may not be entirely good for them to work in an ongoing isolated state in their pajamas from the bed / couch. For some people on our teams, the bulk of their social interactions might only be at the workplace (which is now extra limited). Try to take a good look at how the morale actually is – not how you or your team pretends or wants it to be.
There are probably more than a few factors contributing to this lower morale in the remote work world – it’s a complex set of factors. What we can agree on: lower morale means less happy employees, lower productivity, worse creativity – overall we are looking at more expensive and lower quality work. It’s not the best.
Blending of Life and Work
Our commute used to be the boundary of life and work. Sure, there might be times we take work home or work on a weekend, but those were typically exceptions. Now with remote work, we can (but probably should not) roll out of bed and start work. We often end up working a little earlier than usual and / or a little later. People send us work messages at all hours of the day without a second thought.
The lines of demarcation of where work begins and ends are blurring in an unhealthy way – we now have one big messy pile of life-work bookended by a weekend where we might have even more work tasks seeping into the crevices of what little free time left that would normally be protected.
So What’s The Answer?
Definitely not a lot of easy answers here, and I am by no means advocating a full time “normal” return to work. We should certainly take a real honest look at these physical, emotional, productivity, quality and financial costs of having people working remotely full time.
Can we work remotely? Yes? Can we be as effective and creative as in person work? Maybe not as much as we think (or rationalize). Are there benefits to working remote? Of course. Is it worth going back to full time in person work? Perhaps not. It’s a complex set of questions that we should be asking as we head into this next chapter of work.