The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the trend toward remote work, and it has quickly become the new normal. In a recent survey by Owl Labs, 80% of respondents said they now expect to work from home at least three days a week, and 23% said they would take a 10% pay cut to work permanently from home.
In an Upwork report, 32.2% of hiring managers reported an increase in productivity since employees started working from home. Other studies have confirmed an increase in productivity. However, working remotely has a unique set of challenges and requires a new way of thinking to help solve them. Here are some of the main challenges remote workers face and how to deal with them.
1. Technical challenges
When employees work in an office, they typically have access to help when they experience technical issues. They don’t need to try and fix issues on their own, but it’s a different scenario when working from home.
Remote employers who aren’t that tech-savvy may find their productivity is affected by technical difficulties. They may encounter issues such as poor internet connections or a computer crashing that they don’t know how to fix. They must have a reliable and fast internet connection, and a computer that doesn’t give problems or they can’t stay connected and complete work on time.
Some of the issues remote workers may encounter with their computers include a lack of memory, trouble with screens or audio, and slow working systems. Remote workers working on Mac can sometimes have a slow-working laptop, even if it’s completely new. Reasons for a slow Mac include a lack of RAM, out-of-date software or malware.
Not every remote employee has a technical team to rely on. Troubleshooting and learning to fix basic technical issues is a skill anyone who works from home needs to acquire. For companies with technical teams, it is important for them to work with all remote employees to check their setup, preferably in-person or, if this isn’t possible, via a video call.
2. Work/life balance
When working in an office, there’s a clear line between work and home, but boundaries tend to become blurred when working remotely. The need for remote employees to demonstrate that they’re being productive can easily result in them putting in more hours than their in-office counterparts. There is also the problem of being able to relax and switch off at the end of the day when working in a home environment.
Employers may expect remote workers to remain connected at all hours. They may give workers the flexibility to take time off for some reason during the day, but the problem is that, in return, they don’t feel guilty about calling after work hours with a last-minute request. Not ever being able to fully disconnect can take a toll on the health and relationships of remote workers.
It’s important for employees to set clear policies and expectations for remote employees. Companies need to encourage remote employers to stick to a fixed schedule and to take breaks. Remote workers should set up a dedicated workspace and alert managers when they’re logging off to reduce after-hour interruptions. Both managers and employers need to work on drawing and enforcing boundaries. If there aren’t good boundaries, overworking can result in burnout, work dissatisfaction, and ultimately, staff turnover.
3. Communication difficulties
Remote workers often use various types of communication channels to keep in touch, but this does not necessarily lead to good communication. Zoom or UberConference, Skype, project management tools, email etc. are just some of the communication streams remote workers need to manage. It is easier for communication misunderstandings to occur when working remotely. It can be more difficult to interpret emotion when not communicating in person and hard to pick up on non-verbal cues.
Another communication challenge when working from home is finding the right balance. Companies need to balance a need for ‘checking in’ with remote employees with excessively monitoring them and causing resentment. Some organizations use employee monitoring tools, but they have to be managed very carefully. Employees need to know about them, and it is easy for them to feel employers are ‘spying’ on them. Trusting employees is more likely to yield positive results.
Companies should try to streamline communication. A dedicated team area within an intranet could be used for collaborating with team members, sharing updates and deliverables, and asking for input or feedback. Short daily team meetings could help to make sure all team members are fully aware of what’s required from them. Managers could reach out on a weekly basis to give remote workers the opportunity to ask questions and get answers. Benchmarks or check-in points could help employees and managers discuss progress on jobs and achievements. This could lead to recognition of achievements which would help to build up loyalty and trust.
4. Security issues
As cybercrime grows, the question on the minds of everyone is – how to keep data safe. In the office, companies usually have security policies, procedures and protocols in place, but the remote work situation creates a new set of risks. Remote employees may use their own devices or software, download unsecure apps or share work devices with family members. They may use public Wi-Fi and fail to back up files. Failing to take the proper security precautions could put the company’s operations at risk due to data breaches, ransomware attacks or malware infections.
Remote employees need training on the do’s and don’ts of protecting company information and digital assets. They should also have the necessary protective software, such as anti-virus software, installed. Using a secure and protected VPN, especially when dealing with sensitive information can help with data protection when working from home.
The use of multi-factor authentication means remote employees need to present more than one form of I.D. to access corporate networks. Using single sign-on to reduce the number of passwords employees need can also reduce the risks of cyber attacks. Using password managers can help remote employees to create strong, unique passwords for all their online accounts.
Companies should consider producing short videos to educate remote employees about risky data practices while working from home. They could cover actions such as downloading unapproved apps, sharing work laptops, not backing up files or leaving browsers open.
5. Mental health challenges
Working in isolation is very different from working in a busy office environment. Extroverts who need people around them can find it very challenging to work from home. There are fewer opportunities to engage and connect with co-workers and a lack of the type of camaraderie that develops naturally in an office environment. Isolation, loneliness and a lack of connection may lead to lower levels of productivity and retention.
It is vital for companies to actively build a sense of culture for remote employees. Virtual meetings that use facetime encourage connections and can help remote workers to build up their interpersonal relationships. Holding fun, relaxing virtual activities can also encourage remote workers to connect. Management needs to encourage remote workers to connect and talk about any problems they may be experiencing. They need to give them time to speak outside of daily work responsibilities. This can break the silence and help remote employees to maintain better mental health.
With the technology available today and the preference of employees, remote work is likely to be here to stay. This is a huge shift, and it will take some time to understand all its implications, both positive and negative. This new way of working will need new standards, new policies, and new working relationships. It also needs a different kind of management that focuses on performance over the location and gives employees more autonomy and responsibility for managing their time and productivity.