How to address the pitfalls and opportunities of remote work.
If you are new to working from home, you are in good company! Remote work has been a growing trend, with over 43% of employees reporting working from home at least some of the time in 2016 (and that number is growing fast).
According to Amerisleep research, remote employees are 57% more likely than average to say they are satisfied with their job. The flexibility has helped reduce stress, increase productivity, and even shrink the gender pay gap. But to make remote work work, managers, People Ops leaders, and employees have to take steps to make the shift successful.
At LifeLabs Learning, we study what makes great remote teams and employees different from average and train managers, teams, and individuals to work well together at a distance. We've found that small changes to habits and workflow make a big difference. Below, are the biggest remote work pitfalls to avoid and simple hacks to overcome each challenge.
Pitfall #1: Miscommunication
“I can’t believe they wrote that!”
Communicating at a distance can lead to miscommunication and misunderstandings. This is partly because the rich texture of face to face communication - that is so full of nonverbal cues - tends to collapse in written format (e.g., email, texts, Slack, etc).
Hacks for all: Notice lots of back and forth written messages or negative tone creeping in? Use it as your cue to upgrade communication to phone or video. Find yourself getting offended or annoyed at someone’s message? Remember that we tend to perceive neutral written messages as negative. When in doubt, talk it out. Ask questions to understand the message senders’ intentions.
Pro-tips for managers and HR: Proactively align on ‘channel norms’ including: which technology you will use for each message type, expected response time, dark time (when you won’t be checking messages). Share a framework for understanding who is responsible for each project or task area (e.g., DACI = Driver, Approver, Consultant, Informed).
Sample channel norms guide:
- Email: For non-urgent requests; response time within 24 hours.
- Text: For urgent requests; response time within 1 hour; use only in emergencies.
- Slack: For fun, learning, and connection; response time optional; all channels are open and optional.
Pitfall #2: Structured Procrastination & Distractions
“If I’m color coordinating my closet, I’m still being productive!”
Temptations and distractions at home make it easy to get sidetracked. Sometimes we even trick ourselves into thinking we are productive through ‘structured procrastination’ - tasks that give us a sense of progress but are not most important.
Hacks for all: Create a designated work space for yourself. Select signals of your work time starting and ending (e.g., close your door, put on work clothes, or use headphones). Getting stuck procrastinating? Write out your ‘MIT’ (Most Important Thing) for the day on a note and post it some place visible.
Pro-tips for managers and HR: Seeing people working in person can feel calming to leaders, but it is often an illusion of productivity. “Butts in seats” does not equal productivity. Instead, clarify and document the results you expect to see (e.g., metrics and ‘definitions of done’ for assignments).
Pitfall # 3: Overwork & Burnout
“I’m never not working!”
The fusion of workspace and homespace can lead to a lack of boundaries and work breaks. This is not just an environmental problem but also a perception problem (what are others thinking about me? I don’t want people thinking I’m a free-rider!)
Hacks for all: Align with your manager and team on expected work outcomes so you are focusing less on how much you work and more on what you achieve. Still overworking? Create work start and stop rituals, forced movement moments (e.g., walking dog, scheduled stretches), and gamified breaks. For example, try the Pomodoro Method: focus for 25 minutes, then take a mandatory 5-minute break.
Pro-tips for managers and HR: Align on dark time and response time norms. Check in during 1-1s about work/life balance. Model break taking and recharging by scheduling shared breaks and learning experiences.
Pitfall #4: Invisibility & Under-Communication
“Do they still work here?”
Sometimes working remotely can lead others to forget what you’re working on or how you are contributing. This is a danger of being out of sight, but it doesn’t have to be the reality.
Hacks for all: Send status updates about your work or align with your team and manager around a shared status update board or system. Ask for feedback early and often. Share updates about the end result of your work, with links that give people a glimpse into the impact you are making.
Pro-tips for managers and HR: Schedule standups, team meetings, and work status reviews. Make sure all work-related resources are made available securely online. Share notes with everyone at the same time about all decisions made. Schedule “show and tell” work demos. And align on time zone collaboration expectations, including who should join which meetings.
Pitfall #5: Loneliness
“Does anyone remember I still work here?”
While loneliness and alienation may have inspired our favorite record collections, they are terrible for team cohesion and individual engagement.
Hacks for all: Schedule spontaneous check ins with others (even quick 5-minute chats). Take time at the start of meetings to ask connection-building questions. Check time zones of coworkers before scheduling meetings. And, when in doubt, use GIFs in your correspondence.
Pro-tips for managers and HR: Introduce a ‘cameras on’ norm for video calls. Set the expectation to have one person per laptop, even if only one person is remote. Create ‘social collisions’ throughout the week like virtual standup meetings, virtual workshops, special interest Slack channels, playful virtual contents, and conversation roulette (like Donut for Slack). Keep in mind that when it comes to building a sense of connection, frequency beats length. If you are using digital tools, be sure to provide training.
And whatever you do, treat your shift to working from home or collaborating at a distance as an experiment. Pause regularly to share feedback, reflect on your experience, and extract the learning. No matter how remote each of us might feel from time to time, we’re all in this together.