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The six biggest downsides to remote work

Cathy Reisenwitz

by Cathy Reisenwitz on October 6, 2020

We recently talked about the benefits of distributed and remote work, including not having to commute, an improved work/life balance, better diversity and inclusion outcomes, and higher productivity.

That said the picture isn’t all rosy. Recent polling and research points to six big downsides to fully remote work.

1. More meetings

Pre-pandemic, the average employee attended 62 meetings per month. It takes the average employee eight emails to schedule a single meeting. Our research showed that many workers had to attend more meetings after going remote. Even before the pandemic, remote workers attended more meetings than on-site workers, according to the 2019 Owl Labs State of Remote Work Report. While just 3% of office workers had more than 10 meetings per week, that was true of 14% of remote workers.

Not only is scheduling meetings time-consuming busywork, but going back-and-forth to schedule can lead to decision fatigue. As your brain tires, your critical thinking suffers. You discount the future and your thinking becomes more short-term.

Then, you’ve got to factor context switching into your cost calculations. In one Harvard Business Review analysis, researchers found context switching cost one large software company more than 450 hours per year, per manager. “Making any real progress on thoughtful work requires more than a 30-minute increment of time,” the authors wrote. “It takes 15 minutes to return to a productive state after an interruption.”

2. Longer hours

In our last post on remote work, we found evidence that remote workers are more productive than their in-office peers. But that’s probably related to the fact that remote workers work longer hours according to multiple studies. In the 2019 Owl Labs State of Remote Work Report remote workers were 43% more likely to work more than 40 hours per week than on-site workers. By the fifth week of March, we saw the average employee was putting in an extra hour of work per week compared to before the pandemic.

3. Worsening mental health

In an April study, 67% of workers reported higher stress. Anxiety was up for 57% of workers. And 53% were more emotionally exhausted. Other studies show higher rates of depression, PTSD, domestic violence, and substance abuse. For 69% of employees in one survey, this is the most stressful time of their career while 88% experienced moderate to extreme stress over the past four to six weeks.

While COVID-19 itself is obviously a major stressor, there is some evidence that remote work can also increase loneliness and boredom among workers. In addition, remote work can blur boundaries between work and life.

4. Larger gender pay and promotions gap

Our qualitative and quantitative analysis showed that shelter-in-place for COVID-19 disproportionately hurt women workers and exacerbated existing gender inequalities. In two-parent families with children at home where both parents work full-time, women are bearing the brunt of homeschooling, childcare, and domestic chores so their husbands can focus on their jobs during working hours.

Many women, faced with less time to complete assignments, scramble to make up for lost time late at night and early in the morning when their peers might not be available. Others lean back or drop out of the labor force entirely. This is likely to impact companies since more gender-diverse companies are more productive and teams with more equal numbers of men and women earn more sales and profits than less-equal teams.

5. Less trust between workers

Recent research suggests it’s more difficult to establish trust over video compared to in-person interactions. This builds on existing research showing that people have a far easier time convincing someone to do something in-person than over email. A more recent study showed that most people had a harder time telling whether someone was lying on video than via audio or text.

Researchers Sebastian Boell, Dubravka Cecez-Kecmanovic, and John Campbell examined 239 papers on the impact remote work and cited several potential negative outcomes of remote work, including reduced trust. Since organizations with high trust are more likely to have better business outcomes, it’s possible that we’ll see performance dip as existing social capital erodes.

6. More difficult collaboration

According to some researchers, full-time remote workers may have a harder time problem solving and being creative than their in-office peers. Many contend that it’s easy to overlook the value of the spontaneous ideas and networking that in-person coworking facilitates.

Boell, Cecez-Kecmanovic, and Campbell also point out that remote work may make it harder for teams to exchange ideas, make decisions collaboratively, ask and answer questions, and be creative. Since suboptimal communication practices cost companies an estimated $37 billion per year, this is a pretty significant potential downside to fully remote work.

How to reduce some of the risks of remote work

Despite these challenges, companies can thrive while working fully remotely. Clockwise reduces context switching, decision fatigue, and time fragmentation by scheduling your meetings to the time that opens up the most Focus Time for you and your team. Since Focus Time is associated with higher levels of productivity, you may also be able to cut down on your hours without sacrificing output.

To address employee mental health, offer some of the following benefits for free or at a large discount:

  • Online meditation classes
  • Meditation apps
  • Mental health apps
  • Remote fitness/yoga classes
  • Coping and stress management virtual classes
  • Well-being coaching sessions
  • Monthly stipend for mental or physical health

To address the gender gap, work to ensure there are women in senior leadership positions at your company. This gives younger women role models and makes it more likely you’ll have policies that are friendly to working mothers. Consider surveying women in your workplace to find out how often they experience workplace sexism.

To help employees get to know each other and establish trust remotely, try some of the tips in How we created a remote work team culture. These include personalized welcome packages for new employees, celebrating milestones with gifts, and celebrating birthdays and anniversaries with custom Zoom backgrounds.

Going forward

Remote work has plenty of advantages. It also has some real risks to employees and companies alike. If you decide to keep working remote after COVID-19, keep the above tips in mind to help reduce some of the downsides.

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is Head of Content at Clockwise where she oversees the Clockwise Blog and The Minutes Newsletter. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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