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Navigating the Transition to Remote Work: Expectation vs Reality

The early 21st century has seen a tremendous shift in work culture. With the advent of groundbreaking innovations in communication technology, employees and employers alike have been steadily embracing the idea of remote work. The benefits of remote work – flexibility, autonomy, ability to work from anywhere – have been well documented. Research reports have found that remote work improves employee job satisfaction, boosts productivity and reduces turnover rates. On top of this, research conducted by FlexJobs in 2019 found that remote work is a sustaining factor for businesses during natural disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes, when employees can’t make it into the office.

Many workers, companies and entrepreneurs have started to embrace remote work, and it now accounts for a significant proportion of the workforce. In fact, before the year 2020, remote work was already on the rise, with around 5 million Americans working from home at least half the time. This impressive upswing in remote work was set to continue expanding in the corporate world, with most global employers being large multinationals like IBM and Dell, having at least a few staff members who support clients and customers remotely, and who require specialized skills that are not available in one physical location.

Despite its many benefits, remote work is not without its challenges which can be unexpected and overwhelming when the initial excitement of working remotely begins to wear off. In the absence of formal boundaries between work and personal life, employees can easily blur the lines between their work and their life. With no supervised schedule or accountability system, procrastination can quickly set in, which in turn leads to procrastination fatigue, decreased motivation and increased stress levels.

While companies are making structural and technological changes for a smooth transition to remote work, it’s important for employees to carefully consider the realistic expectations of remote work, and prepare ahead of time to make the transition a success.

Expectation: Remote Work Means More Time with Family and Friends

One of the most captivating reasons for many workers considering remote work is the prospect of spending more time with their loved ones. The traditional 9-5 job, coupled with the commute to/from work could leave little time for family and leisure activities.

Reality: Remote Work Doesn’t Always Remove Family and Friends Distractions

Although working remotely allows for greater flexibility, it doesn’t ensure a distraction-free environment – especially if there are others around. Kids, pets, roommates and family members can interrupt your work even if you are in a different location. Additionally, working from home can sometimes increase the risk of overworking and blurring the boundaries between work and personal life, making it harder to switch off and spend quality time with loved ones.

Expectation: Remote Work Equals Greater Productivity

The idea of working from home surrounded by your usual comforts, along with less pressure from a supervisor hovering around your shoulder, may lead to an expectation of increased productivity levels.

Reality: Remote Work Requires Discipline and Self-Motivation

Working remotely does not guarantee productivity boost. Employees need to be self-disciplined and motivated to achieve the same output as they would when working on site. Without the energy, community support and stimulation of a traditional office environment, employees might find themselves unmotivated and disengaged. In fact, some might find the opposite is true, with a home-working environment becoming too relaxed, and a lack of supervision/effect on productivity that comes from being in the company of others.

Expectation: Remote Workers Are Not Subject to Office Politics

Some employees find the usual office politics frustrating, so there may be an assumption that remote work can spare them the stress and politics that comes with working in the traditional office setting.

Reality: Remote Work Has its Own Politics

Every work environment has its own unique dynamics – and remote work is no different. Remote workers are still subject to communication and personal dynamics; difficulties in being on the “outside”, or being away from others can lead to a sense of isolation, and make relationships and communication more difficult. Also, there may be an element of “out of sight, out of mind” that can come with remote work.

Expectation: Remote Work Environment Saves on Costs and Commute Time

One of the most appealing features of remote work is the prospect of saving on commuting costs: the commute to and from work can be positively grueling for many, with a significant amount of time and often money spent on it.

Reality: Remote Working May Not be Cost-Effective

It is certainly true that remote work saves on commuting costs and time, but home-office equipment can be expensive. A remote worker will need to ensure that their technology, internet connection and resources are appropriate, so as to support more smoothly, uninterrupted work. Additionally, because remote work can lead to its own set of distractions and difficulties with focusing, some employees or employers may opt for premium training or coaching, which can come at extra costs.

Expectation: Remote Work Provides More Flexibility

Remote workers have the freedom to work from anywhere, the office, a café or their home, which in turn can provide significant flexibility in terms of deciding when to work and how long to work for.

Reality: Remote Workplaces Can Disrupt the Work-Life Balance

While remote work provides a degree of flexibility, it can also disrupt the work-life balance. Employees working from home might find themselves overwhelmed by work and fail to demarcate time spent working with time spent relaxing or with their family. Many have found it difficult to create structure when working remotely, leading to longer than usual working hours, late-night emails and an inability to draw a clear line between work and personal time.

Expectation: Remote Work Allows for Greater Autonomy

As an extension of flexibility, workers who opt for remote work can also enjoy a greater level of autonomy. No longer bound to a fixed schedule of daily meetings, coffees, and water cooler conversations, employees can have greater control over how they work.

Reality: Remote Work Can Increase Isolation and Lead to a Lack of Social Interaction

Although remote work allows for greater autonomy, it can also lead to increased isolation and a sense of disconnection with colleagues. The lack of regular social interactions and face-to-face communication can make remote workers feel lonely or left out, leading to feelings of disengagement and a lack of motivation. When email and phone communication becomes the norm, it can be easy to lose the subtler cues of communication, like body language and tone of voice, which are essential for building strong personal relationships.

Expectation: Remote Work Offers a Safer, More Comfortable Environment

A major selling point of remote work is the opportunity to work in a comfortable, familiar environment that is free from the noise, distractions, and disarray of the traditional open workspaces.

Reality: Remote Work Can Also Lead to Distractions

Although working remotely helps avoid the discomfort of a noisy, bustling office environment, it can also lead to its own set of distractions. Remote workers must contend with the distractions of their surroundings, be it a blaring television, a barking dog, or children playing in the background. Successfully working remotely requires a workspace that mimics, as closely as possible, the ideal office work environment.

Expectation: Remote Work Can Boost Career Contributions

Allowing employees greater autonomy and flexibility can in turn result in an environment that allows for greater creativity and greater innovation.

Reality: Remote Work Can Stifle Creativity, Collaboration and Cooperation

Remote work can at times stifle creativity, collaboration and cooperation. Boundaries can become blurred, leading to workplace politics, exclusivity, and challenges with stakeholder relations. Greater autonomy in a remote workplaces can also lower accountability and expectations, making it harder for remote employees to recognize their individual contributions to their work environment.

Expectation: Remote Work Can Improve Employee Engagement and Job Satisfaction

Remote workers tend to have greater levels of job satisfaction and experience less stress due to the reduced demands of the traditional office environment.

Reality: Remote Work Can Increase Stress Levels

Working remotely may introduce new levels of stress as employees try to juggle a flexible schedule, manage distractions at home, and compete in a remote environment. The lack of natural opportunities for socializing, group activities, and shared experiences can also lead to a sense of disconnection and disengagement. Often, remote workers are faced with the added pressure of keeping pace with a rapidly changing workplace, where shared vision and goals cannot be maintained easily.

Expectation: Remote Work Offers Career Advancement Opportunities

Remote work provides employees greater opportunities to work with people beyond their local team and opens up job prospects in distant locations.

Reality: Remote Work Makes Networking More Challenging

Remote work can also make networking more challenging. Without the benefit of shared working environments, communal spaces, and regular face-to-face interactions, remote workers may struggle to engage employers, clients and colleagues which may limit networking opportunities.

Final Thoughts

Remote work has become a significant workplace trend as it provides employees with greater flexibility, autonomy, and helps reduce job-related stress. It allows employees to work from almost anywhere, expands job opportunities and can help with workplace sustainability initiatives. One of the most interesting revelations during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the discovery of how effectively remote work can be integrated into businesses and how it creates opportunities for employers and employees to work together in new and different ways.

However, as with all things, there are challenges and drawbacks to remote work. As companies continue to navigate this new landscape, they must find ways to develop and implement policies and procedures that ensure success for remote workers in the long run. It is essential that companies and remote workers approach this new work reality with a mindset of learning, flexibility and with an openness to new ideas, skills and tools.

Furthermore, organizations must create opportunities for remote workers to connect and interact with colleagues, both locally and internationally, and build and maintain social connections in a virtual work environment. Managers must also be trained to lead remote teams and look for innovative ways to motivate and support their remote staff while also promoting a healthy work-life balance.

As remote work continues to evolve, it is likely that it will provide new opportunities and present new challenges. While the current pandemic has highlighted the importance of reliable remote work policies and procedures, employers must continue to adapt and improve their remote workforce management strategies. Remote work is here to stay, and now more than ever, companies must adapt and embrace the changes to remain not just flexible, but competitive as well.

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