The Downsides of Remote Work

Downsides of Remote Work
If you work in technology, the conversation around remote work is consuming a lot of mindshare right now.

For many people who work remotely, the idea that anyone could be opposed to this trend is profane, while people on the other side are appalled when companies like Stripe announce a distributed office. The level of intensity around this discussion is similar to the current state of politics.

Currently Missing: an honest conversation about remote work

I've worked remotely for a few different companies for the past six years and I consider myself a fan of remote work. I've written numerous posts extolling the benefits. I have experienced a variety of benefits when working remotely. With that being said, I think there's a discussion that needs to happen around the pros and cons.

There's many nuances to remote work that needs to be accounted for in this discussion, so as a fan of remote work, I'm going to outline as many downsides as possible for the following reasons:

  • Reason #1: You will have a better understanding of what you are getting yourself into if you are considering remote work.
  • Reason #2: avoiding discussion with people who have legitimate concerns about remote work is dumb. What may work for you may not work for someone else.
  • Reason #3: In future posts, I will outline ways to mitigate each of the downsides listed in this post.

In short, I'm going to try to steelman a critic's argument of remote work. I will incorporate data when possible as well as personal anecdotes that I've experienced when working remotely.

I believe this is a discussion that needs to happen in order to move work forward.

1.) It can be lonely

The first downside to remote work is that it can get lonely, especially if you are extroverted like I am. When I first started working remotely, I didn't get out of the house enough and I got lonely.

An office environment automatically provides social opportunities. If you work from home, you need to force yourself to get out of the house and interact with other people. This is baked into the cake of an office environment.

According to the Buffer 2018 State of Remote work report, this is the #1 challenge to working remotely. Gallup research (admittedly I'm not a huge fan of these studies) suggests that the optimal engagement rate is for people who come into the office once a week.

Takeaway: social interaction is an important component of work and working remotely can increase the probability of you being lonely.

2.) Home office & distractions

Another frequent problem when working remotely is that many people don't have a dedicated space to do their work. For example, if someone lives in a small apartment in New York City, it may be too expensive to upgrade and rent/buy bigger place with a dedicated office.

This means there can be a variety of distractions that pop-up, ranging from pets to babies, to laundry in the dryer. In an office environment, there's clear separation. When you live where you work, it can be difficult to manage and separate these two worlds from each other.

Distracting Cat
Takeaway: When you work where you live, you may not have enough separation and mash them together.

3.) Fewer spontaneous conversations

An underrated aspect to an office environment is the spontaneous "water cooler" discussions that can help you get to know the people you work with. These random events in the office can help establish rapport & trust. It can be easy to grab lunch or coffee with a coworker, which deepens relationships and can help you be more effective when it comes to getting things done. As a remote worker, there are some days when I'd love to grab lunch with a coworker.

When you work remotely, you have to force this stuff. It doesn't come naturally. It can be easy to work an entire day without talking to other humans. There's so much you can learn when you have additional data points to process about the people you work with.

Here's some research if you'd like to learn more about the power of informal conversations at work.

Takeaway: being in the same place provides more opportunities for ad-hoc discussion that can help build and deepen relationships.

4.) It can be difficult to collaborate

Next up, it can be difficult to collaborate on ambiguous problems when people aren't working in the same room. When you are co-located, it's a fully immersive experience and you have a lot of data points to process (tone, body language, etc). This rapid feedback loop helps establish common ground more quickly.

Takeaway: being in the same room speeds up the feedback loop between people, which can help when you are working on thorny problems.

5.) Career advancement takes extra work

Another challenge to working remotely is that it's easy for your work to go unnoticed, especially if you are competing for a promotion with coworkers who are in the office every day. I would argue this is not because your boss is a terrible person, but because your coworkers in the office are on another playing field. Availability bias may be a key component in why this is more likely to happen.

The person who goes into the office every day can send a variety of signals that you can't. It could be something small, like a spontaneous conversation with an executive while grabbing a coffee, or something larger like being involved with a random work project that was sparked by a conversation in-between meetings.

It's also easy to observe people and how they interact with others, which is a helpful input, especially if the role you are shooting for involves leading a team that requires some level of interpersonal skills.

Takeaway: It may take more work to get a promotion if you work remotely compared to someone who works in the same office as the people who are in charge of the promotion.

6.) Learning & mentorship

My first job out of college I was woefully unprepared for what my job required of me. Fortunately, I had helpful coworkers who were able to mentor and teach me things I needed to know. If I was working remotely, this would have been a disaster for one simple reason.

As a remote worker, it takes more work to initiate a conversation, which is critical if you are blocked or don't understand something. Being in the same room provides an easier environment to initiate conversation. If you are trying to learn, you shouldn't feel bad about asking someone for help. 

As someone who has worked remotely for many years (and is a proponent of distributed work), I'd strongly recommend people who are early in their career to consider being close to the office.

Takeaway: If you are junior in your role and want to optimize for learning, you should think twice about working remotely early in your career.

7.) It's easier to be sedentary

The next potential downside to remote work is that you need to be intentional about moving and getting some level of exercise. If you live in the city, you may need to walk to the train station (or bike) to work. Activity is part of your daily routine. Even for commuters, you may need to move from one conference room to another for meetings.

Exercise working remote
As a remote worker, there are times when you could spend the entire day in your office. In the past (when I didn't care as much about this), I would barely move and it was terrible for my health.

Takeaway: remote workers need to be intentional about incorporating physical activity into their routine.

8.) Tribal knowledge & lack of documentation

The next potential downside of remote work is a silent killer and can be a major source of pain for remote workers - tribal knowledge. Over time, many organizations establish unspoken norms and rules of behavior that can be difficult to make sense of when working remotely. In fact, oftentimes the only way to learn this information is through observation & trial and error.

This is a tough nut to crack, especially when you consider the fact that some people will hoard this knowledge as a means of exercising power or control. If you share information or document a process, you may remove yourself as a bottleneck, which makes your role/influence less valuable. This is good for the company, but bad for #jobsecurity.

Takeaway: if remote teams aren't proactive about establishing and documenting communication norms and tribal knowledge, it will be difficult for others to figure this out in the future.

9.) Conflict can go unaddressed longer

It can also be difficult to address conflict when working remotely. Once again, this is not necessarily because someone hates you, but it could be caused by something basic, like a lack of data and body language.

If someone storms out of a meeting when you all work in the office, it's pretty obvious that there's an issue. When working remotely, you may have no idea you caused conflict. I've experienced this - I had no idea I upset someone until a week later. Oops.

Takeaway: Working remotely requires a level of candor that an office environment may not require. If someone is upset about something, they may need to be proactive and tell you.

10.) You may work too much

I relish the fact that I don't need to commute an hour into the office every day like I used to. This benefit can have downsides though, as it is easier to get started earlier in the morning and I don't need to catch a bus at the end of the day.

This lack of separation means it's easier to work longer hours. I love what I do, but working too much can have downsides like eventual burnout. If you have coworkers in other timezones, the probability that they will ping you at a random time increases dramatically, which we'll talk about in the next section.

Takeaway: Keep track of your time and output. Consider using a tool like RescueTime to develop personal productivity benchmarks. If you start early in the day, consider ending your day early too. 

11.) Timezones

One of the top challenges when working remotely is coordination across timezones. It works something like this:

  • Bob is working on a difficult task that requires input from Tammy
  • Bob works in California. Tammy works in Europe.
  • Bob needs to coordinate a time to talk to Tammy in real-time.
  • Bob schedules a time that is inconvenient for Tammy.
  • Tammy takes a call late at night, which is annoying because her favorite TV show is on.

The fact that people work in another timezone is a constraint and is something that you can't change. It's a fact. This is why many companies like Basecamp require some overlap

Timezones
Takeaway: Timezones are facts and can't be changed. A great time to talk for you may not be a great time to talk for a coworker.

12.) Technical / equipment issues

Another issue when working remotely is that you may experience technical issues that grind your work to a halt. My wife works remotely too, and there have been a few times when her computer has died and it takes several days for a replacement to arrive. If she worked in the office, it's possible she could have had a replacement in hours.

I recently helped my aunt-in-law setting up her computer for her new job as a remote employee. The instructions provided by IT were cryptic and terrible. This could have caused a ton of frustration for her.

I've experienced similar issues on a smaller scale when spinning up a local environment for development and QA. Inevitably, something goes wrong and there's a bizarre edge case that is specific to my setup. I've had this happen in the office as well, but the reality is that this can be challenging when working remotely and take longer to resolve.

Takeaways: technical issues can destroy your productivity, especially if IT needs to ship you a new computer.

13.) Who is responsible for what?

I am continually shocked at how difficult it can be to understand who is responsible for what. While this is true in an office environment too, it can be much more difficult to understand key roles and responsibilities. When you are in an office, you can pick up quite a bit from passive observation, like seeing who is attending meetings.

Even basic affordances like desk configuration can provide clues into what people do at work. As a remote employee, Slack can provide helpful clues, but this is implied responsibility vs. being explicit and documented in a straightforward manner. You may accidentally step on people's toes too.

Takeaway: Be prepared to spend more time trying to figure out who is responsible for certain tasks. 

14.) Trust, Personality, and words on a screen

Another main issue when working remotely is that it can be difficult to build and maintain a trusting relationship with coworkers. It takes a lot of effort! It can sometimes feel like the people you work with are merely words on a screen. This gravitational pull needs to be actively avoided at all costs.

Additionally, it can be difficult to understand how someone prefers to do their work. Some people may prefer being methodical and thoughtful, while others prefer to jump right in and figure things out as they go. How someone likes to work is a reflection of their personality and work style compared to their job role or responsibility.

Takeaway: There are times when the people you work with feel like words on a screen. To bust this frame takes work.

15.) What is going on at work?

Finally, you may struggle to understand what's going on at work. Information doesn't flow the way it should be and it is scattered across various tools. The marketing team may be doing their work in Asana, while the engineering team is using Jira.

Work Chaos
Important company-wide initiatives may not be properly conveyed throughout the organization, causing a feeling that things are constantly shifting around. There are times when I've felt like I'm the only person working, which is a terrible feeling to have. It's like playing a sport and feeling like you are the only person on the field.

When you are in the office, there's a sense that work is being accomplished, even if it isn't.

Wrapping up

Remote work is not a panacea. I am a huge fan of remote work, but I believe it is important to properly outline the potential issues. If we don't discuss the downsides, we can't fix them. There is no perfect workplace. You need to choose and make a decision that makes the most sense for you and your team.

If you have questions or comments, feel free to yell at me on Twitter. I welcome the discussion.

P.S - I've compiled all my writing on remote work on this page (and I'm working on a remote work book too). If you'd like to follow along with the counterpoints and ways to mitigate the issues described, feel free to enter your email here and stay in the loop.