For years, researchers have been singing the praises of flexibility and telecommuting options. Workers seem happier, companies are more productive, and everyone saves money.
However, a few studies1 and the experiences of some organizations and people2 throw this rosy narrative into question.
Take the example of IBM. In 1983, IBM was among the first to embrace remote work, even boasting in 2009 that 40% of its workforce “had no office at all.” However, in 2017, it backtracked and required many employees to return to the office.
Yahoo also had a dreadful experience with remote working3 and faced enormous problems with communication and collaboration.
On the other hand, many companies have thriving distributed teams and are doing great. They seem to want to keep it that way. So what’s the deal? Is remote work even worth it?
Well, there’s only one way to find out, and the world is finding out now.
The novel coronavirus has hurled hundreds of thousands of workers into what a headline in the Atlantic describes best as “a huge, stressful experiment in working from home.”4
Happily or unhappily, many companies are now contemplating making a permanent switch to remote work, and people lucky enough to still be employed are now learning whether they’re cut out for this future of work. Here’s a quick clip from our Remote Work Masterclass on some common remote work challenges:
Aside from the fact that tasks in about 72% of all professions5 can’t be performed remotely, it’s clear that a full work-from-home setup isn’t right for many people. So, then, who is it for?
In this article, we’ll show you:
- Why not just anybody can work from anywhere (WFA)—and who can
- 6 skills and qualities successful remote workers have
- How to cultivate these skills
- The tools you’ll need to ace working from home—or anywhere, really
Want more WFH tips? Download the Remote Work Task Checklist.
Why not just anybody can work outside the office
A few years ago, an experiment conducted with call center employees at Chinese travel agency Ctrip saw that working from home “… led to a 13% performance increase, of which 9% was from working more minutes per shift (fewer breaks and sick days) and 4% from more calls per minute.”
All this led to 22% gains for Ctrip overall.6
Ctrip was understandably delighted and rolled out a WFH option across its 16,000-employee company.
However, just half of the employees took up the company’s offer to switch completely to working from home. Why didn’t the other half make the switch?
It was too lonely.7
Remote work: not for the faint of heart
Remote work is also particularly tough on individuals who thrive on the social life in the office—especially single, young millennials.
A Randstad survey in 2018 found that 65% of those aged 18–24 said they prefer working in a traditional office environment,8 flying in the face of the notion that millennials are the ones who started the conversation in the first place. (Research has found that boomers and Gen X are more likely than millennials to prefer telecommuting.9)
The takeaway is this: remote work isn’t ideal for people who rely on the office for their social life. Not everyone has the luxury of living in apartments spacious enough to accommodate a home office that’s removed from the distractions of children, pets, and chores.
In this scenario, working alongside the demands of home life and caregiving in a culture that’s already struggling to maintain work-life balance is desperately difficult, and very few people appear to remain sane throughout it all.
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Remote work is different work, demanding different skills
After 100 years of studying management in Taylorian cubicle farms, we’re out of our depth with remote work.
Without face-to-face interaction, managers have a hard time monitoring their teams’ productivity.
With no separation between work life and home life, workers find themselves stretched thin.
Documentation becomes all-important—and all-challenging.
Both employers and employees have to grapple with the new grammar of communication—now devoid of the benefit of non-verbal cues. Dealing with all this requires a very specific skill set that can and must be learned.
If you’re intent on pursuing the remote-work life post-pandemic, these are the challenges you’ll be up against. If you’re looking to hire someone remotely, you’ll want to look out for these qualities as well.
6 qualities for successful remote workers
Remote work isn’t for everyone. However, it is still for some people. Who are those people? And what are the qualities they possess?
1. A strong work ethic
Good remote workers tend to have an incredible work ethic. It’s one thing to be able to focus on work under the watchful eye of your manager (or in the case of open-plan offices, everyone), but entirely another to get yourself to work when unpleasant tasks lie before you and distractions abound.
If you’ve hired a good remote team, chances are they don’t take advantage of that. Integrity, combined with a sound work ethic, makes a remote worker indispensable to your business.
Working from home provides you with exceptional flexibility and control over your own time, but can you keep up the productivity ante without your boss breathing down your neck?
Nicholas Bloom, the Stanford academic who conducted the Ctrip experiment, reflected on it for the Harvard Business Review: “We suspect that the most driven employees were more willing to work from home, knowing they could stay focused away from the office,” he wrote.10
3. Ability to compartmentalize
Remote workers need to be exceptional at compartmentalizing work and home life in the absence of “boundary-crossing activities” like commutes.
At home, work-life balance turns into a work-life pudding as both “work” activities and “home” activities like eldercare, childcare, and chores occupy the same space. Meetings and the task-switching endemic to corporate life are often blamed for being a drain on productivity, but at home, ad-hoc household work can be just as bad.
4. Top-notch communication skills
Recent studies have shown that remote work can have a negative impact on collaboration and conflict resolution11 but rather than this being a problem inherent in remote work, it’s more likely to be a matter of skillset.
In the absence of non-verbal cues and instantaneous access to coworkers, you need a whole new range of communication and collaboration skills. For workers, the challenge is to stay on the ball with updates and shared documentation.
To help them get there, having the right tools that empower you is crucial. For example, if you’re on a marketing team and you need to share lots of files with each other and do lots of group brainstorming, you could use an app like RingCentral to do that. Here’s a quick look at how it works:
5. Stress management
This graphic from the European Working Conditions Survey shows that highly mobile workers and teleworkers report higher levels of stress than office workers, perhaps due to the demands on their time from family. Secondly, research also shows that remote work often has a negative impact on employee mental health.12
Remote workers need to have healthy coping strategies for the stressful nature of working in isolation and being stretched thin by the demands of work and home life.
As companies and industries adapt to remote work, a lot of processes that were earlier handled manually are now being automated with tools new to most people in the workforce today.
A remote worker will need to rely extensively on an arsenal of such tools for communication and collaboration, project management, and workflow management—and also learn and adapt to new technologies according to the needs of the organization they’re a part of.
How to cultivate these skills
Nobody is “born” with professional skills, they’re all learned or taught through experience. Similarly, remote work is a whole new ball game. To become great at working from home, practice these drills:
It’s easy, in this “always on” culture, to fall into the trap of being accessible 24/7. Difficult coworkers, demanding bosses and toxic clients have their role to play in furthering burnout, but handling this requires saying the hardest word in English: No.
To develop better boundary-setting and compartmentalization skills, learn to say “no” more often and to be okay with not being accessible out of work hours.
Learn, learn, learn
It used to be that lifelong learners with a growth mindset always had an edge over others. But in a world that’s changing at a breakneck pace, one has no choice but to be adaptable. You can learn almost anything on YouTube. A brilliant start would be to familiarize yourself with all the tools your company might want you to get familiar with.
Prioritize your mental health
The trouble with burnout is by the time we feel its effects, it’s almost certainly too late. Learn to work within your threshold and be mindful of when you’re stretched too thin.
Have an ongoing conversation with your partner and your family to set effective boundaries while you’re working, and split care work and chores.
The tools you’ll need to ace working from home
As you prepare for a life of remote work, you’ll need access to the following tools. For a more in-depth look into how to build your remote work toolkit, read this primer.
1. A fast and reliable internet connection
You’ll need a non-glitchy, high-speed internet connection. A lot of the other tools on this list are browser-based, and you don’t want to be left pulling your hair out on the day of a big meeting (that you scheduled) without the internet.
2. File management tools
With remote work, the demand for documentation and file sharing goes up. Have a systematically organized file management and storage system (like Dropbox or Google Drive) that supports versioning so that you don’t lose your work (or your mind).
3. Collaboration tools
Do you love email? If not, you’ll need a tool where you can centralize communication and collaboration. Try to find a tool that streamlines many functions to avoid app and email overload.
In professions that are heavily reliant on communication, RingCentral is a great option as it lets you message your team, manage your projects and start video meetings—all from the same dashboard:
4. A dedicated workspace
Working from home means you have more say on the air-conditioning and also the type of furniture you want to use. Take full advantage of this and give yourself a great, dedicated workspace that you can lock yourself into when you need to focus.
The basics are a clean desk, a computer you like, and a fantastic chair. Jobs come and go, but your spine remains with you till you die. So if you can afford it, return the dining room chair to the table and purchase an ergonomic, back-friendly chair.
Are you cut out to be a remote worker?
As the pandemic shreds economies and upends the “normal” as we know it, remote work is starting to look more and more inevitable.
There’s a very specific personality type that’s cut out for remote work and many of the qualities mentioned in the previous sections are innate (read: unlearnable). But remember, that’s what they also said about intelligence.
You might be someone who feeds off the energy of a happy, collaborative workspace, but you still can take steps to adjust to the isolating nature of remote work. Post-pandemic, find a coworking space or just WFH a couple of days a week. There’s always a middle path.
All said and done, one thing has and always will trump everything in success with remote work or anything else: adaptability and the willingness to grow as a person.
Originally published May 22, 2020, updated Jun 24, 2021