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How the rise of remote working could be doing more harm than good

Remote working has never been so popular as businesses aim to offer flexibility in order to attract and retain the best staff - but it can have an impact on communication, creativity, accountability and loneliness

Step into a coffee shop on any given week day and it will no doubt be filled with casually-dressed people typing away on laptops and tablets.

Traditional office environments with closed cubicles, quiet workspaces and water-cooler talk are rapidly being replaced by remote working as standard practice for many.

Half the UK’s workforce is reportedly set to be remote working by 2020 as technology stipulates employees no longer need to be in a fixed location to do their job.

But despite the flexibility it offers, it can have a negative impact on some businesses – with companies like Yahoo and IBM now scaling back or eliminating their telecommuting programmes.

Nick Pollitt, managing director at office furniture expert DBI Furniture Solutions, takes a look at the most pressing issues that remote working can create for businesses, and provided some alternative options that might work better for companies and their staff.

DBI Furniture Solutions MD Nick Pollitt
DBI Furniture Solutions MD Nick Pollitt

 

Communication issues can arise

Thanks to advances in technology, we can communicate with people halfway across the world in a matter of seconds.

Many bosses might think communication won’t be an issue as a result of these issues, even if their employees work remotely.

However, the opposite proves to be true in some cases.

According to a survey from social media management platform Buffer, 21% of people who work remotely believe that collaboration suffers when they’re removed from the office and find it makes communication with other employees more difficult.

Worse still, 52% of people who work remotely feel like their colleagues based in the office don’t treat them equally.

On top of this, flexible hours can lead to scheduling issues and make spontaneous communications problematic – if someone needs an answer to a question quickly about a certain project, resentment may build if they have to wait hours for an answer.

When the bulk of communication happens via email, it’s very easy for communications to get twisted or misconstrued.

Small misunderstanding can grow to bigger issues that snowball into bad blood between employees – especially the ones feeling left out.

 

Remote working can impact creativity

All good business leaders know the importance of collaboration when it comes to creativity.

Although there are services out there that have been created to aid collaboration, nothing really beats the output from a fun, face-to-face ideas meeting.

Remote working

One of the most important aspects of innovation is a boss trusting their team to respect their input and help them develop their ideas in a constructive and helpful manner.

Professor and author John Bessant claims that businesses need to “create an atmosphere where creativity is welcomed, by making people feel like they can deliver an idea, and that it’s safe to share their own and link up with others.”.

This can be difficult in remote working spaces. They can lead to a more disjointed team, which may mean people are apprehensive about voicing their concerns or take offence to well-meaning criticism.

Even just a face-to-face quick chat about a problem with colleagues can help employees come up with a creative and innovative way to solve it – something that’s missing from remote working spaces.

 

Loneliness and isolation

Often, the biggest problem facing remote workers is the isolation.

People who choose to work from home may go the whole day with no face-to-face contact – there will be no co-workers around for a quick chat, no kind words of comfort when a project goes wrong and no one to share a lunch with.

This can have a real damaging effect on employees’ mental and physical health.

Long hours spent working from home can lead to staff feeling very isolated and lonely.

Remote working

A recent report by the Campaign to End Loneliness predicts that social isolation costs UK employers £2.5bn per year in absenteeism, productivity losses, employee caregiving obligations and turnover.

Dr Dhruv Khuller, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, also states that the effects of loneliness on our health are only slightly less strong than smoking or obesity.

If done wrong, remote working can have a negative impact not just on our mental health, but our physical health too.

 

Accountability and visibility

Accountability and visibility are concerns for both employers and employees.

If staff work remotely, a manager may find it difficult to know if their employees are doing exactly what’s being asked of them.

Yes, they can give staff deadlines, but a project rushed the night before won’t be as good as one that’s worked on over the week.

Many managers find it difficult to balance the need for transparency and “checking in” without overwhelming staff.

Remote working

On the other end of the scale, when working remotely, some staff members may feel like they need to over-work and do more hours than their office-counterparts just to be visible.

They may also feel ignored and overlooked simply because they are less likely to talk to senior managers day-to-day.

They will also have fewer opportunities to gain insight into the “bigger picture”, which could lead to dissatisfaction and, ultimately, staff turnover.

 

So what’s the answer to remote working?

Remote working doesn’t come without its hiccups, and often the negatives can outweigh the positives.

However, depending on the industry and the type of staff it has, there are some ways to balance the good with the bad.

  • Create a strong company culture for all staff members – encouraging staff members to meet (if face-to-face is not possible, via Skype) regularly with fun team building events will help them form more of a unit, making communication easier and helping relationships develop.
  • Make staff feel valued – Ensure remote working staff still have regular one-to-ones and receive feedback on their work.
  • Modernise your office – Updating the office with modern workspaces, relaxing breakout areas and private working spaces will minimise the number of employees who choose to work remotely.
  • Consider a mix – Allowing your employees a certain amount of time a month to work remotely is a great way to balance the scales – employees will feel valued thanks to the perks available to them.