Opinion

Could the rising trend of remote working do more harm than good?

6 min read

13 June 2018

The traditional office landscape is changing. Gone are the days of closed cubicles, quiet workspaces and water-cooler talk. But one of the biggest changes is the rise of the remote working space.

Remote working can have significant benefits for many employees, which explains why half of the UK’s workforce is set to be remote by 2020. However, there are issues that can have a negative effect on businesses.

In fact, many big businesses including Yahoo! and IBM, are scaling back or eliminating telecommuting programs. We took a look at the most pressing issues that remote working can create and provided some alternative options that might work better.

Communication issues can arise

Thanks to increased technological advances, we can talk to people half-way across the world in a matter of seconds. So you might think communication won’t be an issue, even if your employees work remotely. However, the opposite proves to be true in some cases.

According to a Buffer survey, 21% of people who work remotely believe collaboration suffers when they’re removed from the office. Worse still, 52% of people who work remotely feel colleagues based in the office don’t treat them equally.

On top of this, flexible hours can lead to scheduling issues and makes spontaneous communications problematic. When the bulk of your communication happens via email, it’s very easy for communications to get twisted or misconstrued. Small misunderstandings can grow to bigger issues that snowball into bad blood between employees.

Remote working can impact creativity

All good business leaders know the importance of collaboration when it comes to creativity. Although there are services that have been created to aid collaboration, nothing really beats the output from a fun, face-to-face ideas meeting.

One of the most important aspects of innovation is trusting your team to respect your input and help you develop your ideas in a constructive and helpful manner. Professor and author John Bessant claims 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.

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 mental health.

A recent report by the Campaign to End Loneliness predicts social isolations costs UK employers £2.5 billion 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 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

These are concerns for both employers and employees. If staff work remotely, a manager may find it difficult to know if employees are doing exactly what’s being asked of them. Yes, you 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.

On the other end of the scale, when working remotely, some staff members feel 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”.

What’s the answer?

Remote working doesn’t come without its hiccups, and often the negatives can outweigh the positives. But depending on your industry and the type of staff you have, there are ways to balance the good with the bad.

  • Create a strong company culture for all staff members. Encourage employees to meet (if face-to-face is not possible, via Skype) regularly with fun team building events that will help them form more of a unit.
  • Make staff feel valued. Have regular one-to-ones and receive feedback on their work.
  • Update your office with modern workspaces, relaxing breakout areas and private working spaces will minimise the number of employees who choose to work remotely.
  • Allowing your employees a certain amount of time a month to work remotely is a great way to balance the scales. Your employees will feel valued thanks to the perks available to them.

While it can work well for some employees in some industries, it’s not ideal for everyone. A great compromise is to make sure staff feel comfortable at work.

Alternatively, offer part-time remote working. It’s up to businesses leaders to decide what will work best for their workforce. They may find that offering remote working rejuvenate their workforce, or it may do the opposite.

Nick Pollitt is managing director of DBI Furniture Solutions