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Working Remotely – It Comes at a Cost

I sometimes joke that my “international headquarters” is located in Clive, Iowa, with satellite offices peppered “throughout the globe.” Technically, there is a great deal of truth to this seemingly impressive boast. However, fact and fiction become more clear after revealing my true workplace arrangement.

My office is indeed based in Clive, but I don’t participate in daily or weekly employee meetings. I do not gossip at the water-cooler – heck, I have NO water cooler! My office consists of one person – ME. When I am not physically in the office, I can be anywhere and everywhere still transacting business – with the assistance of my laptop, iPhone and iPad (Wi-Fi is a critical ‘friend’ to me). Even though I have a physical office, I often feel that I work ‘remotely’. Much of what I do is by myself or orchestrated with a few trusted third-parties. I have come to like this ‘remote’ arrangement a great deal. But it does come at a cost.

According to a 2017 Gallup survey, 43 percent of 15,000 employed Americans said they spent at least some time working remotely – usually from their own home. This represents a four percent increase from 2012. In our 2016 Iowa Employer Benefits Study©, we found that over 34 percent of employers with more than 101 employees offer flextime, while just over 14 percent of employers with fewer than 101 employees did. Flextime allows for employees to customize their schedules within a certain range of hours and days. Unfortunately, these results do not specifically reveal how many Iowa employers allow employees to work remotely.

Flexible scheduling and working remotely are increasingly important factors for employees to take (or leave) a job. Employees argue, and many employers acknowledge, that these practices are beneficial for both – workers are more productive for their organizations (an obvious win for employers) while being able to more successfully navigate through their own personal work-life issues (a win for employees). Working remotely and having flexible hours also provide financial upsides to employees –  savings in lunches and transportation costs, along with having greater childcare flexibility.

A 2015 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement report by SHRM indicated that 55 percent of employees cited that flexibility to balance work and life issues was a very important aspect of their job satisfaction. This same report found that leading reasons employees would not leave their jobs within the next year was primarily due to compensation/pay (45 percent) and having the flexibility to balance work and life issues (42 percent).

But, as I have personally found, working ‘remotely’ does have some drawbacks. Here are two of the largest challenges that employers (and employees) should be cognizant of when working remotely.

Social Connectivity Can Suffer

Social connectivity drives the engine of our mental well-being. Connectedness within the workplace plays a vital role for employees to feel they are seen, heard and valued through organizational relationships. Working remotely can easily isolate one from social inter-activities that is crucial for employees who yearn to have the ‘sense of belonging.’

According to the 2018 State of Remote Work, surveyed employees who work remotely reported the two biggest advantages were having a flexible schedule (43 percent) and spending time with family (15 percent). But, if not careful, these advantages can be offset by loneliness (21 percent), reduced collaborating/communicating (21 percent), having distractions at home (16 percent), and staying motivated (14 percent).

To go one step further on social isolation and loneliness, as more people in the U.S. are living alone, some researchers are warning this could become a “greater public threat than the widely discussed problem of obesity.” That should grab our attention!

To combat the negative side-effects of loneliness, employers might encourage (or establish policies) requiring remote workers to come to the office once a week to learn and grow. Studies suggest this approach is more likely to generate happier employees compared to fully-remote employees who don’t physically reconnect with the office.

Some employees may be quite geographically remote, and perhaps it would be more realistic to have them come to the office monthly or quarterly. Speaking from experience, the most rewarding days at my office usually result from having face-to-face meetings with various individuals that I would otherwise correspond with via phone or email. Embracing the opportunities to physically meet with others should always be a priority – it is for me.

Stress or Burnout

This may sound somewhat counterintuitive to some of us, but working remotely can nudge employees to work longer hours to please their supervisors, just because they are grateful for having the opportunity to work remotely. For me, if I don’t stay on top of my self-imposed projects, they will not be completed. This responsibility causes added pressure to ALWAYS be engaged with my work, sometimes more than I really should be.

Unintentionally, employees may burnout from performing this additional work without the employer having the benefit of monitoring the employee’s well-being throughout a course of time. That is why it is so critical for organizational leaders to engage with remote employees about what is going on – not only in their work – but with their personal lives. Feeling isolated has large, emotional costs.

As workplaces continue to morph into new environments that require employees to work remotely, it is imperative for leaders to find ways to have regular ‘face-time’ to ensure the worker does not lose the social connectedness that will keep them both happy and productive. This same principle applies to entrepreneurs who are working on their own.

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