During this global pandemic, many companies are moving to remote work for their teams. In the next months as people return to offices, some will be left wondering, is remote work a permanent possibility?

By Heather Doshay

During this global pandemic, many companies are moving to remote work for their teams. In the next months as people return to offices, some will be left wondering, is remote work a permanent possibility?

Whether it’s a nightmare 70 mile commute, a desire to reduce carbon footprint, wear athleisure to work, or deeper needs – such as accommodating a disability – remote work appeals to a large segment of the workforce. According to a study by Deloitte, flexible work is the third most important consideration, following compensation and “good culture”, for millennials and GenXers alike when they’re choosing to work for an organization. Between 2005 to 2017, remote work increased 159% (4.7M workers today), and with a 91% satisfaction rate amongst remote workers, remote work isn’t just a trend, it’s a movement.

  • Does the company truly support this arrangement?

This is the most important question to ask when determining if remote work will work. Without demonstrated support from the company, remote work may be challenging for the employee. Support isn’t simply a manager’s approval to work remote 100% time, it’s the explicit understanding that remote work isn’t a special accommodation or perk, but a way of working that is equitable to the output of those in office. It’s important to ask the employer if status as a remote worker will impact eligibility for management roles or professional development. If the company does not support remote work in these ways and remote work is still a high priority to meet individual needs, this article outlines how it is still possible to ask for this arrangement. While it’s typically an easier transition socially to convert to remote work at a current employer, it may be most beneficial in the long run to make a plan to work for an employer that is best suited for its team members to work remote. For job seekers who desire a remote-friendly environment and cannot achieve this at their current company, there are many remote-friendly companies hiring now.

When seeking out a new company that is remote-friendly, consider the percentage of the company that is remote, especially the percentage of people in leadership roles who are remote. There’s a tipping point for companies with more than 50% of its workforce outside of an office where when planning for the majority, the majority is remote. It’s easy for employers to have good intent but bias toward in office experience in many ways when the leaders making decisions and the bulk of the team considered does not share the same situation.  Additionally, it’s important to ask what perks are available to honor the unique needs of remote workers and match, as closely as possible, those offered in the office. Ultimately, when remote work is seen as a perk and not a way of working, remote workers are not rewarded at the same level.

  • Do I have the tools, structures, and resources I need to be successful?

Some tools, such as Zoom and Slack (or their equivalents) are table stakes for distributed communications, but there are also additional items that may be required for the specific job. What does the company offer remote employees to ensure they can effectively do their job from home? How does the company support the social aspects– the remote equivalent of the coffee station or water cooler? 

In addition to tools and systems, it’s also important to ask if team structures are also set up for success. What timezone will the bulk of the team be working from, and how does that overlap with localized working hours? Many distributed team challenges have been solved by products and knowledge sharing practices, but experiencing working from a time zone that is polar opposite (sometimes, literally) can be a real challenge in terms of work structures and access to coworkers.

  • How will I structure my day to separate work and my personal life?

When work and personal life occur in the same location, it’s important to have a plan for managing distractions during the day and putting the laptop down at night. Experienced remote workers generally suggest setting aside a specific place in the home that is dedicated for work only. It is also helpful to schedule which hours are working hours in advance, and make plans to leave the house at the beginning and end of the day to draw that separation — be it for a morning walk around the neighborhood or dinner out with friends after the work day. For those who are able, finding a coworking space to work from is also a great option for creating more separation between work and home life.

  • How will I develop relationships with my team?

Relationships are critical at work for a variety of reasons. People who have a best friend at work are more engaged than those who do not. And anyone who’s ever endured a long distance relationship knows how hard, and sometimes limiting, virtual relationships can be. While workplace relationships are different from those in our personal lives, the same challenges with communication, conflict, and loneliness can be amplified by the isolation of a distributed team.

When working in an office, especially one with an open-floor plan, it’s easy to take the casual office interactions for granted — some even looking to remote work as an escape from those distractions. These office interactions, as distracting or inconsequential as they may seem, are valuable. Face-to-face interactions set the foundation for trust and understanding, both of which are crucial for building positive workplace relationships and engagement. While virtual communications help fill the social void for remote workers, it takes much more effort and persistence to build the same level of trust and understanding through a computer screen. It’s common for remote workers to feel like second-class citizens if they are disconnected from an active in-office environment.  Before committing to remote work, it’s important to determine if the investment to cultivate those important workplace relationships — either through office visits or extra video calls with coworkers — is realistic.

  • How will my mental health be impacted?

It cannot be overstated how important relationships are at work, and for remote workers, loneliness is the top challenge according to a recent survey. While mental health conditions impact people differently, 56% of people who manage anxiety related disorders found that anxiety impacted job performance, and the reality for many remote workers is that isolation can trigger these feelings. While approximately 20% of the US population experiences a mental health condition, for many people who have not sought out support, these conditions go undiagnosed and may come as a surprise when experiencing the triggers that come with isolation of remote work.
Having a plan to stay connected is critical to managing mental health and a remote career over the long term. Products like Donut are a great way to connect with many people, whereas creating a buddy system, joining an employee resource group, or starting a Slack-based book club at work can be ways to find a few connections with connected interests. Companies like Bravely and EmpowerWork are great for getting real time, real human support in navigating these very normal, but still difficult situations at work. Additionally, seeking mental health services which are often covered under medical insurance can be a crucial resource in proactively managing the emotions of this type of work arrangement, even if the worker has never been diagnosed with a mental health condition.

  • Will I be allowed face to face time if I want it?

Ultimately, remote work is a fantastic option for many people when all of the above factors are considered, but ultimately humans do benefit from being co-located once in awhile. Does the company reimburse for travel if there is an office available to visit? Does the company sponsor team offsites or a company trip where coworkers can connect live?

Remote work is a great option for many, but there’s a variety of considerations to make in order to experience it optimally.

Note: If in a position to influence a company’s stance on remote work and distributed teams, here are some additional resources (and more here) to get started.