Goodbye Office — The downside of remote work

Eugene Mironic
Jun 18, 2019 · 8 min read
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Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Those who like to talk about the benefits of remote work often avoid talking about the downside. The downside of remote work does exist, and so I should warn you about a few common myths and misconceptions.

Employing remote staff is not a silver bullet to solving all your business problems.The savings from hiring remote staff are not due to lower wages, rather, they’re the result of specific and measurable results. A distributed team of employees is just another business management tool. Don’t expect your staff costs to drop 10 times or your employees to work “for their daily bread”. Yes, of course, a freelancer from Pakistan performing routine tasks like checking links or collecting contact information from websites is likely to cost less than a standard employee in an office in New York City. However, a professional with a unique set of skills working remotely may be even more expensive than one of your office employees with similar skills.

Your personal experience of working in an office may hinder, rather than help you organize your remote employees. For example, incompetent managers may demand that the remote team follow strict working hours or answer their messages within the next 15 minutes at any time of the day or night. Or else they might not respect things that remote workers love, such as a day off during the workweek. They may monitor who is working, what time they are getting to work, or even demand full screen recording during working hours (which is something a lot of remote workers dislike, because they use the same computer for home and work). You’ll find that such actions lead to the rapid dissolution of your virtual team. This happens because it is more difficult to control a staff remotely; it is harder to supervise them and provide guidance as needed. Managers who are real micromanagement enthusiasts have it rough working with a remote team because they can’t control every sneeze their remote workers let out, so to speak. While they can easily breathe down the back or glare at their brick-and-mortar employees, they might not even hear from the remote workers until the latter feels it is necessary. If we proceed with our comparison, we will see that not all management tools work well with distributed teams.

Former office employees resist the transition to result-focused work. Converting existing internal office-oriented processes to the kind of work that makes the most of distributed teams often proves to be really challenging, so much so that it is easier to assemble a new team altogether.

Many former office workers were not happy about the idea of working with “freelancers” or else they were outright opposed. As a result, the company kept the remote professionals while most of the previous office staff was forced out. The new corporate culture, based on communicating, results, and reaching goals began to depress them. Most of the former staff was unsuited and did not want to cope with the company’s challenges in crisis periods. Therefore, their places were filled by over-achieving freelancers. As a result, our team was reborn.

Pavel Shashkevych(CEO, GdeEtotDom)

Problems with effectively communicating complex information in writing. In face-to-face communications, the bulk of information is transmitted through nonverbal channels, such as body language, voice modulation, etc. However, when working remotely, the bulk of communications are accomplished via written messages, in the form of correspondence, and that important nonverbal part of communications has to be expressed via text. This is why managers and entrepreneurs working with remote teams need to be proficient writers and must learn to convey their thoughts in a clear manner, in prompt fashion. If you can’t figure out how to quickly respond to an e-mail on your phone, then you will have a hard time managing a remote team. Of course, you can use video calls, or even face-to-face meetings every six months, but these meetings do not negate the need for good writing skills. For remote employees, writing skills are equally important.

If you are trying to decide between a few people to fill a position, always hire the better writer. It doesn’t matter if that person is a designer, programmer, marketer, salesperson, or whatever, the writing skills will pay off.

Diana Larsen, 37 Signals Company Blog

Balanced control over the employees. It is important for an entrepreneur managing his or her company to strike a balance between too little and too much control. The GitHub company, which employs close to 600 employees (about half of them work remotely) originally used the so-called “bossless” management scheme. But in 2014, the company went back to some form of management and reporting (at least a short checkup of the play for the day to make sure their people were on the same page ). According to Bloomberg, these changes and interdivisional coordination at GitHub made it possible to launch more projects and reach a new level by concluding a key partnership agreement with IBM. This example shows us that even a simple ten-minute reporting session can pick up the pace and fine tune the direction of the work and help everyone stay on the same page. Having replaced its office team with a remote one, the company GdeEtotDom keeps conducting voice meetings every morning as a primary tool for organizing the team, despite different time zones. As Pavel Shashkevych, CEO of GdeEtotDom, notes, “Such phone calls are highly effective, and our experience has demonstrated this.”

Mutual trust between members of a virtual team and its manager. Mutual trust is the cornerstone of all remote work. No virtual team can work without mutual trust and transparency among its members. Don’t hire people that you don’t trust.

Domestic comfort while travelling. You can’t always get what you need, especially while travelling or if you’re in a hot climate. For instance, it might sound great to work at the beach, but not when you have to keep up the pace to complete a project. Dmitry Semiriazhko is the co-founder of Pinxter, Inc. He has been working and traveling for the past several years. Here is what he told me:

Sometimes, the Wi-Fi doesn’t work or the signal isn’t stable enough to make a call. Or they shut down the power (as frequently happened in Thailand). What to do? Get on a bike, go to the nearest Starbucks, sit at some uncomfortable table, and, hunching over the table, try to make a call while music and clamoring people sound in the background… Of course all this would be better if I was at home, where it’s quiet. Or just domestic matters: While travelling, you change apartments like socks, and each one has a different layout, different staffing. One apartment has a place in the hallway where you put the keys, and in the other, you have to hang a hook or hammer a nail into the wall, but there are no nails — you must go to the store to buy them, and then you need to remember to buy a hammer. In the end, you’re not going anywhere, you just toss the keys somewhere, then you end up having to look for them — and you end up experiencing a series of microstresses, and when everything accumulates, it’s a real nightmare!

The way out is to use established travel destinations, even if it costs more.

Lack of strict control after having worked in a brick-and-mortar office. After working at the office for an extended period of time, it’s not easy for employees and employer to restructure their daily work schedule and habits. In the office, the pace of work is often driven by external stimuli and other people; without the office, you have to work out your own regime. In other words, remote work requires internal motivators rather than external ones. As a result, remote work novices might not be able to draw up and maintain a daily schedule. If you notice that your remote employees are having difficulties, you should certainly help them master the essential techniques for scheduling and planning (like writing down the single most important task at the beginning of the day, or taking a short break every hour). Micromanagement (i.e. when employees need to be babysat while performing all the tasks) does not really work in a remote setting and is only acceptable at the very beginning, when a new employee needs to be trained quickly. And if entrepreneurs themselves have problems with their own time management and organizing skills, this could negatively impact the work of the entire team, slowing down the workflow.

Your friends and family may not like you working at home. When you work remotely, you’ll find that your relatives and close friends might find it difficult to accept a new reality and to respect the boundaries between work and home, even after an understanding has been reached. It often happens that, in the case of problems with self-organization, the family cannot restructure itself to fit into the new work mode without conflicts and, as a result, you have to return to the brick-and-mortar office.

Lack of real-life communications. So-called extroverts often have problems with switching to remote mode and working at home. Extroverts are known as people who look outward rather than inward, and love (actually need) to communicate with other people because they gain energy from such communications. When they work remotely, extroverts can undergo a kind of withdrawal due to the solitude. While remote work is a “godsend” to introverts and sociopaths, for extroverts it’s the exact opposite — remote work can deprive them of the vital energy they derive from face-to-face communication. The way out is to find the time for hobbies, sports, volunteering, conferences and so on — get out there and find like-minded people who share your interests. Also, as more and more people work remotely there is a high chance you may find them in your local coffee shop..

Lack of face time with your friends and family due to constant travelling. Those who have been traveling for a long time start to feel the need to create and sustain long-term social ties, “Existing business and personal connections break down. If you go away for six months to work abroad, not only are useful professional connections start to fray, but your friends won’t waste time finding someone to take your place,” told meRoman Aleksandrenko, a manager from San Francisco, CA who has been working and travelling for several years. And entrepreneur Anna Wickham, after 14 months of traveling and working remotely, decided to return home to the United States and “put down roots.” In a BBC interview, when asked why she decided to stop travelling, she said “You arrive in a country alone, accumulate friendships, and then, just the same, you’re on your own when it’s time to leave.”

Briefly:

  • It is difficult to transition employees used to the office to a remote format. It is easier to assemble a new team.
  • Oversight over the remote team must be well-balanced. A short daily video call works best as a minimal, yet sufficient tool to make sure that your remote employees are on the same page..
  • Remote workers often have issues managing time during their work days. They also lack face-to-face socialization with like-minded work peers (like in an office). When working at home their relatives (or housemates) may not support them by respecting boundaries. When traveling and moving from country to country they may miss their circle of friends and acquaintances.

(this piece is from the Goodbye, Office! book which is available on Amazon)

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