Remote work: experiences and risks

Last time I helped with some studies and answered some questions about remote work and my experiences. Decided to share all of them, but there is one problem: questions and answers have been translated, so may be not perfect.

What made you decide to work remotely?

To be honest, it was a coincidence – I was an active user of one of the Polish portals dealing with IT, I also contributed to its pages in the form of a blog. After some time, the editors offered me to join them as a normal employee, only that working remotely (the editors had their permanent office in Wroclaw). The next step was to work as a programmer for a foreign contractor, from the very beginning remotely. I have been working this way for almost ten years now.

What are the risks of working remotely? I’m referring to aspects of mental health and social life.

Remote work isolates us from other people. From my own experience: as long as we work with people at home and participate in online meetings, it is not so bad. When we don’t have people at home with us, we quickly feel very lonely and depressed, perhaps without even realizing why.

Man – even the most introverted one – is a herd animal and nature cannot be fooled. The lack of direct contact with people at work has other implications as well: first of all, during online meetings it is more difficult to express emotions, to be as open as during a real conversation face to face. Remote work does not provide as many chances to talk about non-work related topics, which are very important in a situation where we interact with others for a third of the day. As a result, it is also more difficult to build lasting relationships, camaraderie. This can be seen, for example, in the situation when someone leaves the company – other people get over it much faster, because the broken relations were never as strong as they could have been in direct contact.

Another aspect is the interpenetration of private and professional life – it is hard to avoid it, it is hard to completely detach from work when it is literally at your fingertips. Things are not made easier by the fact that in the case of office work we always take it with us, because it is in our head. It’s not a machine in a factory that we leave at the end of a shift. All this can also have a negative impact on private relations with loved ones.

Another issue is physical health. When we can work at home, the issue of transport to work is eliminated: walking, commuting by car, public transport or bicycle. Unfortunately, this lack of movement affects us negatively and it is not only about the growing weight. The problem is what happens to our body as a result of constant sedentary work, significant weakening of hips.

What kinds of people adapt the fastest to working remotely? What kind of people have trouble with it?

Based on my own experience and observations from the industry, introverts tend to cope best. Such people do not need constant, direct contact with other people, remote work can be a perfect asylum for them, especially when the internal policy of the company does not require very active participation in online meetings (even turning on the webcam). Of course, this is a big simplification, pandemic time has forced people who prefer direct contact and “office noise” to switch to remote work. This will of course be a limited, subjective assessment, but such people have also coped very well in the new reality. A bigger problem may be work organization and motivation. For those who rely only on external motivation, orders coming from above, remote work can be difficult: the lack of direct stimuli, contact and discipline can make it impossible to perform duties.

How do you think remote work should be organized? That is, how to work effectively and not go crazy?

Remote work requires self-discipline first of all. If someone imagines it as a work with a laptop in bed or on the couch, such a vision will quickly fall when confronted with reality. It is impossible to work in such a way, because we will not feel like working and everything will come to us with much more difficulty. Procrastination or Parkinson’s law – these elements appear very quickly without introducing at least a bit of a plan and routine. A good solution is to have a separate room to work in, and to stick to some rigid hours. Even an element such as dress is important: dressing a little more formally makes it feel like you’re moving from a home role to a corporate one.

As an industry worker and IT enthusiast at the same time, I see a lot of problems that are either barely talked about or completely ignored, even though they have a devastating effect on work. For me, the biggest problem was overwork – most often identified with e.g. social networks, but also taking place at work. Trying to make remote work synchronized doesn’t make sense: constant notifications from the company’s messenger, countless online meetings and checking email too often makes it impossible to focus and, as a result, to perform one’s duties well – entering the so called “flow state”, where we are focused on the task and simply realize the solution to a problem becomes basically impossible. Personally, I decided to take a more asynchronous approach and whenever possible I reserve time during the day to work in focus. If at that time someone else in the team needs my help, the world will not collapse if they receive it in an hour, not immediately. This is also where the phenomenon of FOMO comes into play – again, associated with social media, yet manifested in remote work where a lot of the same things happen.

In the case of companies where the calendar is important and solutions are used to observe and modify the calendars of other employees, it is extremely important to control our own: if we do not do it, someone else from the company will do it for us, e.g. by imposing on us online meetings that may not (yet) be necessary and individual matters could be pre-arranged in another way that will not interrupt our work.

Is it possible to maintain a balance between remote work and personal life?

Yes, although a lot depends on the specifics of the job itself. I’ve been working at a US-based startup for over five years now, and in retrospect I have to say that such work changes a person. I jokingly call it “post startup stress syndrome”, but if you take a closer look, you will stop laughing. When the company was in the period of looking for investors, fighting for them at all costs, being available all the time, not regular working hours were a standard. It often happened that we worked from morning till late evening “because there was a fire” or “because at the last moment we have to prepare something for a demo with a client”. I think, however, that it would be difficult to avoid such phenomena also in stationary work – it’s just the specificity of this market and this stage of company’s development. Today we are much bigger, we are “civilizing” and we can – if only we want to – change habits. There is now stability, normal working hours, clear vacation policy, long-term planning and no one is rushing around at the last minute. Unfortunately, this is not clear to everyone. Many people – including myself – are used to working in the form of “wild west” and consider the stabilization changes as a symptom of stagnation and growing bureaucracy. Without a change of mindset, this risks professional burnout. I thought several times about leaving the company, but did I have a guarantee that the “grass at my neighbor’s” is not just painted green? Besides, without changing my internal approach, it wouldn’t help.

In the context of separating remote work and private life, I will mention again the self-discipline and environment: a separate place is essential. Good, noise-cancelling headphones, if possible also separate company equipment, on which we use only company applications. Besides, it is definitely not a good idea to use company applications (mail, messengers) on a private phone – both for security reasons and due to the fact that the two worlds are mixed. If we have access to company’s mail on our own phone, it will be enough, for example, to take a second before going to sleep to have a look and, as a result, have a night full of work-related dilemmas. Instead, after a certain hour, we should completely disconnect from corporate matters: take care of our loved ones, go outside, play sports and take up a hobby. This allows us to maintain a healthy balance, although I would add that it is not something “to tick off”. It’s a process, requiring us to pay attention and respond, just like a growing plant.

Would you like to go back to a stationary job?

Despite some discomforts associated with remote work, I can’t imagine going back to a full-time job, at least not full-time. In the case of our team, we meet a few times a year at corporate headquarters for a few days and it’s a great time for face-to-face brainstorming and integration. If I had the opportunity, I would consider working in a hybrid model such as assuming one day a week in the office. I believe that such a combination of “both worlds” could positively affect both the psychological condition of employees and the efficiency of the entire company.