As the founder and CEO of a 100% virtual company, whose staff have been working home-based out of different countries since 2012, I was recently invited to participate in a panel conversation about working remotely in distributed teams.
In preparation for the session, I asked our staff what advantages and disadvantages they experience in their daily work at GAIA Insights, so here is the combined input from several team members, based on almost 10 years’ experience in a remote workplace:
What is great about working home-based?
Hands down, the #1 advantage nearly everyone cites is flexibility. Working from home, especially if combined with flextime, grants daily benefits of integrating work and life without necessarily sacrificing one for the other. Whether it’s family commitments, time for hobbies like taking a yoga class in the middle of the day (which may arguably have an impact on the quality of work afterwards), practical aspects like being able to run quickly to the post office or make doctor appointments, and even certain lifestyle choices like being a digital nomad – you can pretty much design your “perfect day” around any mandatory aspects of work, like being available for client calls or virtual team meetings.
Quality of Life
Very much linked to flexibility, yet slightly different, is quality of life. Here people mention things like not having to commute which allows for more sleep, more time with the family or simply less annoyance. Also, small breaks during the day, even if they are spent on tasks such as folding laundry, emptying the dishwasher, or watering the plants, can be a mood booster: getting things done during versus after work, while giving the brain idle time, thus reducing stress and increasing creativity. But also personal cost savings on transportation, food and clothing were listed because instead of paying for gas, daily take-out snacks and business attire, you can spend more money on holidays or reward yourself with a bit of indulgence every now and then.
The third upside to remote working is the environmental impact. Yes, digital communication, server hosting and energy/electricity do come at a cost to the environment, too. Yet, there is a positive impact on sustainability when you save paper because you print less at home or when you reduce greenhouse emissions and fossil fuels because you don’t commute. Working from home allows you to eat from your own dishes instead of using plastic cutlery and takeout containers or single-use packaging. By preparing meals at home, you can reduce food waste, eat healthier and decide what’s on the menu, which is a huge benefit for people with special dietary requirements. In general, eco-conscious people have much more control over everyday choices when working from home.
This point might be less obvious because it is less frequently raised but it’s an important perspective that is all too often overlooked: Working from home is an ideal environment for co-workers with special needs, or even for introverts. People who enjoy working alone, who need peace to concentrate, who prefer to write rather than talk, who retreat to recharge – they may struggle with social interactions for whatever reason, yet they can be top performers for the business. These people may not only be more engaged if they can work remotely, but also simply feel better, have more energy because it isn’t drained from them by social interactions, and be more productive than in a traditional work environment.
Then again, not everything that glitters is gold. Of course, working remotely also has a few downsides that we don’t want to omit. So we asked our team:
What is not so great about remote working, i.e. the other side of the same coin?
Without obvious control mechanisms like having colleagues around, the temptation to procrastinate on disagreeable tasks or get distracted by social media, pets or television is high. As shared in another blog article about 5 Tips To Make Virtual Work Effective, remote working is not for everyone. Apart from the obvious fact that people with a high need for social interaction or extroverts who get energy from being surrounded by crowds of people may suffer from social deprivation, it takes significant discipline and permanent self-motivation to manage your time and energy, to focus on what’s relevant at any given moment, and to do what needs to get done when it’s due, not when you feel like doing it.
Lack of Human Connection
Most importantly though, no matter how well organized, intentioned and digitally networked you are – nothing, I repeat NOTHING, replaces personal human connection. Especially in the beginning when you start to work remotely, you may experience feelings of loneliness or isolation and that is very normal. And even when you get used to it, you may miss not being able to bounce around ideas or brainstorm in a room together. You may crave getting feedback or affirmation in person. Working remotely increases your accountability and not everyone enjoys the autonomy to take decisions all by themselves. On the other hand, task-driven individuals need to watch out not to fall into the trap of focusing too much on the job at hand, rather than the people they are doing it with.
In the end, while there is no “perfect solution”, at GAIA Insights we consider the benefits of remote working outweigh the disadvantages. Yes, you may lack natural discipline, but it is something you can work on and with practice comes mastery. And yes, while it requires a more conscious effort to establish and nurture interpersonal relationships virtually, you can embrace it as “the next best thing”. Making human connections in a digital workplace doesn’t happen by chance and it might feel artificial at times, but when you get better at it, you might be surprised about how deep your professional relationships with remote colleagues can grow. We see it happen every day.