How Remote Work Policies Can Backfire

A CEO makes an argument for why there’s still no digital substitute for good, old-fashioned community.

How Remote Work Policies Can Backfire
[Photo: Flickr user Barn Images]

The benefits of remote work are obvious–and, to many employers, growing: time saved on commutes, flexibility for employees, larger applicant pools for hiring, etc. It appears to be a no-brainer. But appearances can be deceiving, and in many cases, the widespread acceptance of remote work has actually caused more harm than good.

Superficial Connectedness

In 2013, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management reported that since 2010, “The number of employees deemed eligible for teleworking increased by 49%; the number of employees with telework agreements increased by 84%; and the number of employees who teleworked in a September-to-September snapshot increased by 24%.”

The year prior, writer Stephen Marche published an article in The Atlantic called “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” (later selected for the 2013 edition of The Best American Science and Nature Writing), in which he eloquently argued what so many people already intuit: Despite appearances, networking technologies more often drive people apart than bring them together.

Despite superficial connectivity, the Internet–and digital communications technologies in general–make for rather cold, impersonal environments. That’s because, as Marche argues, “connection is not the same thing as a bond.” The sorts of connections most of our tools for staying connected tend to foster are anything but nurturing. Those two documents taken together–the federal report and the reporter getting fed up–sound a silent alarm. Perhaps those mounting percentages of remote workers aren’t signs so much of rising efficiency as of deepening solitude.

The issue with remote work is really rooted in two phenomena, both of which Marche exposes when dissecting Facebook: The isolation that arises when an employee’s primary interpersonal communication is digital; and the way constant connectivity can skew a person’s schedule and even their sense of self. Of course, you could put a positive spin on either of those things: “Isolation” becomes “flexibility,” and “constantly connected” becomes “available.”

Theory versus Practice

Still, it’s impossible to ignore the potential that creates for pernicious side effects, which might vary from person to person. The ideal telework situation is one where employees can stick to a healthy sleep pattern, self-regulate in order to work consistent hours, maintain a robust social life outside of work duties, and, with the added flexibility, still schedule a doctor’s appointment without permission from a boss.

In reality, a telework lifestyle can translate to a blurring of schedules, as one’s home life and work life lose all distinct divisions. Remote workers can begin to feel like they’re always on the clock, simply because being within reach of a mobile device is all it takes to put them in their place of labor.

As a host of employers and employees alike can attest, striking a work-life balance is getting more complicated, and work cultures in many cases are struggling to adjust. Telework can make employees see family members as interferences with their work responsibilities, leading to a toxic environment that’s all the more difficult to escape from because it’s the only one a remote worker operates within.

In a workforce and technological environment where sedentary lifestyles are already eating away at our health and wellbeing, remote work can make things worse. Few employees look forward to a daily commute, but having little reason to leave the house, the bedroom, or the desk chair can breed bad lifestyle habits.

Community Matters

The more sweeping problem with our culture’s embrace of remote work is the way it undervalues community. Office culture has had a poor reputation at least since Kafka, but it remains true that the way people interact in a physical workspace still matters to how well they work. For proof, look no further than the growing popularity of coworking spaces, where remote and freelance employees go in order to regain the sense of collaboration and community that offices engender.

The good news is that companies that want to walk a middle path now can. Here at VividCortex, we’ve split our staff across multiple focal points rather than anchor it to one central hub. With employees clustered in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Montevideo, Uruguay, the company can balance genuine community with flexibility, making for a healthy culture. The administrative burdens have been eased as well–when I hear my peers in the industry praise remote work without caveat, I know they’re usually not the ones responsible for fine-tuning the administrative details of managing a remote workforce spread out across the globe, such as local law and tax code compliance, insurance, health benefits, and payroll.

The truth is that companies don’t need to choose between spreading their workforce across the globe and marshaling them into a single headquarters each day. Compromise is important, but you have to know what you’re compromising. Think about what’s best for both your company and your employees, not just right now, but for the organization’s long-term goals, as well as the staff you’re investing in and hoping to retain.

There will always be valuable employees for whom remote work is the best option. But there will also be cases where you’ll need to take a closer look and try something else. Remember that no matter how you structure a company, there are some things you should always value. Community is a good place to start, and there’s still no digital substitute for it.

Baron Schwartz is the founder and CEO of VividCortex. He is one of the world’s leading experts on MySQL and has helped build and scale some of the largest web, social, gaming, and mobile properties. Follow him on Twitter at @xaprb.

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