Coauthored by Giselle Johnston and Goutam Shahani
Knowing the pros and cons of working remotely will help you avoid problems and play up the positives, so check out this piece from our archives to learn more. Thoughts or ideas of your own? Please share them on AIChE's Engage--you'll be amazed how good it feels to share tips and experiences with others in similar situations during the Covid-19 pandemic. In particular, check out this discussion on working remotely.
Working remotely is a growing trend — 70% of workers worldwide perform tasks remotely at least one day a week (1), and approximately 3.5% of the workforce in the U.S. works remotely more than half of the work week (2). Younger generations’ appeal for work-life balance has encouraged this shift and, while many remote workers are actually older, it is important to consider the impact of remote work on early career progression.
While remote work can be mutually beneficial to employees and employers, it also presents challenges related to managing distractions, communication, isolation, technology, and cost. Prepare a plan to ensure you can overcome these challenges and reap the benefits of a remote-work arrangement to maintain or even improve your in-office performance.
No more commute
The most obvious benefit of working remotely is eliminating your daily commute. Shaving off a 30-min trip to the office adds an hour to your day that you can use to work, exercise, or spend time with your family.
Those hours also add up in the form of transportation costs, such as vehicle wear and gas, or train tickets. And, without the need to dress professionally every day, you may save on clothing and dry cleaning.
Reducing or eliminating your commute likewise reduces your carbon footprint, which is a plus for all of us. Your employer may benefit from a remote arrangement, because it frees office space. When companies with a remote workforce periodically do need office space, they can take advantage of a growing suite of options for shared workspaces.
A remote location does not limit you to your home. You might occasionally find it more beneficial to work from a community space, coffee shop, or family member’s home. A flexible work location may also include flexible hours that allow you to fold laundry, run to the grocery store, or visit the dentist. Early birds may want to tackle their workload early in the day, while those who get a surge of energy in the afternoon may choose to push back their start time.
Most of us have experienced a day in which traffic makes us late to the office, an impromptu meeting pops up, or an unexpected client call commandeers lunch, preventing us from knocking items off our to-do list. Working from home or another alternative location may offer fewer interruptions and enable enhanced focus and efficiency. Your employer will be happy with your progress as you accomplish more in the same eight-hour workday.
Having more control over your time and schedule allows you to use your energy for tasks more purposefully, making you feel more fulfilled and happier. Companies benefit from happier employees because they tend to be more productive (3) and remain with the company longer.
Office settings provide opportunities for interruption to your workflow that degrade efficiency, but they do create a boundary between work and life. Remote settings require a unique level of discipline to ensure that work and your personal time are separate. While it is beneficial to be able to have a flexible work schedule, it is important to not allow distractions such as laundry, cooking, or appointments to affect your work. It can be easy to succumb to distractions when you do not have pressure from your boss or colleagues to stay on task.
Create a dedicated workspace furnished as a comfortable office, not a bedroom or a living room, and avoid including potential distractions, such as a television, game system, or radio. If possible, have a dedicated landline for work-related communication. Deter family or roommates from interrupting you by posting a sign outside your office during your workday. Avoid the cliché of working in your pajamas, and get dressed for the day to help signal to yourself and others that you are working.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of remote work is communication. While the internet, telephone, and email can help attenuate this issue, these tools cannot replace face-to-face communication. Each communication style has its shortcomings, but speaking to someone in person is generally the most effective, as it enables communication via body language and verbal tone. Although it can be disruptive, impromptu brainstorming and networking with colleagues is valuable.
In addition, less visibility to superiors and coworkers can make it difficult to present key accomplishments and receive credit for important contributions. Managers often find it difficult to monitor, coach, and supervise remote staff. As a result, remote workers can often be overlooked for key assignments and promotions.
While communication is always vital, it becomes even more critical when you are working remotely. Make special effort to document conference calls, develop action items, and follow up. Avoid relying on email to resolve miscommunications and, instead, pick up the phone. Schedule regular time for face-to-face in-person communication with your boss and close colleagues.
Working alone can be isolating and may lead to burnout. Humans are naturally social and benefit from interaction. This can be a particular challenge for extroverts, but so too for introverts who need contact to stay engaged and involved. The lack of community can be a major disadvantage to those working remotely; it is difficult for remote staff to understand the largely unwritten rules that constitute a corporate culture, which can be disastrous for career progression and advancement.
Establish a network of contacts to create a sense of community. Have a routine that involves taking a break for coffee or lunch with another remote colleague, or join a professional society to exchange ideas and attend local meetings. Take every opportunity to go to the office and set up working lunches to build relationships.
Remote work would not be possible without technology. High-speed internet, text messaging, and video conferencing are wonderful tools that remote workers rely on to be effective. However, it is critical that these tools function properly. Technology failures can be disastrous. Many well-organized meetings fall apart due to poor voice and internet connection, which puts the remote worker at a disadvantage. Invest in high-quality, reliable internet service and a state-of-the art computer, printer, and phone. These investments pay for themselves by enabling better connection with in-office employees.
A benefit of working remotely is reduced costs in terms of commute and attire. But, it also incurs some additional expenses related to utility bills, technology, and home-office equipment and supplies. These can be significant, and you should evaluate these expenses when determining if a remote arrangement is right for you. Employers often do not defray these costs.
Working remotely is becoming more common, as it can improve work-life balance and offers employees and employers mutual benefits. However, remote workers must manage challenges related to distractions, communication, isolation, technology, and personal expense. Discipline and structure can help remote workers overcome these challenges to become effective, no matter where they are working.
1. Browne, R., “70% of People Globally Work Remotely at Least Once a Week: IWG study,” www.cnbc.com/2018/05/30/70-percent-of-people-globally-work-remotely-at-l... study.html (May 30, 2018).
2. Global Workplace Analytics, “Latest Telecommuting/Mobile Work/Remote Work Statistics,” https://globalworkplaceanalytics.com/telecommuting-statistics (Aug. 6, 2019).
3. Addady, M., “Study: Being Happy at Work Really Makes You More Productive,” https://fortune.com/2015/10/29/happy-productivity-work (Oct. 29, 2015).
This article originally appeared in the YPOV column in the January 2020 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at aiche.org/cep.