Working Remotely,Part Deux
Working Remotely, Part Deux
Last week I discussed some of the more personal issues I’ve noticed in remote workers, aka digital nomads, and made some suggestions (lectured?) on some things they should be doing for themselves in order to help ensure a better, more fulfilling life. As a global workforce, ‘rona allowed us, or forced us, depending on your point of view, to embrace the remote work concept. So much so, that many companies are progressively implementing it into their current strategies, and/ or incorporating it into their expansion plans. But given my profession, I have to ask, how psychologically healthy is it? It seems to me that as it stands in some companies now, not very. But certain personality types are somewhat uniquely suited to remote work, and thrive in the independence associated with it. Even if you aren’t necessarily one of them, humans are supremely adaptable beings. The questions then become, are you a person that could be happy working remotely, or could you make it work for you?
Many of my patients say remote work has been an answer to their most ardent prayers. But a disturbing proportion of them say it through a mouth of unbrushed teeth, from a face covered with scraggly unshaven beard, and topped with a head of tangled unkempt hair, so I’m just not buying what they’re selling. So what’s up with that? Why are some digital nomads, who are usually neat and tidy, suddenly messy and… messy?! The answer is deceptively simple: they’re SAD. Stressed, Anxious, and Depressed. But why, when most people’s greatest wish, to 🙌👼🏼work from home👼🏼🙌 has suddenly been granted? Can you hear the angels sing? Visual sound effects! I’m absolutely positive that it might become a thing.
Well, as with so many things in life, the remote work format is like an equation, with positives and negatives to take into account. In order to know if it works for you or not, you have to know the factors involved in order to effectively evaluate them. Today will basically focus on the more negative side of that equation, and some of the reasons why some people might feel SAD, even though they 🙌👼🏼work from home👼🏼🙌 Just wanted to test them to make sure they still worked.
I know I make a lot of jokes, maybe as the result of a coping mechanism that morphed into a habit, but there can be real and unanticipated mental health consequences as a result of the stresses associated with working remotely, and it is important to be aware of this fact. I should also note that it’s equally important to remain aware of it, as sometimes it can seemingly sneak up on you, or can even be a building phenomenon. While they can have a serious impact on mental health, these effects can also be very subtle, or happen within a dynamic and fluctuating range. The best idea if you start to notice that working from home is bumming you out, is to make some changes to improve your situation right away, because you don’t get extra points for spending more time miserable. Toward that end, next week’s blog will discuss some solutions to the issues I’ll be posing here today, along with the positive side of the remote work equation.
The Work Experience
Clearly, the actual experience of working from home is very different from doing so in a public office. But it also differs amongst each person who works remotely as well. On a basic level, the work experience is vastly different, because the quality of the home working experience largely depends on the home. Captain Obvious says it’s a much better experience for people that have dedicated rooms within their homes than it is for people in small apartments, or those who share homes, and therefore have to work in their bedrooms. Please note the five extra letters denoting the compound word- bedrooms– not beds, people. At any rate, companies must consider what they can do to help even that playing field a bit, if they want to improve productivity in a remote work situation for all of their employees.
Another huge difference in the remote work experience comes into play when we talk about technology. When it doesn’t work at home, it’s a bigger problem than when that happens at the office. One specific concern focuses on the speed of technology- or lack thereof- when working remotely. Most organizations demonstrated great agility in switching to remote working nearly overnight, but it’s common knowledge that technology never works as well remotely as it does in an office, where it’s laced together with high-tech cabling and hardware. Here in the good ole US of A, if our wi-fi drops out, we feel pretty indignant, but in some places on the planet, just getting a good enough signal to even access the internet can be challenging enough. It may not sound like a big deal, but internet connectivity is important, because it’s how technology talks. As a human, if you’re speaking with someone, and they choose not to respond for ten or fifteen minutes, or not at all, that would be frustrating, no? Especially if it happened all. the. time! All. day. everyday! That’s why connectivity is a big deal when working remotely; because the lack of it is very frustrating to humans, especially when we’re working.
If you’re working from home and faced with problems with wi-fi or getting a decent signal, it’s usually a persistent and pervasive issue. Because it can extend timelines and destroy deadlines, it affects your everyday business, and sometimes can even affect your employment. All of that of course impacts your stress levels, so you can’t really afford to underestimate it. The short answer solution is that you have to do whatever you can to mitigate the issue. Communicate with your supervisor, if you have one, and call whomever you need to call to have the issue resolved. Captain Obvious says your supervisor has a vested interest in making sure you’re adequately equipped, because they want you to get your projects done too. Or build an office entirely out of wi-fi hotspots and boosters, and maybe wear a tin foil hat. You decide.
No matter where you are, if your computer decides it doesn’t want to play ball, forget feeling indignant, we feel screwed. If you’re from a conventional office environment, and now working from home, any tech problems you may have probably won’t get resolved as quickly off site as they would in the office, and unfortunately, that can make it difficult- even impossible at times- to work remotely. The time it takes the IT software and people to diagnose and fix any issues further disrupts processes and extends timelines, adding to everyone’s frustrations. That’s if you even have IT people, people. If you’re the IT department, president, and janitor, that makes it a little more frustrating, and time consuming, to solve tech issues. Because bringing the office home depends so much on remote technology, when you multiply networking issues by slow running apps and software, working from home can equal big tech stress.
But it’s not just IT that has a long road to hoe in the remote work equation. Management also has to make big changes if the remote work equation is going to balance, because you can’t manage people the same way if you’re not with them. If nothing else, ‘rona proved to management that most employees do have the capability to adapt to remote work, and fairly productively and effectively, to boot. But in reality, management and supervisors themselves have to adapt as well. For it to work effectively, they have to learn to trust and enable their staff, rather than interrogate and demand. One of the biggest complaints I hear from employees is that while working remotely, they sense an implied, or sometimes more direct, mistrust from supervisors and management. They feel like every minute must be accounted for, like they have to prove they were working during the day, not just watching television or doing their nails. That said, one of the biggest complaints I hear from supervisors and management types about working remotely, is that they suspect that their employees are taking advantage of a remote work arrangement. I wonder if maybe they suspect they’re watching television or doing their nails instead of working?
This dichotomy would be funny, if it didn’t have the capacity to be so inherently stressful and anxiety producing in all parties involved in the equation. I think the concept of how to manage a person you’re not watching poses interesting psychological questions. When you feel like you’re “losing control” over something, or someone, a natural human response is to grip it tighter; evolution has built that into our brains. In a remote work environment, when a supervisor can’t see what an employee is doing for eight plus hours every day, that equates to the dreaded micromanagement. And in the minds of the employees or people being supervised, that often comes across as suspicion, and can feel accusatory. Taken together, this tends to breed mistrust; and so the problem begins. If the problem sounds complicated, imagine the solution. Personally, I can easily see both sides of this issue, but I know that traditional management methods aren’t the answer to a modern remote work problem, and that for the equation to balance long term, we have to take big strides on the road toward improving the remote work experience for everyone.
Isolation and Loneliness
As I mentioned briefly last week, isolation and feelings of loneliness are among the most commonly reported issues that remote workers face. While working remotely has some benefits, like allowing you to effectively bypass distracting and/ or annoying coworkers, it also prevents you from sharing pleasantries with your boss, clients, and the coworkers you doenjoy camaraderie with. You miss out on the more social aspects of traditional work life, like water cooler venting, office gossip, and bouncing ideas off of one another. These interactions simply don’t translate to tech like Zoom very well, and this lack of interaction between coworkers can be a detriment to team building and corporate culture. In a prolonged state, such as occurs in a remote work environment, this disconnectivity contributes to isolation and loneliness in individuals, and is associated with higher rates of anxiety and depression, as well as somatic symptoms, such as headache and generalized body pain.
If you’re a person who is already accustomed to, and appreciative of, conventional office life, and the steady rate of social interactions at work, the effects of switching to remote work might have a surprising effect, because our daily interactions help us reinforce our sense of well-being and belonging in a community. Researchers have demonstrated that loneliness as a result of isolation is actually twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity. One study I read found that 19 percent of people who work remotely report loneliness; and as with many such conditions or feelings, this poses a bigger risk when it becomes chronic. As you can imagine, people who not only work remotely, but also live alone, are especially at risk for feeling lonely, though I certainly see a fair amount of it in digital nomads who live with others.
Working from home can also feel like never leaving work, and another commonly reported cause for concern is burnout. I read a 2019 US study that polled remote tech workers. It found that 82 percent reported feeling burned out, 52 percent reported that they believed they work longer hours than their in-office counterparts, and 40 percent reported feeling as though they were required to contribute more than their in-office counterparts. These points are very common themes that people considering remote work, and new to remote work, should definitely keep in mind. In my experience with patients, this near compulsion to work longer hours is almost universal. I assume it’s the result of attempts to prove their ability to be productive from home, despite the presence of distractions and the availability of “extracurricular” activities that can accompany working from home.
For many people, it’s already difficult to maintain a healthy work-life balance when working from an office, and it seems that this is also the first thing to go when work goes remote. The lines start to blur, and every hour in a day becomes a work hour. If you’re behind on a project, you figure you can afford to spend the “extra” hours in your day on completing it. But not for long. After a much shorter period of time than you’d think, that becomes a dangerous practice. Five minutes for one more email becomes hours, and when you stop to look up, you’ve spent far too long working, and you haven’t moved for 13 hours. My response to burned out, remote workers is to remember that home is also your office now, so you’re not really leaving work unless you turn off all communication platforms. You have to make a concerted effort to leave work, just as you would if you worked in an office. So just as you would walk out the office door about nine hours after you walked in, when you’re working from home, you turn off the devices after about the same amount of time…or else risk the ravages of burnout. Besides, when you’re mentally and physically exhausted, you’re not at your sharpest, not doing your best work, and you’re bound to make mistakes.
Focus, Motivation, Distraction
Any number of factors in a remote work situation can make you lose focus and motivation, and chief among them are distractions. These are the things, intended or not, that distance you from your work. But the reverse is also true. When you’re not focused and motivated, it’s easy to fall prey to the siren’s call of distraction. Remember last week, I said that just because the refrigerator is a short distance away, that doesn’t mean you should constantly make the trip? Eating can be a distraction you act on when you’re bored. If snack o’clock happens every hour, or you’re having multiple versions of lunch, you’re distracted, or maybe looking for something- anything- to do, other than work. When you’re working remotely, you have a lot of freedom, which is generally a good thing in life. But understand that distraction is really the blacksheep cousin to burnout, and it’s all too easy to get sidetracked by it.
Some other favorite classic distractions include wanting to sleep in, kids, myriad chores, online surfing and social media, calling friends or vice versa, pets thinking playtime is whenever you’re breathing, and good weather tempting you to ditch work and go to the beach, mall, spa, movies, etc. It’s easier to become distracted because you may be the only one managing your time, and this is one of the big reasons why people may not be as productive at home as they would be in a traditional work setting. It’s also the biggest reason why employers and management don’t generally like the idea of working remotely. While it might seem that the only way to be a successful remote worker is to be a self starter with superhuman focus who is impervious to distraction, there are ways to manage distraction, focus, and motivation. I’ll get into all of that next week, but here’s a hint until then: having a door to shut is an incredibly helpful head start.
Working remotely can also be stressful because of the inconsistent wages that may be associated with it. The term freelancing is the one most commonly used for positions of this type, though you may better recognize the alternative terminology of independent contractors. It essentially means that they are self-employed, rather than being directly supervised or employed by someone else; as a result, they typically follow a remote arrangement. No matter what you call it, when you compare freelance work to a regular full-time job, there are some important distinctions. In a regular job, you know that no matter what happens, you’ll be paid (at least) the same amount each month; and since you took the job, I can only assume it’s sufficient to cover whatever bills it’s supposed to. But with freelance positions, because getting paid is typically based on contracts and invoices, payments can be pretty variable, and you don’t have any guarantees that your invoices will be paid on time. If the payor is unreliable, or decides to dispute, you have to expend time, and sometimes even money, to collect. Understandably, these variables and unforeseen complexities can result in cash flow concerns, and we all know that can lead straight to stressville. Not only is income variable, but workload is too. The temporary, variable, too much or too little nature of freelance assignments is intensely anxiety producing, and can wreak havoc with your sense of well-being.
Communication with coworkers, supervisors, and clients can be a minefield, as things can easily be misconstrued under the best of circumstances. In a remote work arrangement, when you often keep in touch through non-visual methods like email and instant messaging, communication is further complicated, and this can have some very unwanted effects. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, the amount of damage that can result from ineffective communication falls along a spectrum, from “uh oh” to “oh no!” One big problem in general, not just in a work setting, that may serve you well to remember, is that you can’t really get a sense of a person’s tone via typed electronic communication, because they can’t read facial expressions or hear your tone of voice. To the recipient, words read the same way regardless of whether you were smiling or yelling when you typed them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a complaint from a patient start with, ‘And then he texted…’ because instant messaging, while convenient, can also be a recipe for instant miscommunication.
In a work setting, most tone concerns have to do with accuracy; that the words you’re using are literally sending the right message. Do you have a tendency to be very lighthearted and positive, and therefore potentially at risk for sounding like perhaps you’re not serious enough about a certain topic with a client? Or maybe you have a tendency to be sarcastic and risk that same issue? You might be most vulnerable to this when the person doesn’t really know you, or in circumstances where you may be sending an instant message you don’t give as much thought to as you would a more formal email. As you might imagine, these are situations where the smiley face in cool shades emoji doesn’t really cut it. 😎
Probably the most common communication issue I hear about is the lack of communication. Just as with the tech issue I mentioned previously, when a coworker is unresponsive, humans get frustrated. And understandably so. When you need an answer, but the person you need it from is uncommunicative via whatever digital channels you try, it can pose a problem. In the office, you could simply visit that individual’s desk and see them in person, but in a remote setting, that’s not an option. Since it’s work, you may have a deadline to complete a project, so not having that answer might make it late, and that may have a negative impact on your reputation. It can be a gnarly domino effect, I get it. But I can tell you that the answer is not to sendthem a message you may regret later, because chances are very good that’ll have an even bigger impact on your reputation, than the original lack of communication on their part would’ve had.
Another thing to keep in mind when communicating electronically is not to set yourself- or anyone else for that matter- up for disappointment, by asking questions that really can’t be answered satisfactorily via these methods. If you’re seeking appreciation or other “feelings” on job performance in a text, you’re nearly bound to read disappointment in the reply, whether it was intended or not. Save the sticky wickets for more personal communication methods, even if they’re not necessarily the easiest choice. While some sarcasm or jokes may be funny, some people may not think so, and that can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings that can have a serious effect on company culture, productivity, team dynamics, and relationships with coworkers, supervisors, and/ or clients. Remember that nothing dies on the net, and everything leaves a digital trail, especially in a remote work setting, so things can come back to bite you later. Lastly, I would suggest that you always think twice whenever you instant message someone in order to avoid instant embarrassment and instant regret, proofread messages to make sure nothing’s getting in the way of what you’re trying to say, and save the complicated stuff for face to face when possible, or at least for video chat when it’s not.
Next week, the working remotely blog continues- I’ll address some solutions to all of the issues I mentioned today, and then I’ll tell you about the positive side of the remote work equation.
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