Governments and organizations of all sizes have pushed remote working on to the general public, but individual remote workers are starting to feel the disconnection and the strain of working in a purely digital environment.
The truth is, human beings weren’t wired to work remotely. And whether we realize it or not, it’s making most of us miserable.
Why is this the case? And what can we do about it?
The Conflict of Human Nature and Remote Work
There’s clearly a conflict between human nature and remote work. But what are the root causes of this conflict?
- Social creatures. Human beings are social creatures. We are wired to engage with each other face to face, and when we don’t have this opportunity, we suffer mentally and emotionally. Long-distance relationships may work temporarily for some people, but even the biggest long-distance relationship optimists would admit that living closer, or living together, would be a substantial improvement. Obviously, working relationships aren’t as intimate as romantic relationships, but the principle still stands; when we aren’t able to socially interact in an authentic, human way, we aren’t going to do our best.
- The limitations of virtual collaboration. Virtual meeting fatigue is a real thing. Over the past decade or so, we’ve seen crazy advancements in video conferencing and other remote collaboration technologies. But while these digital gimmicks can work in the short-term, they tend to fail in the long term and on a large scale. Webcam issues, buffering problems, limited interpretations of body language, miscommunications, and other problems can compromise the productivity of even the most dedicated remote workers.
- Environments and conditioning. As humans, we tend to adapt to our environments – and play a smaller role in shaping the environments around us. But in a remote work environment, everyone has their own unique environment, and there’s no true sense of shared space or camaraderie. Some employees who work from home adopt a far too relaxed attitude – and others feel lost without environmental clues to help them stay professional and productive.
- Apathy and labor shortages. America, along with many other developed countries, is experiencing a significant labor shortage. It’s conceivable that one of the root causes of this is general apathy or laziness that comes with remote work opportunities. Remote workers may get used to more relaxed environments, stubbornly avoiding any job that requires them to actually show up.
It’s worth mentioning that each individual is unique, and a working environment that works for one person may not work for another. Because of this, there are people who can thrive in a remote work environment – and most of our assertions about the general nature of remote work apply only on average to the general population.
By that same token, there are some people who are especially incapable of thriving in remote environments. For these people, a physical workplace is a practical necessity.
What Must Change?
Right now, about 10 percent of the workforce in the United States is fully remote, with another 35 percent being hybrid remote. Some experts believe these numbers will increase in the near future.
So what must change to increase productivity and worker wellness?
Essentially, there are two options. First, we can try to make remote work better by making it:
- Flexible. If remote work is going to be successful, it needs to be a flexible remote working environment. Not all of your employees are going to appreciate remote work equally, and not all of them will thrive in this environment. Every employee should have an opportunity for both physical, in-person collaboration and remote, virtual elements. Additionally, employees should be empowered with more autonomy to shape their own working environments as they see fit.
- Social. Strong collaboration can only occur when people share values, vision, and working philosophy. Preferably, they should also share a collegial bond. This is possible in a remote environment, but it’s much harder to pull off. Accomplishing this sense of camaraderie requires deliberate attention to teambuilding and social interaction.
- Highly collaborative. Too often, organizations that pursue remote work end up being fractured; instead of being a truly connected team, the company is a loosely affiliated network of individuals. There are some industries and applications where this is an advantage, but for most businesses, it’s a distinctive weakness. Good remote work environments need to be highly collaborative.
Second, most of us can go back to the office.
It’s unlikely that remote work is going away, and even if the problems associated with it get worse, there are bound to be stubborn proponents who insist that this is the correct approach to work. But it doesn’t take much research, thought, or analysis to realize there are deeper problems than most people want to admit.