Remote Work: What Are You Really Getting Into?
Wondering if remote work is for you? We want to give you the good, the bad, the pretty and of course, the ugly, before you make the switch. Read on for all the insights of life outside the (physical) office from experienced remote-working creative, Ana Wang.
I've been working remotely for about seven years now, which means that I've been working remotely longer than I haven't (I have no office-appropriate clothes, true story). My first full-time remote job was in a call center. Before that, I worked in the creative field, half-time from home because my bosses smartly realized I didn't need to be in an office (I'm also guessing we were all introverts).
A call center job to me is a natural fit for remote work: metrics are easily trackable so the appearance of work means nothing. You show up and you do the work. To be able to do it from the comfort of the chair that's molded to you and the workspace that's to your liking, without having to sit in row 38 feeling like a drone, well, that just made sense. Working remotely without people ironically made the picture and experience of a call center more human. I took the job because at that point, I had a few failed businesses behind me and I felt like my clock on ‘making it’ was ticking. I decided to put myself in the role I felt was most opposite to my natural state partly to see what would happen if I did the opposite thing for once (and also, I needed the money and it was a night job that I could tack onto my day job). Remote work made it a role in which I excelled, much to my surprise. I wasn't the fastest, but I did the job well and it marked the beginning of the rest of my career. I haven't looked back and I've been working remotely since.
It wasn't always easy, as much as it became not only my preference but my non-negotiable. I graduated from that call center role, and into roles that required more complexity, into management and going from a company of a few thousand people to a startup with a handful and then into teams as a freelancer where they weren't remote and all of a sudden had to be, thanks to one worldwide pandemic – a pandemic that introduced the idea of remote work to well, almost everyone else too.
The landscape of remote work today
Remote work started out as ‘telecommuting’, a term coined way back in 1973 by Jack Nilles, a NASA engineer. And its earliest adopters (that history is aware of) were IBM employees, five of them to be exact, who worked from home in 1979 as part of an experiment. By 1983, the experiment grew to 2,000 people. But it wasn't just ‘tech’. JC Penney, the clothing retailer, allowed call centre staff to work from home too during the 1980s.
Fast forward a few decades and we're in a funny spot.
On the one hand, many companies have doubled down on their remote work policies after a year+ where it was mandatory. Some of these companies have become intentional or accidental (it's hard to tell which) ‘thought leaders’, leading the charge of a revolution in work. Where it used to be a business benefit, a way to sideline office-optional workers, or a niche for a few forward-thinking companies, the pandemic turned remote work into the overwhelming norm.
But there are many others on the edge of their WFH seats, waiting to go back to the office. Many companies are adopting part-time remote work policies, but others are eagerly looking forward to business-as-usual, back in the land of actual water coolers and not just Slack channels labelled as such.
Either way, remote work isn't going away. So let's get better acquainted, shall we?
All the things we love about remote work
Work, with even more benefits for employees
Let's face it: the best thing about remote work for most people is that it just feels better with some very obvious, tangible, and sometimes measurable benefits.
Let's count the ways (and please, feel free to remind yourself of these benefits, if you currently work remotely and have forgotten):
no more commuting, you can even roll out of bed if you want to
that means you save more money on transit, gas, car insurance
if you care about the planet, well, less cars means less carbon emissions
you might also save money on take-out and coffee
you can do whatever you want in the office without feeling like you need to announce yourself
you can be home for deliveries
you can be home with your pets
you're judged by the actual work you do, not how much work you look like you're doing
there are fewer distractions (arguably, depending on your home office environment)
you can completely customize your workspace to your liking
you can wear anything
Benefits for employers? Not so shabby either.
While there are tons of reasons for employees to love remote work, it should come as no surprise that there are probably even more reasons for employers to love it too: namely, the money.
Overhead is the cost associated with expenses that don't really change month to month. They're just there, line items to make sure the business is running. And office space is really expensive.
Not only that, but it's an even bigger challenge to keep up for fast-growing companies. The clothing retailer Nasty Gal grew so fast in their heyday in the early 2010s that they were constantly outgrowing their headquarters, changing offices probably in the same amount of time it takes to settle into an office and make your desk your own.
Digital infrastructure still has similar challenges of scale, and if you've ever worked at a fast-growing company, you'll recognize what that looks like: it can be really exciting, but it can also be messy.
But it still doesn't compare to the upheaval of finding, building, moving into a new office, then doing it all over again after just a few months. Not to mention, all the costs (both monetary and productively-speaking) associated with that.
Growth is never a smooth ride but with remote work, it's at least much easier and cheaper.
Teams can be more diverse, in more ways than one
As a byproduct of not having to have a physical office space, remote teams have the potential to be a lot more diverse, in more than the obvious ways.
SuperHi itself has a vision of hiring the best person for the job, regardless of where they live. That opens up the pool of candidates to a lot more people. I've worked on a team where many people were hired from rural Canada. I don't know if that was intentional but it provided an opportunity for smart, talented people to live where they want and make an impact in growing industries with companies doing interesting things rather than being limited to the jobs found in rural areas – and for the company to tap into an underused talent pool.
I've seen companies hire outside their geographic zones for the very first time during the pandemic, going from ‘We can't find the right people’ to, well, finding the right people (and hoards of them) elsewhere. So secondary benefit: hiring could be easier. (Or harder, if you've all of a sudden got a much bigger pool.)
That lends itself to all kinds of diversity on teams. Just think: what if the city your company happens to be located in is quite homogenous? With remote work, you don't have to be limited to that.
Having different cultural and geographic perspectives is a value-add for companies that are global, big and small.
As a writer, I've had the opportunity to learn about cultural references that may not translate to customers on the other side of the world (and some that do), building my empathy and skills to speak to a wider audience. That kind of empathy-building environment is what remote work has, built in. (But, important to note: it's not without effort and work – bias still creeps in, even if the hiring pool is more diverse).
There's something else here that doesn't get the same kind of attention, but that's really important to mention: remote work isn't just about diversity in geography, culture, and race.
It can also be a way for people with disabilities both physical and mental to feel welcome and accommodated. It can be a way for entire groups of people to be able to contribute in terms that allow them to do their best work.
It can also give more power to an often undervalued contingent of people who in traditional offices aren't the loudest or most charismatic. Remote work can be a personality equalizer, and an opportunity for introverts to shine away from their open-office nightmares. How would I know? That's me. I never felt at home and myself until I worked remote. I felt that my work was let down by me because I couldn't speak as well as it could. As soon as I went remote full-time, I wasn't judged for how competent I appeared to be in person, but on other things like how good I was at my job and how well I worked with others.
Remote work has a way of removing fluff to get to the heart of work.
I'd never received a single promotion before going remote, and since then, for every single company I've been at, I've gotten promoted by surprise. There's a lot that goes into that, work ethic, luck and privilege included, but I'm sure that it wouldn't have happened and I wouldn't have had the career I do now without remote work. I'm the kind of people companies that aren't remote can miss out on.
All the things that are challenging about remote work
It takes a lot of effort
If only people knew how much effort it takes to run a successful and effective (and happy) remote team. It's not easy.
Sure, it's easy enough to go remote. Get your tools set up and go, right?
It takes a lot of effort and consistency to do it right. All the gaps that weren't so apparent in the office when it was easy to see what was going on, to overhear conversations, and to use the other 93 percent of nonverbal communication to understand a situation? They become more prominent and obvious in a remote work environment.
Companies need to be intentional about workflows, processes, onboarding, communication, and people management.
Without the trust-building factor of seeing people face to face, we have to work harder at it and be more proactive: not just our employers, but managers and everyone else too.
At a remote company, team engagement is a team effort.
The hard part about this is, companies and managers may not always know they're doing a poor job (that's the upside of remote work turned the other way). But it'll come up with employees leaving, and they might just label it as the Great Resignation, a term coined by organizational psychologist Anthony Klotz to describe the record number of people who quit their jobs as pandemic restrictions started to lift. The suggested cause? People reevaluating what they want out of work. (Probably not a coincidence that it happened after more than a year working from home in companies that may not have been equipped to understand how much more effort it takes to make remote work, work.)
It can be lonely
Remote work can be really tough for people who thrive on human interaction, but I'm not sure if anyone, even the most introverted among us, is immune to the feeling of going into work just a door (or not even) down from your bedroom, and then to finish work, then do it all over again – sometimes going days and even weeks without any meaningful human interaction.
Many of us cite -the people’ as being the best part about our jobs. I'm not sure if that's a sign that everyone hates their jobs and would rather live in a post-work society, or if it's just psychology at play: a company is an organized group, and while not the same as family or friends, it's still a social group that we belong to and feel a connection with, or try to at least. (Some of us spend more time with this social group than we do with any other.) Either way, we miss out on so much of how we connect to people when we're not physically around them. I think about people, sometimes friends and sometimes family, who enjoy each other's company, even if they're not saying much.
I also think about how so many of us spent more than a year at our desks, some of us months in the boxes we call our homes, some of us all alone. Day in, day out. Log on, log off. It's hard. There may not even be anything wrong at work, and it could feel that way because loneliness has a way of colouring everything else.
Should companies be responsible for the mental wellbeing of their employees? Sure, if they want happy and effective employees.
But, it's not as easy as setting up more meetings so that everyone can connect. Enter: Zoom fatigue and useless meetings. It can be done, but it requires a lot more effort, planning, and intent – a 360, top-down, inside-out approach to thinking through what belonging, connection, and wellbeing at work looks like.
It can be challenging to maintain work-life separation
Remember when we all thought remote work would be the best thing ever? That we'd spend less time going to and from work and make more time for our real lives? Well it turned out that remote work made way for the opposite: with a workspace and computer in such close reach and no one to notice or say stop, it became easier to stay longer just to finish that one last thing.
In a real life office, it'd be strange to stay after dark when the doors are closed and everyone else is gone (exceptions of course for certain jobs). With remote work, that built-in boundary is gone.
It doesn't feel like much at first. After all, you're getting paid to sit in comfy pants; you can even go work in front of the couch with Netflix on. But I wonder if increasing rates of burnout has anything to do with always feeling like you're at work.
It's hard to say what the real causes are, but rates of burnout are increasing.
According to Indeed, a recent report conducted in 2021 found that 52% of all workers surveyed were feeling burned out (that's an increase of 9% from a similar survey conducted pre-Covid).
There was a lot going on in the world but when you add this groundhog-day like effect of non-stop work, it probably doesn't help.
The future of remote work: where are we headed?
Today, no one really uses the term telecommuting anymore.
Come to think of it, does anyone use the word telephone? Or is it just phone? Are offices a dying breed, destined to the same fate as the landline telephone: going from being in use in 95 percent of households in 2003 to fewer than 40 percent in 2018? (The number may be even smaller now.)
But just like how the makeup and structure of the office has evolved over the years from cubicle nation to the open office, remote work may just be our next evolution, away from the concept of ‘working from home’.
Remote work could include working from home, but it also includes working from a coworking space, in a coffee shop, while travelling. Those things were all rising in adoption before the pandemic hit and they took a backseat to the work from home Zoom mullet (business up top, party at the bottom) and cat lawyers getting used to the tech in between the madness, giving us all a collective laugh along the way. But as the world opens back up, signs of remote work could be coming back into vogue, stronger than ever and with more people in on the game, more people willing to give it a shot, and more companies ready to rethink what working well means.
Maybe the next evolution is as simple as: any kind of work, for all kinds of companies. Hybrid, flexible, remote? Maybe all of the above.
Maybe it's about choosing what works for each company, not as a one-size-fits-all but instead with a thoughtful approach. Let's be glad that remote work is now in the mainstream and that the choice is there.
In any case, it may be due time for a brand refresh: the term ‘remote’ work instantly brings up connotations of coldness, distance, and lack. Companies like Shopify have adopted terms like ‘digital by default’ and ‘distributed teams’. Buzzwords like ‘decentralized’ can now be applied to work too. That may be the future of remote work: a world where it's not about distance and away-ness, but about what we can all get done together, with more diversity, connection, and intent.
After all, ‘Work is something we do, not a place that we go.’ (A quote from the 1990s, source unknown.)
Ana Wang was previously the Head of Content at SuperHi. She is an ex fashion designer and copywriter who ran a whole bunch of ecommerce stores and brands and then helped other people run ecommerce stores, then helped other people help other people run ecommerce stores. Now, she's a creative generalist who plays with different mediums to tell stories.