Working remotely: Pros, cons, and secrets to success
Remote work is the new normal. Here are the benefits and challenges for companies and employees transitioning to working remotely—and how to make the most of it.
Published April 5, 2021
Last updated March 16, 2022
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, most companies and workers weren’t ready for remote work life. But in the midst of the global health emergency, we were all forced to adapt to this new normal.
Now, about a year into living in a pandemic-struck world, many of us have settled into new routines. A recent PwC study found that 83 percent of companies think they’ve successfully transitioned to remote work. And Buffer found that 99 percent of employees would like to work from home, at least occasionally, for the rest of their career.
While many of us are itching to get back to “normal” life again, remote work is likely here to stay: Upwork found that 68 percent of companies think working remotely is getting easier over time, and 26.7 percent believe their team will still be fully remote this time next year.
Working from home is the workplace model of the present—and the foreseeable future. It’s in your company’s best interest to take a proactive, strategic approach to remote work. But fear not: While working remotely comes with its fair share of challenges, it might be the best switch your organization ever makes.
What is remote work?
Put simply, remote work is completing your job and connecting with coworkers and clients somewhere outside the traditional office environment. Working remotely—whether you call it working from home, working off-campus, or telecommuting—all boils down to the same idea: You’re logging on from somewhere that isn’t your cubicle.
“Distributed team” is another remote work term. It means you have colleagues in different time zones, zip codes, and maybe countries working on the same team toward the same goal.
You may even have a mixed team, with some members who are fully remote and some who are fully on-site. Team members may work in the office on select days and from home, coffee shops, or anywhere with Wi-Fi on other days.
Why working remotely strengthens businesses
A lot of us had misgivings about working remotely before the pandemic. We thought our jobs could never become mobile, we’d never adjust to wearing sweats instead of suits, or our roommates would never be good coworkers. But that initial anxiety soon gave way to appreciating some of remote work’s significant perks.
Here are three pros of working remotely.
Buffer’s State of Remote Work report found that the top benefit of working remotely is having a flexible schedule. The tech-savvy Millennial generation, in particular, sees flexibility and remote options as huge bonuses when looking for a job.
Remote work gives employees control over their daily routines. Working from home means you can take breaks between meetings to get your laundry done, walk your dog, or pick up your kids from school. Remote work allows you to tailor your workspace for your needs, too—whether that means working in comfortable clothes, playing music that may otherwise distract cubicle mates, or answering emails with your cat sitting on your lap.
Businesses also benefit from telecommuting’s inherent flexibility. Open scheduling encourages your employees to work during the hours when they are most able to focus. Research shows employees are most productive in the early mornings on Mondays and Tuesdays—when most in-office employees are getting dressed and commuting. Telecommuting may even mean you won’t see turnover from a star employee fulfilling their lifelong dream of living on the beach or from a spouse getting a job out of state.
Believe it or not, studies show that remote employees are more productive than their in-office counterparts. An Airtasker study found that remote workers gained 8.5 hours of free time a week for not having a daily commute. The study also revealed that remote employees work 1.4 days more per month than their on-site counterparts—which means they’re likely using some of that saved commute time to work longer hours.
Remote work also minimizes the need to engage in office politics or to stop what you’re doing when coworkers swing by your desk. While hearing about Cindy’s bad haircut may seem harmless, those minutes can start adding up: An oft-quoted UC Irvine study revealed that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to refocus after a distraction.
Additionally, in a study by Robert Half, 63 percent of respondents said they are most productive in a private office with a closed door or at home. Why? The same study found that the biggest distractions are chatty coworkers and office noise.
Eliminating casual walk-bys also forces employees to be intentional about reaching out to their coworkers. It’s far too easy to pass by someone’s desk and ask for a favor. But if you have to set up a Zoom meeting to make the request, you’ll likely think twice before sending that email or Slack message.
Having a remote workforce is a wallet-friendly model—for both businesses and their employees.
As an employee, you’ll no longer have to pay for commute gas, takeout office lunches, business clothes, and maybe even childcare and pet-walking services. A FlexJobs study found that the average employee can save around $4,000 annually by working from home. On fuel alone, remote employees saved an average of $94.23 per week compared to in-office workers.
Businesses can save with telecommuting, too. Having a distributed workforce means no (or vastly reduced) office overhead, maintenance, and equipment fees. Add those figures to the fact that flexible schedules improve employee retention, and you’ll experience significant savings—one study says businesses can save up to $11,000 annually by letting employees work from home just 50 percent of the time.
The biggest challenges of working remotely
Remote work offers many benefits, but there are potential drawbacks. Luckily, there are several ways companies and workers alike can mitigate these cons of working remotely and set themselves up for success in this new era of work.
Lack of connection
The one obvious downside of remote work is the lack of physical connection to other people. Buffer’s State of Remote Work report found that 36 percent of remote employees struggle with loneliness or difficulty collaborating with coworkers.
Setting up video calls requires more effort than stopping by someone’s desk to talk, which cuts down on unproductive meetings—but it’s a double-edged sword. It also means less chatting around the water cooler, bonding with your coworkers, and collaboration on projects.
The feelings of isolation when working from home have reached a new level during the pandemic. Pre-COVID, telecommuters could balance their workdays at home with a more vibrant social life outside work hours. But with restrictions still in place, remote workers are having less daily human contact than ever before. While maintaining a collaborative team in a remote environment presents unique challenges, all hope is not lost.
How to stay connected
Remote coffee pot: Use Slack or Zoom to schedule quick, 10-minute daily breaks where coworkers can log on and talk about non-work-related topics to stay connected. If it’s too hard to find a good time for everyone to meet each day, you can use Slack extensions like Donut to randomly group people for a chat on a biweekly basis.
Fitness challenge: Help keep your team accountable to their health by holding fitness challenges. You can see who can get the most steps in a day or host a virtual 5K race with your team, for example.
Check-ins: You’ll need to be a little more intentional about checking in with remote employees. Make it part of your management culture that leaders schedule reminders to reach out to individual team members on a continual basis to make sure they’re coping.
[Related read: Rising to the challenge of remote leadership]
Less work-life balance
Yes, working from home boosts employee productivity. But sometimes, it can be too much of a good thing: An Airtasker survey found that nearly one in three remote employees struggles with work-life balance, compared to around one in four on-site employees. When you work and recharge in the same place, it can be difficult for your brain to turn off “work mode” once your day is finished.
How to improve work-life balance
Many of us have done the bed-desk-fridge-bed shuffle during the pandemic, but long-term telecommuting requires more than the occasional switch-up. Workers should establish regular habits to reduce this unplugging fatigue.
Start your day with a morning routine as similar as possible to your routine prior to remote work. Get up, have breakfast, and get dressed. You can even walk around the block to simulate “commuting.” This helps your brain shift from home mode to work mode.
Carve out a dedicated workspace in your home—meaning, not your couch or your bed. Having a specific spot for work (and for nothing else) can replicate a designated office environment.
Set office hours for yourself each day, and remember to take a lunch break. It can be easy to simply sit in front of a screen for eight hours when you don’t have coworkers to talk to, but setting intentional breaks for yourself and powering down your work laptop at the same time each day is critical to preventing burnout.
Never check work emails from bed. This will just further blur the lines between “work brain” and “relaxation brain” and can actually trigger a ton of health problems.
Loss of an office environment
Working from home can pose challenges when it comes to setting up a designated work environment, particularly for people who live in small spaces or have roommates. You may struggle to focus in the midst of piles of laundry, overactive pets or children, cramped quarters, or fighting for Internet bandwidth with your spouse-turned-coworker.
Most of us have enjoyed the occasional child or pet interruption in our Zoom calls during the pandemic. But juggling these distractions on a daily basis can be a challenge for long-term telecommuters. To simulate a typical office environment, you’ll ideally want to find space for equipment that has reliable Wi-Fi and offers privacy for Zoom calls.
How companies can support remote employees
Companies can make it easier for employees to create this workspace by:
Offering a remote work equipment stipend. Buffer’s State of Remote Work report found that 75 percent of companies don’t pay for staff’s home Internet, and 71 percent don’t pay for the cost of a coworking membership. Providing this support as a monthly stipend ensures your team has the equipment they need to work from home effectively.
Encouraging specific “office hours.” Ask your team members to sit down with whomever they share space with at home and agree to set times where they’re guaranteed a quiet work environment. That way, there are minimal distractions.
Investing in a good pair of noise-canceling headphones. Consider getting everyone on your team a pair of noise-canceling headphones to ease the transition to blocking out “home noises” during the workday. This can help everyone stay focused and increase their productivity.
The secrets of remote work success at Zendesk
For Zendesk, the global pandemic meant rethinking and realigning our practices, tools, and services. We adopted a digital-first, virtual-everyday mindset and grounded our efforts firmly in the idea that digital and virtual were key drivers for our workforce, our workplace, and how we work. Though this was no small feat, it enabled us to cope with the changes COVID-19 brought and embrace an evolving world.
To help set up your team for remote success, take a page out of our playbook with these top tips from Fidelma Butler, Vice President of Talent & Organization Development, and Irene Chang, Director of Organizational Development.
Start with a culture of constant improvement
Zendesk was well-equipped for the shift to remote work, in part because experimentation has always been championed here.
“We had already introduced the concepts of giving feedback to anyone at any time, thinking about how we measure engagement more frequently, and testing and building skills around agility [before COVID-19],” Butler said. “I think that’s why we were able to get a bit of a faster start than some other organizations.”
Embrace the new normal
As a company that embraces evolution, Zendesk is eagerly accepting the way COVID-19 has changed the workplace culture. The company has reimagined how its distributed teams can work together successfully while being physically apart and has taken great strides to support its employees as they shift to remote work.
“We’ve been really thoughtful about how we make an inclusive experience, regardless of where you’re working from,” Chang said. “When the pandemic started, we decided to start providing wellness subsidies to all our employees. We’ve also rethought our benefits to include Internet subsidies and support for parents and caregivers.”
“We’ve been really thoughtful about how we make an inclusive experience, regardless of where you’re working from.”
Irene Chang, Director of Organizational Development
Going remote has also ended up serving as a great equalizer: Zendesk’s physical workspaces weren’t necessarily optimized for a mix of in-person and remote collaboration before, but now that all employees are joining meetings via Zoom, the experience is the same. “One unexpected benefit is that everyone’s own ‘Zoom square’ in meetings has made our meeting culture more inclusive,” Chang said. “This is one thing we are striving to preserve once some of us return to the office.”
Indeed, Zendesk is comfortable with letting go of the past in favor of new growth. “We aren’t trying to strictly preserve every aspect of our [pre-COVID] culture,” added Butler. “Forty percent of our team is now remote—so our culture is naturally going to evolve into being remote and digital-first, and we embrace that.”
[Related read: Transitioning to a remote workforce]
Put a CRM to work for your remote teams
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for companies learning how to navigate a remote work culture. To have a successful transition, you should start by taking stock. Weigh the unique challenges and benefits of remote work based on your organization’s needs and vision for growth.
If you’re ready to take the plunge, a CRM can ease the transition to remote work. It helps you keep open lines of communication with your team so everyone stays on the same page—no matter where they’re logging in from.