Remote Work Is Not Sustainable For Now

Now that many people have been working remotely for two months, probably everyone is wondering “can this go on forever” and “is it better”.

Many people, especially in the IT industry, as well as other industries that lend themselves to remote work, have been claiming that remote work is the way of the future — working from anywhere, not tied to an office, avoiding commutes, etc., etc.

I’m skeptical about all that. And I’m saying that, having worked for almost two years entirely remotely — not just from home, but 2000km away from the office. And it worked pretty well — I managed to deliver, to stay in touch with the team and to feel okay.

The problem is, that’s me. And I should not extrapolate what has worked for me to everyone else. And even though there are certain advantages of remote work, like less office distractions, no time wasted commuting and the option to do work in the background while “present” in useless meetings, I don’t think it’s a sustainable model. There are certain drawbacks that can be pretty bad — both for the employees and for the company:

  • No routine — getting ready for work, going to work, going to lunch with colleagues, going for afternoon coffee, going home — that’s part of a routine that frames your day. People love routines and they are there for a reason. Not having a routine can take a psychological toll on you. And yes, you can make a routine for yourself at home, but as nothing is forcing you to, it’s less likely that you do it. The default routines that we have while working at an office feel good and feel natural, and people are missing them.
  • No dedicated time for thinking and moving — Commutes are not always wasted — you have time to think, time to read, time to listen to podcasts. If you can walk or bike, that’s good for your health. And for your brain. If you don’t have to walk to work, even if it’s 10 minutes (to and from the station), you have to dedicate time for that. At some point during my 1.5 year remote work, I started going out to randomly walk around the neighborhood around lunch. But that feels odd.
  • No spontaneous communication — while in the office, you “bump” into someone or realize you want to discuss something with someone as you see them in the hallway. Serendipitous conversation don’t happen online. Yes, you can always ping the person you need in whatever messenger you use, but random encounters have different types of benefits (although probably they are hard to measure).
  • Reduced productivity (for some) — I am more productive when left entirely on my own. But many people aren’t. If there’s nobody around to remind you that you are “at work”, you may be inclined to scroll that Facebook news feed a little bit more. And yes, I know studies exist that claim the opposite — the remote workers are more productive. They don’t account for culture and industry, though. A travel company in China is not a software company in Europe. These studies also talk about “idle time” and calculate breaks. But “time in front of the computer” does not equal productivity. And while open-spaces offices are indeed distracting and ruin productivity, that’s a separate issue.
  • Fewer social interactions — that doesn’t matter that much for an introvert, but many people would find it hard to go on for weeks without a random chat in the office kitchen or during lunch. These things matter. And while they may not directly influence productivity, studies reveal that they do affect us negatively (if we are counting “minutes of no work”, they are probably reducing our “productivity”, but that’s the wrong thing to count).

We can probably train ourselves to be more disciplined in order to have better routines and to be more introverted in order to avoid the downsides of reduced social interactions. We can all learn our tools so well, that we don’t spend 5 minutes in the beginning of each call fixing our equipment and settings. But I’m not sure that can happen so easily.

Extended “work-from-home”, on the other hand, is a pretty good approach. If you can have a few days a week to isolate at home and do the important, creative work you need to do, then you get the best of both worlds. If you have the flexibility to choose to work from home, but still have to go to the office regularly, you don’t lose the routine and the social interaction, while still gaining some of the benefits of remote work.

During a pandemic, organizations can create work-from-home schedules to reduce the amount of people present in the office while still allowing their employees to not go crazy staying at home.

Overall, I don’t think we can go full remote so abruptly. If, however, we introduce work from home schedules and make work more flexible, then people will be able to build remote work habits over time, so that forced remote work for a few months will be okay next time. But I don’t think we can abandon the office completely.

Software engineering. Linguistics, algorithmic music composition. Founder at LogSentinel.com

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