Top 6 Challenges of Working Remotely (Plus Solutions)

With or without the pandemic, working remotely is here to stay. In this article, we discuss some of the top challenges and how to overcome them.

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Working from home or remotely is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it fosters flexibility and, when done right, can boost individual and team productivity significantly. But on the other, it’s riddled with challenges.

In this guide, we discuss some of the most common working-from-home problems remote workers experience and what employers can do to squeeze the most benefit out of remote work.

The 6 most challenging things about working remotely and how to overcome them:

  • Maintaining communication
  • Keeping track of employee performance
  • Securing your network
  • Work-life balance
  • Isolation
  • Poor health habits

Challenges for managers and employers

The first three challenges of remote work present themselves to managers and employers. Moving to remote work constitutes a shift for everyone involved, but these three aspects of running a business become even more important to managers and employers when staff is remote.

1. Maintaining communication

The value of communication within organizations cannot be overstated, primarily because when communication in the workplace breaks down, the results can be devastating. Missed deadlines, products or services not meeting quality guidelines, erosion of trust, relational breakdown, overworked staff, low morale, high turnover, unhappy clients — and on and on the wheel of misfortune goes.

When teams are located across time zones, communication issues can easily arise, especially without the added context provided by tone and body language.

As such, when managing a remote team, it’s crucial that you:

  • Clarify communication expectations right out of the gate. Establish a remote work policy that includes who to contact in case of emergency, the communication channels to use and in what situations they can be used, frequency of communication, when to give or receive feedback and on what topics, etc.
  • Designate regular hour blocks for employees to all be online, depending on their time zones
  • Adopt cloud-based remote tools for communication and collaboration, such as Slack, Skype, Zoom, Trello, etc.

2. Keeping track of employee performance

According to a Paychex study that looked into the state of freelance work during the COVID-19 pandemic, "about 39% of respondents freelanced while on the clock for their primary job." Although only 69% admitted to having the capacity to do their full-time job from any location, the bigger problem is time theft, which is a billion-dollar problem plaguing companies today.

Of course, you want your staff to be productive while on company time. You want them focused on their assigned tasks and on track to meet their goals without overexerting themselves. But you also don’t want to be the overbearing boss constantly breathing down everybody’s necks.

To keep a healthy balance, consider the following remote work best practices:

  • Set expectations, specifically team and individual goals for the short and long term, and lay out the metrics you will be using to gauge employee performance
  • Keep track of everyone’s productivity using project management or time-tracking software
  • Schedule check-ins to understand how people are faring and see if they need any form of support

3. Securing your network

When it comes to cybersecurity, studies show that the biggest risk is employee negligence, with 47% of business leaders admitting that human error was the root cause of a data breach at their company. According to Trend Micro, all it takes is just a click on an infected link or an employee opening a malicious attachment, and your company’s "entire cybersecurity posture is at risk."

Such scenarios underscore the importance of employee training and proactive (but reasonable) remote management in strengthening your company’s cybersecurity defenses.

  • Educate your remote staff on the different tactics hackers use to get them to divulge proprietary information or login credentials, such as phishing, keylogging, fraudulent websites, drive-by downloads, ransomware, spyware, and Trojans.
  • Encourage them to use virtual private networks (VPNs) to encrypt the data they send and receive, especially when they’re connecting from unsecured public Wi-Fi hotspots.
  • When possible, have them use multi-factor authentication, which requires an additional log-in factor aside from passwords to confirm their identity, such as a PIN code, fingerprint or facial scan, an ID card, or a security token.
  • Inform them that although cybersecurity tools can do a good job of protecting networks and infrastructures, security technologies are not necessarily impervious to attacks. Given the sophistication of the modern-day hacker, companies can still fall victim to zero-day attacks and other threats despite established protections.

Challenges for remote workers

Workers can face plenty of challenges when working remotely; here are three of the most common.

1. Work-life balance

The early days of what’s been dubbed the "biggest work-from-home experiment" were peppered with difficulties. According to a Bloomberg report six weeks after mandatory work-from-home orders:

  • People were working three hours longer.
  • Employees were stressed and overworked and couldn’t wait to go back to the office.
  • VPN provider SurfShark recorded a spike in internet usage between midnight to 3 a.m., which wasn’t a normal occurrence pre-COVID-19.
  • A web designer whose bedroom doubled as his workplace had to set up meal reminders.
  • With living spaces turned into makeshift offices, people were working all the time.
  • People felt pressured to show their managers they were working, lest they get laid off.

Needless to say, the sudden shift from onsite to remote work proved disastrous in several ways.

Although many of the world’s economies are starting to reopen and many employees have started going back to the office, a survey by Upwork found that about 25% of Americans will continue to work remotely in 2021. The survey also expects about 36.2 Americans to be working remotely by 2025 "as businesses adapt and … [alter] their long-term plans to accommodate this way of working,” says Adam Ozimek, Upwork’s chief economist.

For those of us who will continue working remotely, achieving a proper work-life balance will most likely remain a struggle, but the following tips for working remotely can allow you to stay productive, healthy, and, most importantly, sane:

  • Structure your workday: Managing your time is hard enough even without the added pressures of a pandemic. Add in-home challenges, such as chores and taking care of the kids, and you just might find yourself pulling your hair out in frustration. Impose a structure on your workday to stay on track and keep distractions at bay.
  • Create a to-do list: But don’t just make the list — remember to tick off items as you complete them. Actually crossing off tasks signifies you’re making progress and can be very satisfying.
  • Follow a routine: Don’t dive straight into work mode as soon as you get up. Follow your usual morning routine.
  • Take breaks: Even when you get too busy, remember to take breaks, especially when your focus starts to dwindle. Designate your lunch break for self-care — eat mindfully, hydrate, take a short nap, unplug, do some stretching, take a short stroll, meditate, etc.
  • Stop when it’s time to stop: It can be tempting to continue working even when it’s time to clock out. Resist the urge, or you’ll be setting yourself up for burnout.

2. Isolation

Feeling lonely at work happens, but working and connecting from home can magnify the risk.

  • In a Gensler Research Institute study that surveyed more than 2,000 full-time U.S. workers, 70% of the respondents admitted wanting to "work in the office for the majority of their week," primarily because they miss in-person meetings and connecting face to face with colleagues.
  • Igloo Software’s 2020 State of the Digital Workplace Report found that 80% of remote workers feel left out.

We’re social beings, and we can’t help it that we crave social interaction. It’s what makes us humans, after all. So what can we do?

  • Unplug: If all you do is work, you miss out on bonding time with family and friends. So create a work-from-home schedule that takes into account your home and family situation and stick with it.
  • Make new friends (or maintain the friendships you already have): Studies show that office friendships can make a job more enjoyable. Informal conversations play a big part in enabling and sustaining workplace friendships, so become part of group chats, share a photo of your pet, participate in healthy banter, and so on.
  • Work outside the home at least once a week: Being cooped up at home for long periods can exacerbate feelings of isolation, so try working in a safe place outside the home, such as a cafe or the library, when you can.

3. Poor health habits

Following a remote work routine is critical not just for productivity but also for staying healthy. Your sleep pattern gets disrupted if you procrastinate during the day only to work late to make up for lost time.

Other unhealthy habits remote workers tend to develop include:

  • Prolonged sitting: Sitting too much is not necessarily a bad habit but an occupational hazard. If your work requires you to sit in front of the computer most of the day, your chances of developing or increasing cardiovascular problems increase exponentially. Stand when you have the chance, take a walking or stretching break after every 30 minutes of work, or use a standing desk.
  • Not eating on time: Lunch and snack breaks are usually scheduled when you’re in the office. Institute the same structure in your routine when working remotely.
  • Overeating: When you multitask and are constantly distracted, it's easy to overeat without realizing it. This can be especially likely if you stock your desk drawer with snacks or you work in the kitchen where the pantry is just a few steps away. Keep those goodies out of your reach, or better yet, replace them with healthier alternatives.

Overcoming remote work challenges

Remote work is not going away anytime soon, nor are the challenges that come with it. However, by following best practices and experimenting to figure out what works and what doesn’t, you can mitigate its downsides and reap its many benefits.

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Teresa Kersten, an employee of LinkedIn, a Microsoft subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Atlassian, Microsoft, Slack Technologies, and Zoom Video Communications. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.