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Remote work has been on a steady rise over the past few years. While 4.7 million people were already working from home in January 2020, the number has dramatically increased since COVID-19 forced the rest of the nation’s workforce to adapt to WFH models.
Owl Labs reports that 1 in 2 people will not be returning to jobs that don’t offer remote work. According to a study from Upwork, 73% of all departments are projected to have remote workers by 2028. In short, no matter where you are, it looks increasingly like the future workplace will include remote working at least in some capacity.
Yet, in spite of its growing popularity and soaring support, remote work isn’t for everyone. SmartGift’s Back to Work series will be looking at the benefits and challenges of remote work, offering workplace solutions to help both employees and employers accommodate the new normal.
Pro: Remote work provides more time for employee wellness.
Con: Remote work makes it harder for employees to create boundaries between personal time and work time.
A study conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that four in ten adults working from home have more flexibility to choose their hours. These workers reported relative ease in balancing work life, leisure activities, and family responsibilities. For many, the elimination of a daily commute (not to mention that half an hour spent stuck in traffic) significantly reduced stress and anxiety, allowing workers an extra pocket of time to catch up on sleep, exercise, or eat breakfast before starting the work day.
But looking beyond its immediate benefits, remote work has also led to blurry lines of separation between work hours and personal life. A study of more than a thousand remote employees by Twingate shows that remote jobs are causing workers to lose a sense of work-life balance.
Though people have more flexibility with regards to when they choose to work, many have reported mental exhaustion from responding to work emails past the usual office hours or attending numerous video calls a day, where it is harder to focus.
Indeed’s Employee Burnout Report recently disclosed that 52% of surveyed respondents felt burned out, of which 38% were working virtually and 28% onsite. The lack of clear boundaries made it difficult for those working remotely to unplug from work—53% WFH employees reported working longer hours as they felt pressure from management, customers, or clients.
To combat this fatigue, companies like Credit Suisse have offered its bankers a “bonus” lifestyle allowance of $20,000. While other Wall Street firms like Houlihan Lokey are combatting stress levels at the office by giving their employees all-expense paid vacations.
If you’re working remotely and struggling to make time for yourself, try recreating traditional office hours by unplugging from your work computer (or Slack app) at the same time every day. Making time to find fulfilment outside of work—whether through a new hobby, spending time with your pet, or some self-care—increases motivation, wellness, and significantly manages workplace stresses.
Pro: Working remotely reduces office distractions from co-workers, resulting in a happier and more efficient work life.
Con: The lack of informal interactions with co-workers causes increased feelings of social isolation, loneliness, and WFH burnout.
A 2019 survey conducted by Udemy shows that “interruption prone offices” not only stress employees, but leave them feeling less motivated, frustrated, and less productive. 54% of respondents cited small talk and office gossip as the primary reason for disruptions and toxic workplace environments. According to a UC Irvine study, even a brief interruption can double an employee’s error rate.
Since 2020, remote employees have consistently counted distractions from co-workers among reasons against returning to the office. But does remote work limit effective workplace communication in addition to distractions from a chatty colleague?
With the increasing number of virtual workplace tools such as Google Calendar, Asana, and Teams, it’s significantly easier to navigate effective workplace communication remotely. However, regardless of how sharp your communication skills are, remote work can lead to increased feelings of social isolation and uncertainty, especially among new hires or younger workers.
Many corporate leaders such as Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella believe that “digital technology should not be a substitute for human connection.” Forbes delineates loneliness and isolation as the largest reported concern among remote workers, adding that, “being isolated also means these symptoms are difficult for employers to detect.”
According to The Atlantic, remote work can lead to a “misery of loneliness”, a gateway to depression, sedentary behavior, and relationship damage. Buffer’s 2020 State of Remote Work report similarly showed that loneliness was the biggest struggle among remote workers, comparable to problems with collaboration and the lack of verbal communication.
Research has shown that work friendships are crucial for long-term happiness in most jobs.
If you’re working onsite and struggling with distractions from colleagues, try to plug in earphones while working, or book a time in a private conference room. Also, opt to check-in socially with your colleagues over a walk, coffee, or lunch instead of in the break room. This engagement provides emotional support at the office, helps with stress management, and creates a more fulfilled feeling at work.
If you’re working remotely and fully vaccinated, try to recreate some of those informal water-cooler hangouts by suggesting an informal meetup. If your workers don’t share the same locale with you, try doing the same with virtual tools such as Facetime, Teams, or Zoom. While these conversations might take up some of your time, they are more than a necessary part of company culture that affect employee and company well-being.
Pro: Remote work dips into a larger and more diverse talent pool, lessening discrimination at the workplace.
Con: Remote work is likely to worsen age discrimination; Increased isolation from WFH leads to more isolated ways of thinking, and is likely to damage efforts to combat prejudice.
Remote work and hiring practices present increased opportunities to welcome employees from groups that have been marginalized in the past. This includes new parents, single parents, lower-wage employees, women of color, older workers, as well as candidates with disabilities. Since remote work means people can work from anywhere, candidates no longer need to accommodate high rents just to live where their company is located. This can encourage richer and more diverse talent pools, less racial or gender inequality in the workplace, helping many companies diversify their teams.
While remote work increases ethnic, age, and gender diversity, it is also likely to impact workplace ethics and efforts to combat racism, ageism in the workplace, and other prejudiced attitudes.
Increased isolation may also lead to more isolated ways of thinking. The polling company Survation for the Woolf Institute suggests that workplace friendships are key to understanding people from different backgrounds, discussing issues, and dismantling many related misconceptions. However, unemployed people, and workers in isolated settings, are 37% more likely to have friends only from their own ethnic group.
Furthermore, people from more traditionally marginalized backgrounds remain most vulnerable in remote settings as they find themselves without a support system.
Another contributing factor to remote discrimination is ageism in the workplace. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act, intended to prohibit the use of an applicant’s age as a factor in hiring and promoting, hasn't been upheld by many companies.
Statistics show that 1 in 5 discrimination complaints is related to ageism. This number has been increasing throughout the pandemic as older employees have been considered less adept to handle technology used in remote work.
The Economic Policy Institute claims that more than 5 million people 65 years and older have not been able to telecommute. A study from The New School of Social Research showed that people over the age of 50 were immensely impacted by the recession and subsequent lay-offs.
In a culture that promotes youth and young workers, it’s especially important for all employees to be able to work without negative comments or treatment from their employers and colleagues.
A study by Asana shows that burnout is more common among workers over the age of 45. If you’re an employer, it’s important that your older workers feel like they’re in an equal opportunity environment.
Employees feel wary of special treatments, and favoritism in the workplace is less likely to help them perform to their potential. To manage these stresses, increase check-ins and vary feedback venues for older demographics. It’s also important to inform and educate younger managers how to work with older coworkers as well as employees from diverse backgrounds.
Whether your job is remote, onsite, full time, or part time, it’s important to remember that each work environment and workplace culture comes with its own sets of perks and drawbacks. In 2021, the workplace is in a state of transition, and its people are still adjusting to post-pandemic changes in their working life.
Back to Work is a weekly series that explores the challenging, exciting, and unprecedented time of transitioning back to work through the lens of those involved.
As part of our mission to recognize workplace heroes, SmartGift aims to spotlight how fostering connection, transparency in communication, and workplace appreciation can affect company culture and the bottom line. Over the forthcoming weeks, Back to Work will highlight how managers, employers, and employees continue to be affected by this transition in American work culture.