Downsides remote work

How to Avoid A Key Downside of Remote Work

March 17, 2020

Zarvana is a fully remote team, spanning three continents. Founder and CEO Matt Plummer has spent the last 3.5 years working remotely, first at strategy consultancy, The Bridgespan Group, and then Zarvana.

With the number of remote workers growing over the last several years and the many more who have been pushed into remote work temporarily due to the coronavirus, an important question must be answered: Is there a downside to remote work and if so, how can you avoid it?

A varied and growing body of research shows that remote work offers a compelling set of benefits over traditional office work, including:

However, working remotely and especially from your home, also commonly has the downside of blurring the lines between work and life. On the one hand, this has some advantages. According to a survey conducted by Buffer, the most common reason people give for wanting to work remotely is the flexibility of schedule. Working remotely makes it easier to work when you want, tackle personal tasks during your workday, take a nap when tired, and handle family responsibilities during the workday.

Yet, on the other hand, because work is more accessible and you lack your normal prompts to start and stop work, you may end up working more than you would in the office. The same survey by Buffer reports that unplugging after work is the greatest struggle remote workers face.

A survey by Gallup found that remote workers spend four more hours per week on the job than their peers in offices.

Is the blurring of lines a downside of remote work?

Some would suggest that the blurring of the lines between work and life is only good. The phrase “work-life integration,” which embodies this ideology, has gained increasing popularity in recent years as an alternative to the concept of work-life balance. Productivity guru, David Allen, has added to this notion by describing work as “anything you need to get done.”

At its simplest, work-life integration proposes that you see everything you have to do as part of a single category that you then prioritize and complete in priority order. It doesn’t matter that paying a utility bill is traditionally considered part of your “life.” If it’s higher priority than completing that slide presentation, then do it at 10am on a Tuesday.

While in theory, this can make sense, it’s very challenging to do in practice. First, you’re significantly increasing the number of tasks you must prioritize by lumping life and work tasks into a single category, which will make prioritization decisions slower and more difficult.

Second, there are real switching costs associated with changing headspaces throughout your day. While many already find it somewhat challenging to switch between projects or clients during a workday, switching between work and life tasks requires that you bridge an even larger gap, requiring more time and mental energy.

Third, most work tasks are linked to clear incentives and external accountability, making you think they are high priority. In contrast, many important life tasks – spending time with loved ones or sleep – lack these critical drivers of performance. In fact, you may not even think to add them to your to-do list.

While dividing your time into two buckets – work and life – and pitting them against each other is unlikely to yield great results, throwing everything into the same bucket can easily allow work to override life or life to sap your productivity at work. As technology has made it possible to stay connected to work 24/7, we have seen this very thing happen, leading to significant increases in work-related stress and burnout.

The point in this article is that blurring the lines between work and life can offer some benefits, but you must be proactive to protect against this downside of remote work. (If you’re wondering how to think about work vs. life if work-life balance and work-life integration aren’t optimal, read our article on work-life equation or watch our free training on work-life satisfaction.)

What you can do to avoid this downside of remote work

To protect against these downsides, you need to re-sharpen the lines between work and life to some extent. This doesn’t mean you should self-impose the rigidity you just escaped, but you should add guardrails to your days to prevent work from overriding life as the lines blur. Here’s how you can re-sharpen the lines by creating some of the prompts and structure that existed when you traveled to the office:

Pick a start and stop time

You have more time in your day because you’re not commuting, dealing with as many interruptions, or spending as much time getting ready. If you’re not intentional, work will fill those moments. Picking start and stop times re-defines the lines. Create prompts to remind you of these lines by scheduling your first work task each morning and either the first non-work task each night or last work task of your day. You don’t need to follow these prompts in draconian fashion but having them will remind you to start and stop work close to when you intend.

Form a new morning routine

You’ve undoubtedly operated with a morning routine – whether consciously or unconsciously – when you worked in an office. You now need a new one. Habits occur when cues in your environment or in your internal state prompt you to engage in specific behaviors. At home, your cues will be different. You won’t be packing your work bag, getting off the subway, filling your coffee cup in the office kitchen, or sitting down to your desk.

Think through the behaviors you would like to engage in from the time you wake up through at least your first work task, and then either schedule recurring appointments into your calendar or create a checklist that you check off each morning (you can use a tool like Listables to do this).

You’re doing this to avoid grabbing for your phone when you first wake up (80% of people check their phones within 15 minutes of waking up), seeing that work email, and heading straight to your laptop without brushing your teeth. That is the path of least resistance and without a new, deliberate morning routine, you’ll likely slip into a routine driven by unconscious desires and compulsions.

Form an evening routine

If you don’t have a clear or engaging idea of how you’re going to spend your evening – which is almost certainly the case if you’re semi-quarantined for the coronavirus – you’ll find it difficult to resist the temptation to do more work at night. This isn’t to say that you should never work at night. However, it’s important that you give yourself the opportunity to recover and when you do work at night, you want it to be a conscious and thoughtful choice rather than something you slipped into without choosing.

Working at night when there is nothing else exciting to do may seem harmless, but over time, it will lead to exhaustion and can even reduce your motivation to take on work during the normal workday. To prevent this, think through what you’ll do after work either as a routine or on a daily basis. Schedule it into your calendar (which will act as a prompt for your stop time) and/or share your plan with someone you share life with for accountability.

Work-Life Satisfaction: An alternative to work-life integration

Remote work leads to a more flexible and integrated life and there are clear benefits to this, but the blurring of these lines can result in a lifestyle where work overrides or life reduces your productivity at work. Re-sharpening the lines between work and life can help avoid these downsides.

In addition to these three activities, consider the notion of work-life satisfaction as an alternative to work-life balance and work-life integration. Work-life satisfaction says, at a minimum, that work doesn’t reduce your satisfaction with life and life doesn’t reduce your satisfaction with work. At its best, work enhances your satisfaction with life and vice versa. As you go through remote work for the first time or continue your norm, track your work-life satisfaction with these simple questions:

  • Is work negatively or positively affecting my satisfaction life?
  • Is life negatively or positively affecting my satisfaction with work?

(For more on this topic, watch our free training.)

Remote work can offer some real benefits, but these benefits will be lost if you allow work to override its normal boundaries without intention.