Why Working Remotely is Harder than You Think
Posted by Corey Smith on Nov 3, 2017 3:20:41 PM
Last year we tested, and then made official, Office Free Friday. It's been a very cool thing for us as a company because it's provided us some much-needed focus time each week where our customers expect us to be a little less available.
If you aren't interested in clicking through to that announcement link, I'll give you the simple gist here. On Fridays, we officially close our office and our phones go directly to voicemail. It's still a working day, but because the office is closed, our employees have an option to work wherever they want.
When we first launched this, it was, as you can imagine, met with excitement from our employees. It's cool when a change happens that gives you more autonomy, flexibility, and freedom. Because of the nature of a web marketing agency, our employees always had the option to work remotely, as needed. Prior to this change, a couple of employees would occasionally take the opportunity to work remotely, but having an official day of the week where it was encouraged to work where they wanted gave more legitimacy to that behavior.
But my biggest surprise was how our customers viewed it. I was worried our clients might complain or be concerned about our availability to work on their projects. I received so many responses of support and even now, when I tell prospective clients that we have Office Free Friday, they all respond very positively.
Human Nature Makes Working Remotely Hard
There are a number of things that make working remote very appealing but are actually challenges in disguise. I won't be able to cover them all here, but figured I'd cover the most common three. I would put these in the category of "The Myth of Working Remotely."
Myth: I'll have time to get so much more done.
For some of our employees, this was hard to overcome. In fact, for a couple of employees, it proved too difficult to overcome. When I first started Tribute Media in 2007, I suddenly found myself moving from going to an office to being home and working from a home office. At the beginning, it frustrated my wife a bit because she figured if I was home, I was available to do more around the house. If the dishes need to be cleaned, the lawn needs to be mowed, or an errand needs to be run, we'll have the attitude, "Oh, I can just drop what I'm doing for work and pick it up later."
The challenge is that you never pick up as much later as you think you will. For decades, we have been wired to think about work from 8am to 5pm. So much so that if we have to be at the office at 7:30 or stay until 5:30 working in a traditional office environment, we bristle at it. The result is that we have a hard time when work falls outside of those hours. Not all of us, but it's very common. When we drop something in the middle of the day, we'll never give as much time and energy to it coming back later.
Myth: I'm so much better without the distractions of the office.
Yeah, I get it, if you are without distractions, you'll naturally get more done. But, the reason why this is a myth is that you'll often trade one set of distractions for another set.
Very related to the first myth, we think we can focus better when the distractions are home-based. But, we'll be more likely to spend time on social media. We're more likely to turn on the TV. If we live with other people (family, roommates, etc.) we are more likely to have talking, childcare, and other interruptions.
"Oh, but I'm a good multitasker!" To that, I say, "No you aren't!"
Myth: If the boss says I can work remotely, he's totally okay with it.
In 2007, Timothy Ferris first published "The 4-Hour Workweek" and introduced employees to another other myth that you can be effective in four hours per week and it's okay to focus on you and no one else. One of the key premises to the book is that your employer will be happy with you as long as you produce.
The idea that you are good as long as you produce is sort of true. The problem is that most employers have the misconception that if they can't see you work then you must not be working. They also have the misconception that if you are at the office, you must be effective in your job. This reminds me of George Costanza who figures if you walk around the office all day holding papers and looking angry then you must be doing your job well.
Even when your boss says he wants you to work remotely, on your own time, in the way that is most effective for you, there is still the nagging feeling in the back of his mind that asks, "What if you aren't actually doing your job?"
How do you overcome these challenges of working remotely?
Obviously, I haven't talked about all the issues that can come from working remotely and, for the right person, I think that a remote work environment is the bee's knees. In fact, I'm writing this blog post remotely right now.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself with some context as to why you might want to have clarity in these areas. Oh, while I'm specifically thinking of the person who works for a company as a full-time employee working remotely, it can also apply to the freelancer/contract employee that is in a full-time or near full-time contract with an employer. Even as a contract employee, the attitudes of employers don't change just because law says it should.
Does your employer get the dedication they deserve?
I'm not saying that you should ignore your personal life. I'm not saying that work should be the most important thing in your life. If your employer is paying you for full-time work, are you actually giving your employer full-time attention?
At Tribute Media, one of our core values is an appropriate work-life balance. But, if you have daily activities that you consistently plan first that are personal in nature when the rest of the office is working, then you probably need to re-evaluate. Remember, it's your work life that affords you many of the activities you enjoy in your personal life.
Are you proactively finding solutions to problems in the organization?
You have a very cool opportunity as a remote employee to begin to see things from an outside perspective. When you have the opportunities to be in an employee review, are you presenting problems you see as opportunities to improve with a proposed solution or are you just complaining? Be cautious to present these solutions at the right time and place, and demonstrate you clearly understand all aspects of it, or you'll just be perceived as a complainer; therefore toxic to the organization.
Are you finding opportunities to make yourself as visible as possible, even on your own dime?
Remember, even when an employer says it's okay to work remotely there is still a nagging feeling in the back of his mind of, "What if you aren't?"
If it means driving a bit or getting on a flight, show up and work for a day or two at the office on a regular basis. Even if it means you pay for the trip yourself. If the entire company is a remote company, this isn't very important but most companies have remote employees and office employees. Being visible as often as you can will help a lot.
When you are visible in office, are you putting in long hours?
Whether on the company dime or on your own dime, when you are in office, this is a cool opportunity to demonstrate that you are willing to do what it takes to make the company successful. Get to the office early and stay late. This is especially important when the company pays for your travel. If the company pays you to be there, then be there more than your boss is there. On the same token here, make sure you are ultra-visible when you are working remotely. Be quick on email, text message, Slack/Skype, etc.
When you are remote, are you doing just the minimum or are you giving extra?
When an employer hires a salaried employee, the expectation is that you work as long as it takes to get the job done. A reasonable employer is going to set that time somewhere between 35 and 45 hours weekly. Occasionally, that time will need to exceed 45 or 50 hours. As a salaried employee, you should expect that in times of short deadlines, you are expected to put in as many hours as necessary to accomplish everything. As a remote full-timer, regardless of what your contract states, the expectation is the same. Never put in the exact minimum. Never tell your employer you are overloaded if your reporting shows that you are doing the exact minimum expected time/activities. Be willing to put in extra time to demonstrate you are a team player. If your contract has a limited number of hours, have the conversation about how to get paid more if hours exceed certain expectations before those expectations are exceeded.
Are you proactively reporting on your work?
Take the time to over-communicate what you are doing on a regular and consistent basis. Be thorough. Don't take contract time to report. This is demonstrating that your employer's money is well spent. Think of your role as a sales person in this sense. You should always be selling your employer on why you are the right person for the job. It's easier to get rid of someone remote than in-person so always find opportunities to demonstrate your value.
If Tribute Media ever decides to start allowing employees to work remote whenever they want, rather than primarily being in-office staff, we'd create a standard format for reporting remote activities. But, if your company doesn't provide this, you'll have to create it. Don't assume your task management system is all the communication needed. Over-communicate.
Is your schedule predictable and understandable?
When an employer says you can work remotely and they say you can work when you want and how you want, they really are saying, "I still want you to be available during the day when I'm working." Of course, that defeats the purpose of working remotely. The easiest way to help the boss is to have a clear calendar and ask your employer to approve that calendar. If you want to take time off in the middle of the day, let your boss know. If you want to shift your schedule to start late and end late, let your boss know. Ask them in-person then follow up with email so there is no doubt what you agreed to.
Where do you go to avoid all distractions?
For me, I have grown to not like working at home at all. There are too many distractions there. I find that I also need a bit of variety. When I have big projects that need to be done, the office is the best place for me and I love having it to go to… even on Office Free Friday. Let your employer know where that place is for you and make it obvious you are regularly using that place.
A final thought
The advent of the 40-hour work week has created in our minds this erroneous thought that work magically begins at 8 am and ends at 5 pm. (read more here) Employees and employers alike have a challenge in overcoming this. When an employer hires you as a full-time salaried employee, whether working on-site or remote, the expectation is that you work the hours required to get the job done. If you have an hourly mentality and you were hired as a salaried employee then you will always have conflict with your employer.
This mentality has nothing to do with the way you are compensated. Even if you are compensated hourly, an employer wants you to focus on his company before you focus on what's important to you… no matter what he may say. It's in our nature. A salary mentality means that if you are asked to put in extra time, you'll do it. If you are asked to work late, you'll do it. If you are asked to be available when you are on vacation, you'll do it. If your employer takes advantage of this, find another job, but you should still be willing to do it while you are getting your paycheck.
If you want to be a remote, full-time employee, ask yourself the question, "Do you have an hourly or salary mentality?" If the answer is an hourly mentality, then working remotely is going to be more difficult for you. Much more difficult.
Written by Corey Smith
Corey Smith is the founder of Tribute Media and serves as the Digital Marketing Strategist. He is also the author of "Do It Right: A CEO's Guide to Web Strategy" and "Tweet It Right: A CEO's Guide to Twitter."