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5 misconceptions about remote work, debunked

The challenges of making remote work effective and fair are real, but not insurmountable

5 min

I used to fit my life around my job. Now I’m accustomed to fitting my job into my life.

Two years of working remotely has caused that shift, and I don’t know if I’m even able to go back to the way I juggled work and life before. I guarantee I’m not the only person feeling that way.

According to the Pew Research Center, only 23 percent of workers in jobs that could be done from home were frequently working remotely before the coronavirus pandemic. During the pandemic, that number peaked at 71 percent and is currently at 59 percent. While a majority of those workers early in the pandemic said they were working from home because their offices were closed, the proportion has flipped, and now the majority say they’re working from home because they want to. Remote work has evolved from a rare ad-hoc accommodation to a preferred way of life.

Of course, certain concerns about the downsides of remote work keep surfacing.

Remote work makes it too hard to manage and measure performance

As with most managerial challenges, the solution comes down to training. In a report for the New America Better Life Lab, former Washington Post journalist Brigid Schulte, author of “Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time,” offers an extensively researched toolkit to help managers and businesses adapt to a “corona-normal” way of work that is effective and equitable.

Instead of focusing on employee inputs — face time and attendance — Schulte says managers need to be trained to focus on performance outputs to measure performance. As we’re learning from discussions of shorter workweeks, time spent on the clock is not necessarily the most accurate indicator of productivity. “This is a pivotal moment for business executives, organizational leaders, and managers to reimagine work," says Schulte.

The four-day workweek is gaining ground in Europe. It’s time Americans give it a serious look.

In-person work is crucial for facilitating random encounters that lead to innovation

It may seem that inspiration, like lightning, strikes unpredictably. But there are ways to create favorable conditions for inspiration besides physically herding everyone into one location for days on end and hoping for sparks.

Defined, intentional brainstorming sessions with a structured agenda create space to focus and build on ideas that might otherwise flare out. Open chat time before or after virtual meetings offers everyone informal access to leaders. Internal communication channels and discussion boards like Slack can stand in as virtual hallways and water coolers. This opens the floor to everyone who has ideas — not just those with the loudest voices or the chutzpah to buttonhole leaders in passing to pitch their ideas.

Truly committed workers will want to return to the office. Those who don’t are less engaged or don’t want to work hard.

Multiple studies showing at-home workers put in more hours than they did at the office would suggest otherwise.

It’s not that people don’t want to work hard. It’s that they don’t want to work harder than is necessary to get the job done. Getting up early for work has a purpose if you’re speaking with people in a different time zone or if that’s when you’re at your sharpest. But having flexible hours serves a purpose, too: minimizing fatigue and schedule conflicts.

Empty cubicles, easy commute. My first day back in the office.

Tacking unnecessary constructs and expectations onto a job that do nothing to enhance performance (commute, early start time, neckties, high-heeled shoes, agenda-less weekly meetings) is what saps engagement.

Hybrid workplaces create a multi-tier reward structure where in-person workers receive more opportunities than remote workers

Not if you don’t let them. It’s true that promotions and opportunities are often heavily influenced by proximity bias and familiarity bias, relying on subjective measures like “visibility” and “cultural fit.” But that’s passive, lazy management. Good management means quantifying expectations, measuring output rather than input, and getting to know workers well enough to match them with appropriate projects and goals regardless of how often you see their faces.

Multi-tier structures already existed in the pre-pandemic office. Workers who were being talked over in meetings, subjected to microaggressions, or having their time and concentration hijacked by passersby were already at a functional disadvantage. Hybrid and remote work can help minimize those disruptions, and virtual interactions can help put workers on more equal footing. As Schulte puts it: “Everyone’s head is the same size in a virtual window.”

Microaggressions at the office can make remote work even more appealing

Remote workers become disconnected from their colleagues

Digital communication channels can compensate for much of the day-to-day hallway and water-cooler chatter, and they are accessible to everyone regardless of location, status, mobility or other obstacles. But they can’t provide the full 4D immersion of nonverbal human communication, and they don’t work as well for new hires who lack established connections.

Periodic, planned in-person gatherings (under coronavirus-safe conditions) can help revive or kick-start connections that solidify over time through follow-up conversations, collaborations and one-on-one meetups — much the same way pre-pandemic networking events and conventions did.

Worried about meeting co-workers at your new all-remote job? Here are some tips.

In many cases, the problems cited with remote work — “presenteeism,” inequality, disengagement, lack of visibility — existed with the in-person model. Remote work, properly implemented, is increasingly an essential feature of the workplace. We just need to learn to use it properly.