The Good and Bad of Full-Time Remote Work
January 26, 2020
In early 2018, my manager called me into her office. I had been anxiously awaiting her decision on a question that would determine my future: would she allow me to work remotely, as I had requested, or would I be looking for a new job? Either way, my wife and I had decided we would be moving to Raleigh, NC in the spring.
It was a quick conversation. She reiterated her confidence in me, and thought we should take a chance on the arrangement. I agreed to visit the home office in Arlington, VA for one week each quarter for some face-time with the team.
I raced down from the sixth floor to our office lobby, and out onto the street to call my wife. We were both incredibly excited! It was actually happening! We were moving, and I got to keep my great job that I had held for almost a decade.
My first few weeks as a remote worker were an adjustment, not only because of the change in my work life, but because we had moved out of state, from a downtown apartment to a house in a quiet neighborhood. There was so much to learn and do, as there always is with a move.
Thankfully, I settled into a new routine relatively quickly, and remote work became my new normal. I found a schedule that works for me, which has also changed as both work and non-work priorities have shifted.
Now, almost two years after starting my career as a full-time remote worker, I’m reviewing my most and least favorite parts about working from home.
First, the great stuff.
It suits my personality
I’m a social introvert. I find one-on-one or small group conversations stimulating, but dislike too many meetings, and want the ability to work quietly on my own for several hours a day. Working remotely works well for this because for the most part, I am working quietly on my own, with no one else around.
This also leads to…
In the cubicle I formerly called my own, I was constantly overhearing (read: distracted) by conversations around me. It’s amazing what counts as acceptable behavior in this kind of environment. People will use speakerphone to talk to vendors and colleagues, talk loudly right outside your desk area, and generally make it very hard to focus.
Open office floor plans are gross, and I can’t believe they are so widespread. The fact that open floor plans are so popular seems obviously connected to cost, but the lost productivity from being constantly distracted and interrupted is also very expensive, and seldom taken into account as far as I can tell.
Some people may thrive (although I’m dubious of the claim) in a work environment where someone is always stopping by to talk to you, and you are constantly interruptible. For me, that sounds like hell. I mostly want to be left alone.
Whereas only managers have private offices at my workplace, at home I can shut my office door and treat myself to a private office. At work I could never shake the feeling that I was being watched, even though I’m quite sure no one cared what I was doing.
Making personal phone calls—think doctor appointments, banking—was extremely hard at the office, unless you didn’t mind everyone else hearing your business. I usually tried to go outside if I needed to make a personal call, since the anonymity of the outdoors was easier than the complete lack of privacy in cubicle land.
Having some privacy just makes me feel better, happier, and more at ease. If I need to call my doctor, I damn well call my doctor. If I need to call my wife, I call my wife. Feeling comfortable at work is a big theme with me. I would contend that being at ease also increases productivity, since it reduces brain cycles spent on non-work-related concerns.
Commutes are one of the greatest wastes of human time, money and energy ever devised. Some people in the DC area, where my home office is located, have commutes of well over an hour each way. That’s insane!
Not having a commute means I have more time to build a rich, fulfilling life outside of work. That in turn leads to greater productivity because I can be a better worker if I’m a happier, healthier person.
Being able to make my own hot lunch is really nice, as is the ability to grab a snack when I want one. Taking lunch to work is something I did on a regular basis before, and while it’s not really a problem, it’s not my ideal either. Much nicer to have a full, well-stocked kitchen available to me at all times.
Relaxed dress code
I hate dress codes and getting dressed up. I consider slacks and a polo shirt dressing up. Look, I was raised on a farm in the Midwest. A T-shirt and jeans was considered the proper attire for most of my life. It didn’t help that I went to a Fundamentalist Christian college that forced us to wear ties every morning.
I like being able to wear what makes me feel comfortable and productive. Worrying about my clothes, or feeling at all restricted by them, makes it hard for me to focus on work. I almost always feel in some way restricted by anything other than sweatpants, jeans, or a T-shirt.
Now, let’s talk about the downsides of working from home. There definitely are some.
Without making an effort, it can be all too easy to live your life entirely within four walls, and I can tell you from experience that that doesn’t lead to good places.
I’m ashamed to admit that there are days when I don’t step outside my front door. I wake up, eat breakfast, shower, sit in front of my computer and work, make dinner, chat with my wife, watch a show, and go to bed. And it’s every bit as boring and monotonous as it sounds.
I really have to make the effort to get out of the house at least once in the day, usually for a walk or a workout. I like to do this over my lunch hour, since it breaks up the day and gives me a respite from mental labors.
Missing out on in-person conversations
There are a lot of conversations that happen in an office that don’t necessarily get communicated to remote team members via email or group chat. When you’re remote, it can sometimes feel like you don’t have a sense of what is really going on. That can make you feel out of touch and left out.
Low-bandwidth communication channels
Email, Slack and video chat are no true substitute for real-time, face-to-face communication. As good as a Hangout or GoToMeeting is, it’s not as good as being in the same room with someone. There are lots of slight emotional nuances that get missed, even using video.
I think this problem is mitigated to some degree when everyone is remote, but even fully remote companies recognize the need to get together every once in a while. I do believe my week-long quarterly visits to the home office help keep me in touch in a really valuable way.
Not having daily interaction with your coworkers can feel lonely at times. I can’t just go out and have a drink or a coffee with a friend from work. I miss out on parties, happy hours, and cook-offs.
Being an introvert, this isn’t as much of a problem for me as it may be for some others, but it’s certainly important to plan ways to socialize outside of work.
I’ve become more intentional over time about scheduling dates with friends. I want to make sure my relationships are healthy so that I’m still getting the social interaction I need to feel supported, happy, and mentally healthy.
So what’s the verdict?
Remote work is awesome. I love it!
I really never want to go back to working in an office, but I have three key qualifications that I would want met in order to be tempted to do so:
- My commute time would need to be less than 15 minutes, and preferably walkable or bikeable
- I would have a private office (as would anyone else doing knowledge work)
- It would be an amazing company doing really exciting work
Working from home rocks, especially if you’re an introvert like me. If you’re an extrovert, or you get lonely easily, it may feel too isolating. Similarly, if you have a hard time sticking to a schedule or routine, you may find it more challenging than going into an office.
It’s not for everyone, but it works really well for me. If you have any questions about remote work, or any comments on what I’ve said, do let me know. I’d love to hear from you.