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When it comes to remote work, be careful what you wish for

There can be unintended consequences for employees who work remotely or whose hours are flexible.
Employees Work From Home As U.S. Coronavirus Cases Rise Slightly
There are no co-workers around to see you sneak a few extra pieces of candy in the afternoon, which might be why more than half of pandemic remote workers report gaining weight.Daniel Acker / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Our workplaces are changing in real time. The corner office is often no longer in the corner of a building. It may be in another corner of the world or in the corner square on Teams or Zoom meetings.

Employees are embracing that flexibility at work. Slack’s Future Forum Pulse study of more than 10,000 professionals early this year found that 94 percent of respondents wanted flexibility on when they worked and 79 percent wanted flexibility on where they worked. But all of this freedom can come with some drawbacks, too. 

The melding of work and home can take a toll — sometimes even from aspects of the arrangement that seem most appealing.

There can be unintended consequences for employees working remotely with flexible hours, so workers angling to make their remote setups or looser hours permanent should be aware of the downsides. I say this as an executive coach who has clients on both sides of the employer-employee line, so this isn’t an effort to cow workers clamoring for fewer restrictions. 

Remember that old expression “out of sight, out of mind”? There’s a reason that warning has been around so long. No longer do people get to rub shoulders in person with their company’s leadership at the proverbial water cooler, in the cafeteria, on the elevator … . They may only see them occasionally online, or perhaps never!

That can mean that when an opportunity arises, whether it’s being chosen as a project manager for a new initiative or being considered for a significant promotion, a lack of visibility can hurt one’s chances. While it’s not “supposed” to matter, a recent study from the U.K. found this to be true — remote workers were less likely to get the promotion over their on-site counterparts “due to reduced face-to-face interaction with colleagues and managers.” 

Remote employees and those who aren’t working the traditional 9-to-5 can also lose out on the energizing team camaraderie that comes with consistently interacting with co-workers. This is referred to as the “silo” effect, in which everyone is working in their own world and, instead of having the mentality of what’s best for the customer or organization, they do what’s best for themselves. When the silo effect is eliminated, it enhances collaboration and creativity.

But it’s not just a person’s advancement in the workplace that can suffer. Though each person handles remote work differently, and some have found it an outright godsend during the pandemic, the melding of work and home can take a toll — sometimes even from aspects of the arrangement that seem most appealing. 

Casual dress has gotten a big boost from at-home work, and the desire to work in comfortable sweats rather than heels or a tie makes sense. If nobody is around to see your pants, why wear them? You’ve canceled haircuts. Put off the shower for a day or two. Running to pick up the kids in the afternoon barely requires shoes. Research has shown that what we wear for work can help us feel more accomplished. A recent survey by an online shopping site found nearly 80 percent of people who dress more formally said they feel productive compared to just 50 percent of those in sweats. And four years before the pandemic, Scientific American reported on findings that wearing formal business attire “increased abstract thinking — an important aspect of creativity and long-term strategizing.” 

There are also no co-workers around to see you sneak a few extra pieces of candy in the afternoon. A study published by Frontiers in Public Health found that 55 percent of respondents reported gaining weight while working remotely during the pandemic, as well as an increased snacking habit. Researchers found the weight gain was due to spending more time sitting and dealing with extra stress, along with the deterioration of eating habits.  

And while it can feel like a relief not to have to make small talk every day with the office nudnik, Harvard Business Review found that loneliness at work can lead to health problems, reduced productivity and burnout. You don’t realize how much of an impact those watercooler talks have until you are without the watercooler and your work friends. (If, of course, that fits with your personality. There have been studies showing some people feel a mental health boost working at home, so you have to know yourself well enough to do what’s best for you.)  

Similarly, if you are a social butterfly who gets energy from physically interacting with people, the daily motivation you must drum up without colleagues nearby can start to wear on you. Having flexibility and being at home sounds good, but if you aren’t a self-starter who can operate solo, you can get stressed. 

Keeping a flexible schedule at home can also lead to putting things off and being easily distracted. An Indeed survey found nearly 2 in 3 remote workers said they had more distractions at home and missed the structure of the office. That’s not to say working onsite doesn’t present its own distractions, which many do report, but I’ve found employees are less likely to lose track of time scrolling through social media when they know someone could see them doing it.

Of course, many staffers won’t have a choice in where they have to show up. If they find themselves working remotely and experiencing any of these challenges, it’s important for them to speak up and talk to their leaders and teammates about how they can stay involved and be more engaged. Leaders, especially at the senior level, need to think differently and collaborate with remote employees to innovatively create better workspaces, more connection among one another and novel solutions to improve the remote working experiences. For workers, at least having an awareness of the potential pitfalls can provide more chances to avoid them and make the most of remote work.