The devastating impact of coronavirus across the industries remains to be seen, but one thing is clear – the damage would have been magnitudes greater without the ability of many employees and businesses to work from home.

Remote working was already growing in popularity every year, before the COVID-19 situation temporarily made it the new normal. From 2005 to 2018, the number of Americans who regularly worked from home grew by 173%, according to American Community Service (ACS) data.

As the spread of high-speed internet access and other necessary infrastructure made remote working ever more practical, demand for work-from-home opportunities has grown, especially among younger generations. A 2019 survey by Owl Labs found that more than one third of workers would accept a pay cut up to 5% if this meant they could work remotely at least some of the time.

With Twitter recently telling employees they'll be allowed to continue working remotely "forever" if they choose, it seems that many former office workers have taken to the remote life and may be reluctant to give it up. What's also clear though is that the home office isn't for everyone, and the COVID crisis has emphasized the unique challenges remote workers often face.

What are the challenges of working remotely?

The benefits of remote working are immediately obvious to anyone who's stared wistfully out of the office window, wishing they were at home in their comfy bed or sipping cocktails in a wi-fi equipped beach bar.

In many cases, working away from the office can mean working on your own schedule (as long as targets are met), which can be especially handy for parents raising children. You also get to avoid commutes, gas prices and annoying coworkers.

But, as always, there are downsides. The pitfalls of remote working vary according to job type and personality (e.g. how introverted or extroverted you are), but five common themes are:

  1. Trouble balancing life and work
  2. Time management problems
  3. Isolation or lack of social contact
  4. 4. Interruptions and distractions
  5. 5. Feeling out of the loop

If you're struggling with any of these issues, debating whether to work from home, or an employer wanting to understand what your team may be going through, read these tips for making remote working work for you.

1. Work–life balance

Many of us curse the daily 9-to-5 grind, but a regular structure has its perks – not least for keeping work strictly within work hours.

A common worry of employers is that their staff will slack off and not complete tasks on time without a supervisor looking over their shoulder. While this can be an issue for less motivated workers, those who are committed to working from home are more likely to work more hours, spread across the day.

While this means more flexibility, it can also make it harder to switch off if you're staying in 'work mode' for most of the day. Having your professional and personal lives under the same roof makes this even more of an issue.

Five ways to keep work and life separate

  1. Create a daily schedule of work and other tasks
  2. Have a designated space for working – preferably with an actual desk
  3. Have a designated computer just for work and turn it off when you finish
  4. Turn off notifications and avoid email when you're not working
  5. As tempting as it may be, don't work in your pajamas, as this makes people feel less productive

2. Time management problems

Working from home doesn't always mean setting your own hours, but if you do have this flexibility, you'll quickly find that it involves a lot of self-discipline.

If you often find yourself having to rush to deadlines, struggling to catch up or unsure about which tasks to prioritize, try these time management tips.

Five time management tips

  1. Work to your strengths – plan your work hours for when you're most focused and productive
  2. Set realistic daily goals to avoid overworking or letting yourself down
  3. Get your hardest task out of the way first so it won't hang over you all day
  4. Schedule reminders to take regular breaks for a set amount of time
  5. Use time management apps to help you set reminders and monitor your productivity

3. Feeling isolated

As if it needs saying, spending most of your day at home can be lonely, especially if you live alone or your family and friends are busy doing their own things. While office co-workers can be a mixed bag, they at least provide opportunities to enjoy social contact throughout the day.

For those who've found coronavirus isolation especially painful, working at home for the long term will be decidedly unappealing. But remote working doesn't have to be lonely.

Five tips to avoid isolation

  1. Find a co-working space in your city, so you have the choice to spend some of your time with other remote workers or even find a collaboration partner
  2. Make a local café your secondary office
  3. Make time every day for social breaks, whether it's going out for lunch or after-work activities
  4. Join a local hobby or interest group to make your free time more social
  5. Get off social media and spend time with real people

4. Interruptions and distractions

If you're lucky enough to live with great people, you might not feel isolated, but you may be facing a different kind of challenge – namely people not leaving you alone!

Whether it's your adorable kids not understanding your work-life boundaries (who can forget that BBC interview that went viral a few years ago?) or delivery people and other visitors to your home working on their own schedule, you may feel your home isn't a conducive environment for work.

Then there's our own bad habits of procrastination and distractions that can eat away the work hours.

Five ways to avoid disruptions

  1. Make sure friends and family know your schedule and stick to it
  2. Use a do not disturb sign or other signals (but don't turn off your phone in case of emergencies)
  3. Hire a childcare service rather than trying to balance full-time work and parenting
  4. Uninstall non-work-related apps and block time-wasting sites on your work computer
  5. If your home just isn't cut out to be an office, look for a co-working space or quiet café

5. Feeling out of the loop

A common fear of remote workers is that they'll be forgotten about when they're not seen every day, which could mean missing out on advancement and other opportunities. There's certainly some basis in this FOMO (fear of missing out), but as remote working becomes more commonplace, it can be expected to become less of an issue.

Being physically disconnected from co-workers can also affect collaborative projects, making errors more likely than if you were talking face to face and gathered around the same screen. Remote working therefore involves taking a more active approach to communication and staying involved.

Five ways to stay connected

  • Stay connected with co-workers over social media to keep each other updated and ask questions
  • Be alert for any possible misunderstandings at every stage
  • Attend work parties and industry events
  • Stay up to date and never stop learning to make yourself indispensable to the team
  • Use your free time to explore your career options or work-from-home business ideas without your boss looking over your shoulder

Despite these challenges (and others not mentioned, such as technology problems), remote working can be extremely rewarding for the right sort of person. The events of 2020 have shown just how many jobs and businesses can be successfully run from home, as long as you have the discipline and drive to succeed.

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