No soul-crushing commute. No managers or co-workers hanging over your shoulder. No one stealing your lunch from the office fridge. Remote work is wonderful. But it’s not without its challenges.
Ask anyone who works remotely as a telecommuter or from home running their own business: It’s not all rainbows and unicorns. A recent report from the United Nations International Labour Organization found that while employees are more productive when they work outside of the conventional office, they’re also more vulnerable to working longer hours, a more intense work pace, work-home interference, and, in some cases, greater stress.
I asked over four dozen remote workers to share their biggest challenges–and how to overcome them. Whether you’re thinking about working remotely or are currently a remote worker, you’ll be happier and more productive when you meet these challenges head on.
Working Too Much
One of the reasons many managers don’t approve of remote work is they fear employees will slack off without that physical, in-person oversight. But, in fact, the opposite tends to be the reality–remote workers are more likely to overwork. When your personal life and your work are both under the same roof, it’s harder to “switch off.”
“When does the work day start? End? Creating a hard line between work/home is tough,” says author and coach Jeff Gothelf. And if you work for yourself, he adds that you might be in never-ending sales mode, which can be exhausting.
Here at Zapier, we’re a 100% remote company. Several members of our team confess they have a hard time remembering to take breaks, stopping work at a reasonable time, and even knowing when is a reasonable time to stop. As someone who has been working from home for over 15 years, I still often feel pulled to go back to my laptop after the day has ended to check up on just one email or finish one small thing–which ends up spiraling into an unintended all-night session.
“Work is infinite,” Conrado Lamas, CMO at Carts Guru says. “There is always something to be solved–and when you have an office routine, it’s easier to leave what you do at the workplace. When you work from home, your office is where you live. So I’m constantly closing small pending tasks late at night before I go to bed or early in the morning, when I really wanted to be reading the news.”
How to avoid overworking
You might need to trick yourself to take breaks and set clear start and end times. Otherwise, you risk burnout. A few things that can help:
- Set appointments on your calendar for the end of the day to get yourself out of your home office. Maybe it’s an “appointment” to go to the gym or go grocery shopping or just take a walk around the block. Maybe it’s an appointment to read the next chapter of the book you’re currently into.
- Similarly, set up reminders to take breaks. One member of our team has a recurring daily to-do list item to take a walk. I use the clock settings in macOS to announce the time every hour, which helps remind me to stretch and refill my water glass. In Windows, you can use Task Scheduler to set up a similar hourly reminder. Timing your day with the Pomodoro technique can help as well.
- Be clear with your team on when you’re leaving–for example, by making a quick announcement in Slack–and then actually shut down your computer. (I have a bad habit of saying “bye” and then sticking around for another hour.)
- Create physical boundaries between you and your workspace. The best thing is if you have a dedicated office space so you can shut the office door–or even lock it, as Cody Jones, head of business development at Zapier, does. Sorry, we’re closed. If you don’t have a dedicated office, even something as simple as putting your laptop out of sight when work has ended can help you avoid the temptation to log back on. Or you can try sectioning off part of a room for work so it feels like a separate space.
- Turn off notifications on your phone and computer so you’re not pulled back into work after hours.
Remote workers need to be self-motivated experts at time management, because we don’t have others constantly overlooking our work or managing our time for us. While every worker might find it difficult to stick to a schedule and manage their todos, it’s especially challenging for remote workers who have more flexible, free form days as well as managers in a different part of the world.
Managing your own work is hard enough. Then there’s the constant temptation to watch one episode of your favorite show during your work break, tidy up the kitchen when you’re procrastinating on a project, or take your dog for a walk because of their pleading look. All of the sudden, it’s evening and you have nothing to show for the day.
How to make sure you get the most important work done
- Eat the frog. Business consultant and coach Brian Tracy explains: “Mark Twain once said that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worse things that is going to happen to you all day long. Your “frog” is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it.” First thing when you start up work, eat that frog.
- Limit the number of tasks you plan to do each day. Use the Eisenhower matrix to avoid unnecessary time-wasting tasks and know which tasks to do next. Or plan to do just 1 big thing, 3 medium things, and 5 small things per day, the 1-3-5 rule.
- Install distraction-limiting tools. Try one of these 14 tools to help you stay focused at work.
- Manage your energy, not your time. As Gregory Ciotti explains on the I Done This Blog, “you improve by pushing your practice, not yourself during low energy.” Your energy waxes and wanes during the day, so tackle tasks according to how much of your bandwidth they’ll take and how much you’ll be able to focus at different times during the day.
Interruptions: You Have a Family, Pets, and/or a Doorbell
The good news is, when you work from home, you avoid co-workers dropping by your desk and other office interruptions (it’s someone’s birthday! Let’s have cake in the breakroom!). The bad news is you’ll likely have to deal with other kinds of interruptions and distractions, whether it’s the UPS delivery person needing your signature or in-laws dropping by unannounced.
This is doubly true when kids are involved. As Chris Brantner of “Mr. Cable Cutter” says:
I have two children, one of which is 7 and is in elementary school, and one is 17 in high school. I have a home office I work out of, but when they are home, they love to randomly come in and say hi or ask for things.
I love seeing them (one of the reasons working from home is great is because I get to spend more time with my family). However, it can be difficult to keep enough separation so that I get things done. I’ve had to have talks with them about “work time” and make sure they understand when it’s okay to come knocking on the door and when it’s not.
It’s especially hard if you have very young kids, who don’t understand that they can see you but you’re not available to play. Repeatedly saying, “no, I don’t have time now” is painful. Brian Cooksey, Zapier’s platform engineering lead, adds that “finding a good place to take conference calls so that family doesn’t interrupt and so that I don’t wake a napping baby” can also be an issue.
This video perfectly explains the challenge of working from home with kids:
How to deal with interruptions at home
There’s no way to avoid all interruptions from your family, pets, delivery people, and neighbors. And sometimes they should interrupt you–like if your dog really needs to be let outside or your kid just got hurt. It’s important to be clear, though, about the kinds of interruptions that are okay and which ones can wait. Additionally:
- Set up a kind of signal that lets others know when you’re in focus mode. Maybe it’s a do not disturb sign on your door or when you put on your headphones. (Or maybe you have to actually lock the door and pretend you’re not home.)
- Explain why it’s important for you to avoid interruptions–that they break your concentration and make your work ten times harder.
- For young kids, getting childcare is a must, unless you plan on working only when they’re asleep.
- Train your kids and significant other to be self-sufficient and occupy themselves. It’s frustrating to be interrupted because you’re the only person who knows where the scotch tape is.
- Keep consistent work hours. Simply don’t answer calls during work and perhaps even invent meetings if you have to, Zapier content marketer Matthew Guay advises.
- Escape. If all else fails, try working out of a co-working space, the library, or a coffee shop.
Loneliness and Lack of Human Interaction
“To a certain extent, your co-workers are your social circle. Sometimes it is hard to explain to others that all your friends are online.”- Cody Jones
If you don’t have family members home with you when you’re working, you might have the opposite problem: Isolation. Even with internet access and tools like Slack, you might still develop “cabin fever” from being in the same place for too long all by yourself. “It is too easy to get the habit of working from home all day,” says CEO of ad tech firm MonetizeMore, Kean Graham, “and then remain in your home for the remainder of that day and sometimes for subsequent days.”
Perhaps remote work jobs should come with a Warning: You might become a hermit label. “Finding the courage to go out into an unforgiving world and talk to potentially scary human beings” can become a new challenge, Android Police editor Michael Crider says.
People who work in shared offices experience impromptu “watercooler” moments of interaction and maybe even share meals together or after-work drinks. Remote workers? We often work asynchronously with our teammates and perhaps have only our houseplants to talk to.
How to not feel isolated when working from home
This one’s going to take effort, especially if one of the reasons you enjoy working remotely is to get away from being around too many people. It’s about striking a balance.
- Include social breaks in your schedule, if you can, by working a few hours then spending an hour or two doing something social outside of your home, such as lunch with friends, then going back to work, Kean advises. Just going out and grabbing a snack while chatting with the counter person can be rejuvenating.
- Try working at co-working spaces or coffee shops so you’ll at least feel like you’re still a part of society. You might just find, as CartsGuru CMO Conrado Lamas has, that you’ll make friends with the people who work at and from the coffee shop. Think of it as your second office.
- Be more intentional about joining local groups or organizations. Find a Meetup, attend networking conferences, or take some classes at your town’s recreation center.
Communication Issues and Being Out of the Loop
In their book, Remote: Office Not Required, Basecamp founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier explain why communication is paramount for a remote team–and why it’s such a challenge:
When the bulk of your communication happens via email and the like, it doesn’t take much for bad blood to develop unless everyone is making their best effort to the contrary. Small misunderstandings that could have been nipped in the bud with the wink of an eye or a certain tone of voice can quickly snowball into drama.
Programmer Bryan Rehbein adds: “As somewhat of an introvert, it can be hard to communicate enough with your colleagues. Remote work needs extra communication.”
The communication issue is compounded if some of your team works in an office but you don’t. You miss all the overheard discussions and cubicle wall meetings, says Peter Smith. You might feel paranoid that others are having meetings and making decisions without you–and you’d probably be right. Unless the company has built a culture of inclusion for remote workers, you might be out of sight and out of mind.
The only real solution is to communicate as much as possible–clarifying anything that could be a misunderstanding–and to be proactive in speaking up. “You have no idea how well you’re doing unless you ask,” says writer Joshua Rivera–another reason communication matters so much.
Time Zone Differences
Related to being or feeling out of the loop: Those terrible time zones. You might be waking up just when your teammate is going to bed. That means you can’t always rely on your fellow team member to be available to answer a pressing question or solve any other immediate need.
The solution? Fried and Heinemeier recommend teams have a 4-hour overlap:
Working remotely, if it is to be successful, usually requires some overlap with the hours your coworkers are putting in…we’ve found that we need a good four hours of overlap to avoid collaboration delays and feel like a team.
That’s not a problem if you’re in Los Angeles working with someone in New York, but it’s more of a challenge if, say, you’re in Chicago working with someone in Copenhagen. There was no easy way around it; we just had to compromise. We did it with Copenhagen working from 11am to 7pm (local time) and Chicago working from 8am to 5pm–just enough for the key four hours of intersection.
Remote workers need to be flexible when working with others in different time zones. As my teammate Matthew says: “You have to think a bit more about when to send messages to others–and learn not to watch your phone for notifications when you don’t plan to work. That’s a good part as well, though; you can move your work around when needed, and you can hand off work to others who can finish it up during their day and get it back to you.”
Nothing makes a remote worker shake in fear as much as an internet outage. Or, perhaps, when your computer breaks. Both are your problems to solve.
Attorney Elizabeth Potts Weinstein says that she and her husband have worked remotely for years and “by far the biggest challenge is being able to rely on a stable and fast internet connection. We do our research ahead of time, but that doesn’t mean that the speed and stability is guaranteed, particularly in developing countries.”
Many public Wi-Fi hotspots can also be spotty. And even with a decent internet connection, video conferencing apps aren’t always reliable, so virtual meetings can be an exercise in frustration.
For peace of mind–and to avoid delays in your work–have a backup plan. A mobile hotspot device like a MiFi or a cell phone plan that allows tethering can save you when your internet goes out. A backup computer–or maybe even a tablet–can get you through the day until you can get your computer fixed.
Bad Health Habits
Knowledge work tends to be sedentary work–no matter where your office is. However, when you’re at home, it’s easier to slip into bad habits.
For one thing, there’s the fridge. As Cody says, “with the refrigerator only 14 steps from my home office and my bedroom a mere 22, the freshmen 15 is a real phenomenon when converting from an office job.”
Or, like me, you might have the opposite problem: Without common lunch breaks, I forget to eat.
Exercise might also fall by the wayside when you’re overworking, and you might forget to go outside enough. (Fellow remote workers: Are you getting enough vitamin D?)
Despite the challenges above, remote work is very rewarding–as long as you know what you’re getting into and can handle these common issues. If you persevere, you’ll enjoy flexibility, autonomy, the chance to work in your best environment, higher productivity–and perhaps also more time for a life outside of work as well.
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