What are the challenges of working remotely?

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There are thousands of things that can reduce someone’s ability to work productively remotely, and it is extremely personal. Based on research, and my years of experience, I believe that the challenges of working remotely can be captured in three distinct categories.


Remote working challenges

Challenge One: Motivation

Where does motivation come from?

At a very high level, motivation can be categorised into either intrinsic or external motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is innate, it comes from within and from the self. For example, I am intrinsically motivated to exercise every morning because I know it improves my mental focus, creativity, and productivity throughout the day. I feel better for doing this; therefore, I am motivated to keep doing it.

Extrinsic motivation on the other hand, is motivation derived from external factors. For example, if I work out in a group exercise class, I might be motivated to work harder because my peers around me are working harder. Or indeed because the instructor is shouting at me and telling me to do so!

In a work context, intrinsic motivation might result from ambition or personal sense of achievement. You might be a person who works hard, simply because you want to do a good job. Extrinsic motivation however, may come from knowing that if you don’t work hard, you could lose your job and then can’t pay your bills. Or it could come from knowing that your peers are working hard, and you want to be seen to do the same, not because you care about your work, but because you care what other people think about you.

Remote working and motivation

One significant challenge to working remotely, is that we naturally have less extrinsic motivation than when we work in the office or in person. Or at least, the extrinsic motivation is more subtle.

There is still a risk that we could lose our jobs if we don’t work hard (extrinsic motivation), but it is not visibly in our face in the same way as it might be when we are in an in-person environment. Take for example, a chef working in a kitchen. If they mess up their cooking, if the food is cold or inedible, it is immediately obvious. And, assuming there is a supervisor there or somebody to witness this, there is a high chance that they could be fired pretty quickly or at least receive some stern feedback.

Colleagues also provide significant extrinsic motivation. This is where the culture of “presenteeism” derives from.

Feedback is also easier to find when we are working in an in-person environment. During a meeting, we might notice the reaction of our colleagues to a point we are making. If eyes-roll, we know we’ve missed the point. If there are nods around the room, it’s clear that we have the support of our colleagues.

When we work remotely, normally these extrinsically motivating factors are not present in quite the same way. This means that we have to either rely on intrinsic motivation or mimic the extrinsic motivation we find in an office environment. More on that in later chapters.

Challenge Two: Distraction

Distractions can be categorised as either coming from our self or coming from an external source. Studies show that we lose about 25 to 30 minutes trying to regain focus after just one distraction. If you think of that over the course of the day, we could be losing around two hours of productivity, even if we just get distracted four times. The vast majority of us are probably distracted more than four times per day too!

Distractions from ourselves

It might seem a strange thing to suggest, but many distractions do come from within us and not from an external source. Whether this is from our mind wandering, from unhappy feelings such as loneliness and frustration, or otherwise. We often blame other people, or indeed our technology devices, when the distractions are coming from us.

  • Physical Distractions: This may take the form of a poor diet that reduces our ability to concentrate, lack of sleep which negatively impacts our cognitive abilities or lethargy from lack of exercise and movement.
  • Psychological Distractions: These may include feelings of self-doubt (which we are more likely to experience when working remotely), negative thoughts, or simply a chaotic and distracted mind.  

Distractions from external sources

The second significant source of distraction is external parties. This may take many forms, such as:

  • Family members or housemates: Few of us are lucky enough to live somewhere that does not have distractions in the form of other people. Perhaps you work 09:00 to 17:00, but your kids come home at 15:30. Maybe your partner also works remotely and you have to share the dining table. Or, you could live with another four people, all of whom are frantically trying to work productively from home.
  • Household chores: one minute you’re working effectively, the next you’ve spotted cobwebs on the ceiling and you have the overwhelming urge to grab the duster and resolve this situation immediately.
  • Social media browsing: studies show that a distraction of 5 minutes can set us back significantly. Yes, that quick browse of your friends holiday photos on Instagram, really is that distracting.
  • 24 hour news cycle: We all live in a 24-hour news cycle. It’s a bit of a trope to say that this is a distraction, but it well and truly is. I can’t remember the last time I checked out a news website and didn’t see “Live reporting” or “breaking news.” Well, these titles are so compelling. How can I resist the urge to see what this breaking news is?

Challenge Three: Capability

The final category of remote working productivity challenge is all about capability. Many of these factors are extremely obvious but are often overlooked.

#1 Technology Issues

First up, technology capability has a significant impact on our ability to work productively when we are remote working. There are four key areas:

  1. Computer – without the right hardware, i.e., your computer, you will not be productive.
  2. WiFi – as above, strong and stable WiFi is a huge factor when it comes to productive remote working. 
  3. Software – not being able to access the right software on our computers will damage productivity. If your company doesn’t kit you out with the right software, or as a freelance you haven’t bought it, this will have a big impact on your productivity.
  4. Our ability to use the technology – your employer might have given you the right technology, but have they trained you to use it? Or have you taken the time to understand all the key functionality? If you haven’t, this could be causing productivity issues.

#2 Information issues

When I started working remotely for a new company a few years ago, my entire onboarding was done remotely. One of the significant challenges to working remotely, particularly for new joiners to a company is access to information. Far too frequently, new joiners are not given the information they need to do their jobs productively. This happens in an in-office environment too, but it can be more of a challenge when working remotely because we don’t have the people around us to ask.

When you are new to a team, role or company, it is vital to get access to the information you need to do your job. But, if we don’t even know that we are missing information, whether in the form of missing out on vital meetings, email strings or not having access to data bases, then how can we succeed?

#3 Training Needs

The final category of capability issues we may experience when working remotely, is training needs. If we don’t have the right training or learning environment, to do our jobs remotely, then we will not be productive.

Interestingly, we gain 70% of our in-work skills from doing the job and 20% from working with and alongside peers. Only a small portion (10%) of capability is gained from “training” i.e., a training course or studying. In a remote work environment, it can be challenging to absorb this peer to peer learning effectively. We might not have the role models in a remote environment that we would in person. Whether this is in the form of a more experienced team member, a mentor or a boss.

How to overcome the challenges of working remotely?

There are a number of ways to overcome the challenges of working remotely.

One of them, is to work on your time management. Refining the way you manage your time, can help to increase your productivity by reducing the distractions you face. Find out more about using time management techniques here.

When it comes to motivation as a challenge, it’s important to consider what motivates you and your what your motivation style is. You can find out more about this in our book, Remote Working: How To Find Your Productivity Superpower.

Would you like to read more and find out how to activate your productivity superpower?

This article is an abridged version of our new book, “Remote Working: How To Find Your Productivity Superpower.” The book goes into way more detail and contains lots of new information that could help you become more productive.

You can order your copy now on Kindle or Paperback on Amazon here. 

If you want to find out more about how we came to write this book, you can find out here.



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