Do you remember working before email? I don't, I was 4. Businesses only started adopting email at any real scale around 1996. Even then, it was a reluctant change — office computers had landed way back in the late 70s and early 80s.
Today the computer is the office. Technology has become the backbone of the new work ecosystem. This was a massive cultural shift at the time, but now it's really hard to imagine working without one.
We only experience a few cultural shifts of this scale in a lifetime, and it's becoming clear that remote work is one of them. Just as computers changed the way we work, the rise of remote work culture is changing where we work.
Accelerated by the global pandemic, office workers are valuing the benefits of remote work and home life more. They're also experiencing higher productivity levels despite remote work's challenges. In fact, 97.6% of workers would like to work remotely forever.
But just like every major cultural shift, not everyone is on board initially. Many companies have been slow to embrace collaboration tools and commit to long-term remote working. After a year-and-a-half hiatus, traditional offices are opening back up and many of these companies are frantically trying to control "mass resignations", as employees who value this new work-life balance are quitting instead of going back to the office.
To make matters worse, US companies face a hiring crisis, and companies that don’t offer remote work are at a significant disadvantage. It's hard enough to attract remote employees.
So, why are traditional employers, companies, and even employees so apprehensive about whether remote work is sustainable? Quite often it comes down to common misconceptions about remote work, company culture, and employee commitment.
Here are our top 10 biggest myths that are holding back remote work:
1. Collaboration can only be done face-to-face
One of the most common remote work myths is that collaboration, networking, and creativity can only happen in a physical office. Or at least, it's more effective in a traditional workspace. In April 2021, JPMorgan Chase chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon didn't mince words in this annual letter to shareholders:
“Remote work virtually eliminates spontaneous learning and creativity because you don’t run into people at the coffee machine, talk with clients in unplanned scenarios, or travel to meet with customers and employees for feedback on your products and services,” Dimon wrote.
Quite often, this myth is perpetuated by fears related to being unseen or unnoticed in a work environment. A sense of FOMO that raises the questions, "What am I missing out on?" and “If I can’t see my employees, are they even working?”
The reality is you don't need to be face-to-face with someone to strike up a meaningful conversation, come up with ideas, or collaborate on a project. This is a purely synchronous way of thinking and working. Collaboration tools and video conferencing allow remote employees to collaborate just as easily, but also facilitate more asynchronous work.
Read our guide remote collaboration best practices, challenges, and tools to learn more.
In fact, open offices that supposedly facilitate these kinds of "unplanned scenarios" and interactions actually hinder them. They also cause distractions and decrease employee productivity.
According to Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber in their Harvard Business Review article, “People in open offices create a fourth wall, and their colleagues come to respect it. If someone is working intently, people don’t interrupt her.”
GitLab, a software development tool used by over 100,000 companies, was remote-first long before the coronavirus pandemic. They recognized early that when implemented effectively, remote-first companies can foster a culture of both synchronous and asynchronous communication that is far more effective than traditional office spaces. They even wrote a handbook on it.
“Innovation happens when you’re intentional, and these touch points can happen in physical spaces just as easily as virtual spaces... The clearer goals, objectives, and work streams are, the easier it is for distributed teams to keep track of what others are working toward. That drives shared understanding and belonging."
– Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab
2. Remote workers are less productive
Remote workers being unproductive is one of the biggest myths perpetuated by micromanagers and those who have never experienced remote work, particularly earlier in the COVID pandemic.
When you're managing a large team, it's not hard to imagine they're "slacking off", watching YouTube, or not at their desks at all.
When companies or managers buy into this myth, they're really buying into the idea that when their employees are physically in the office, they can watch them work.
The reality is this myth is usually correlated with poor management of employees and expectations. This "bums on seats" philosophy doesn’t guarantee productivity, and it certainly doesn’t mean employees have clarity about what they should be working on.
Productivity does not have to go down at all. If clear deliverables and goals aren't set, how can employees expect to meet them? This applies to both in-office environments and remote teams. Micromanaging employees doesn't get work done, but the setting and communicating of clear goals does. Transparency around this empowers employees to be productive and meet those goals, whether they are in an office or not.
One of the main benefits of a home office space is a decrease in commute, interruptions, noise, and more efficient meetings. All of these factors compound to improved productivity. In January 2021, Stanford’s Nicholas Bloom and Chicago Booth’s Steven J. Davis published findings from their study that tracked the productivity of more than 22,500 US remote workers. They found remote work will lift productivity in the economy by 5%, largely because of savings in commuting time and distractions.
“Working from home under the pandemic has been far more productive than I or pretty much anyone else predicted,” Bloom says.
To learn more about the benefits to employee productivity, watch Nicholas Bloom’s TED talk below.
3. Remote work hurts company culture
Company culture is a notoriously permeable phenomenon — the terms company values and company culture are often used interchangeably and it can be hard to define exactly what makes up a company's culture. One thing is for sure, a good company culture helps shape every aspect of an organization and bad company culture can destroy it.
A common misconception is that company culture is reinforced solely through in-person activities, such as team lunches, team building activities, and meetings. This can be a massive barrier for managers and companies to embrace remote work — the fear that once you remove in-person activities, everything will fall to pieces. How can leaders reimagine company culture where face-to-face activities in the office are rare or impossible?
While face-to-face activities are great, relying solely on these is a superficial way to think about what shapes company culture. Historically, traditional office settings and in-person events were key signals of a company's culture. As more companies embrace hybrid or remote models of working, naturally, we've moved on. A strong company culture really comes down to three things:
- What you value as a company;
- How you communicate and bring those values to life; and
- How you work together.
None of these factors are intrinsically tied to in-office environments.
While it's not without its challenges, the transition to remote can be the perfect opportunity for leaders to define and strengthen company culture. They're faced with an inflection point: work towards reinforcing the existing culture and company values, take the opportunity to reset and redefine the company culture, or do nothing.
Circling back to the GitLab Handbook example (who have remote employees in over 70 countries), the best thing companies can do to transition successfully to remote work is to intentionally plan, build documentation and best practices, and clearly define company values and the company culture. This sets a clear and level playing field for employees, especially when onboarding new employees which can take 6 to 9 months. You can learn how to onboard remote employees here.
To learn more about how GitLab successfully scaled remotely while maintaining and enforcing a great company culture, watch this interview.
4. Remote workers need more tech support and are expensive
A common misconception around remote work is that employees need more tech support and are more expensive overall.
The coronavirus pandemic forced millions of employees to work from home. The massive and relatively sudden change thrust many companies into new and unfamiliar territory when it came to costs and ongoing expenses. Not only are they locked into long-term commercial leases and paying rent for empty office spaces, but additional costs such as increased cloud spending, remote employees' desks, computers, WIFI, and phone costs were introduced.
Early in the pandemic, Spotify announced that it would give its newly remote employees $1,000 to set up their home office. Twitter and Basecamp followed suit and gave their employees $1,000 for the same purpose. Today, most companies have a WFH stipend that covers everything from office furniture and WiFi, to groceries and 'health and wellness' subscriptions.
The percentage of employees that have shifted to working remotely is expected to double in 2021. The pandemic has transformed the office forever, and it's clear remote work is here to stay. As such, most companies have committed to a hybrid or fully remote structure and are deciding to not renew office leases.
For most companies, office leases (including cleaning, food, utilities, and taxes) have been historically one of the largest business expenses, especially in cities where recruiting is competitive. By investing this sunk cost into supporting remote employees instead, companies are saying "we want to invest in you and make sure you’re both comfortable and productive to do your best work". Companies should think of remote support as a way to empower their workforce.
Sure, some costs such as increased cloud spending are unavoidable, but for every $1 spent investing in technology to support employees, companies save $2 elsewhere. Employers save an average of $22,000 per remote employee.
There are also less tangible benefits to remote working that save company money over the long run, such as increased productivity and improved employee retention.
5. Some jobs aren't suitable for working from home
"I'd love to work from home, but my job doesn't allow me to." This is a common rebuttal against remote work — some jobs are more hands-on or onsite than others and can't be remote.
While it's true some jobs, particularly blue-collar jobs, require employees to be onsite, you'd be surprised how creative you can get when restructuring your job to allow for remote work.
Before the pandemic struck, working from home seemed like an incredible perk for many employees. A pipe dream. It wasn't until lockdowns began that many companies and even entire industries were forced to reevaluate how they worked and adapted to facilitate remote work. School teachers are a great example — when lockdowns started, teachers had to rapidly adapt to new ways of working and implement new technologies and collaboration tools.
Most jobs can be restructured to facilitate at least some remote work, but it may take a bit of effort and initiative from employers and employees. Look for areas in your job where you perform repetitive or administrative tasks, and explore how you can restructure your workweek to perform those tasks at home. The best way to approach this depends largely on your industry and the company, but luckily there are some useful ways to prepare for this transition.
6. Everyone loves (or hates) remote work
Some people can’t wait, but others do not want to go back to the office. This is pretty clear, but should this stop employers from moving towards a remote-friendly structure?
While some employees find challenges with remote work, it's clear employers and employees stand to benefit from at least a hybrid remote working structure. However, the remote-friendly structure isn't without challenges.
Some people find they are happier and more productive around others, and others prefer a more structured way of working in order to stay focused.
But painting all employees with the same brush doesn't work. Nicholas Bloom's research finds that about 70% of employers, from tiny startups to massive companies like Stripe, Coinbase, and Webflow, plan to move to remote or hybrid working. It's up to both employers and employees to have a conversation about this transition and to work together towards the best outcome for everyone involved.
7. Remote workers don't get to know their team
Due to the nature of remote work, one of the main challenges teams can face is collaborating and communicating. One of the common misconceptions with remote jobs is you don't get to know your team.
Coming together as a team in one place and working together isn't the only way to get to know each other.
Whether you're working together in an office or remotely, the key is to communicate. Remote workers lose the unplanned conversations that stem from bumping into teammates in an office environment, but that doesn't mean they can't happen virtually. For some people, this will mean constant instant messaging through Slack or Microsoft Teams, while others will prefer video chats through Zoom or Google Meet.
The added benefit of this way of getting to know each other is that it better facilitates different types of working styles. Some colleagues will prefer to work asynchronously and messages on Slack don't interrupt their workflow. If a deeper conversation is needed, they can schedule a video call on their own time, rather than an unplanned meeting in the office. This helps set boundaries and facilitates deeper work.
Transitioning to remote and keeping in touch with coworkers can be more difficult for some. Here are some tips you can use to get to know your team better:
- Set up regular "one-on-ones" with your team or employees: Daily, weekly, fortnightly — it doesn't matter. Regular "virtual" coffees with your team are one of the best ways to stay connected and get to know each other. We suggest letting employees set the regularity of these based on their preferences and the chats don't need to be about work! Use our guide and template to run great remote one-on-ones.
- Organize regular company "all hands": Set up a weekly video call with your team or even the entire company. This is a great way to keep everyone in the loop, share wins and announcements, and to introduce new employees.
- Organize a weekly virtual quiz or team event: It doesn't have to always be about work. Try organizing a weekly virtual "pub quiz" for your team over Zoom every Friday afternoon and invite them to expense a few drinks on the company. Maybe a $50 gift card to the winner? These are not only great for bringing teams together, but they're good morale boosters and a signal for remote workers to "clock off" and not pull longer hours on a Friday afternoon.
A great example of a team who do this well is Twilio, who have over 5,000 employees in 20+ countries and counting! It’s impossible to have that diversity in a company constrained by geography.
8. Remote worker is lonely
Here's the thing: this one isn't a myth. According to Buffer's 2021 State of Remote Work report, 16% of remote workers state loneliness as their biggest struggle with working remotely. But the idea that remote always has to be lonely is a myth.
Everyone can get lonely, and the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns have hit some people harder than others. Humans aren't designed for solitude. Although working remotely is not the only cause of loneliness, it's clear it can be a significant contributor.
One of the main contributors to loneliness attributed to remote work is the fact that remote workers lose face-to-face chats and spontaneous interactions with colleagues that usually happen in the office space. These are important parts of the workday for many people.
How to reduce loneliness while working remotely
If you're an employer or manager, you can usually see the signs when a remote team member is feeling loneliness — usually drops in productivity, fewer interactions, or less participation in activities. The key is to act proactively and talk to them to work out how you can help. This might be through regular catch ups, more team bonding activities or initiatives, or even some kind of hybrid working model, where the employee can work from the office or a co-working space on certain days. For truly remote employees who can't come in, invest in bringing them to the office once a quarter or yearly. It's a small price when it comes to their happiness and retention.
It's also key that leaders — either team leaders or the CEO — are much more visible and over-communicate during the transition period. This can help employees feel easier about the transition and give them more confidence that things will work out well for everyone.
If you're an employee who is feeling isolated due to remote work, here are a few tips that may help:
- Catch up regularly with your team: This can be hard for some, particularly if you're introverted, but it's super helpful to actively book in times to catch up with your colleagues regularly. Pro tip: don't talk about work! Think of some interesting topics ahead of time — what you're watching at the moment, books you're reading, hobbies, or fun facts such as "Did you know a man tried to sell New Zealand on eBay and then again on Gofundme after eBay shut him down?"
- Hang out with other people: It can be hard to switch off from work, especially when remote work blurs the lines of work and home life. One thing that can help with loneliness is to switch off and hang out with neighbors, family members, or friends. If you can't be with them right now, just take a 15-minute break from work and give them a call — you won't regret it.
- Work out of a co-working space: If you live in an area where co-working spaces are opening back up, give it a try. Often, surrounding yourself with new people and separating your home office from your "remote" office does wonders for both productivity and loneliness. Many remote companies offer co-working stipends for this exact reason. If your company doesn't, ask them!
- Throw yourself into a new hobby: Pick a sport, instrument, or hobby that you've always wanted to try and go full send at it. Join any local or online communities that are related to it. Not only will playing a sport or picking up a new hobby keep you interested and motivated, it'll get you out of the house and interacting with people.
9. You can't manage your team if you're remote
This one is a big one and (in our opinion) the hallmark of mismanagement — you can't manage your team if you're remote.
For anyone that needs to hear this: you have to trust your employees. If we can be as bold as to quote Hemingway: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
There are over 10,000 books on Amazon on remote working and how to manage remotely. That's because it's something that requires work and diligence to get right. While managers can’t see what remote employees are doing, they can give them the tools, guidance, and motivation to get the job done well. If you equip employees with tasks and check in on them regularly with outcome-based feedback, you empower them to do their best work.
It is important not to treat remote work as a privilege, but instead to emphasize that it is a two-way, mutually beneficial relationship and that both sides need to play their part to maintain it.
If you're particularly struggling to make the transition, here are some tips:
- Introduce daily check-ins: Schedule some one-on-one calls or video calls with your employees or reports. It's important to note these calls shouldn't be used to micromanage and hover over employees, but instead to provide a regular scheduled forum to discuss projects, concerns, and to help remove roadblocks and barriers.
- Introduce remote communication tools to your stack: Email can be sufficient in office environments because it's usually accompanied by face-to-face meetings. However, with remote work, it's helpful to introduce more collaboration tools and technologies such as Zoom and Slack, which can be used for less formal communication.
- Offer positive feedback and emotional support: Even more important now, it's key for managers to understand and empathize with employees that the COVID pandemic and transition to remote work has been harder on some than others. This can be tied into regular check-ins and one-on-one meetings. Just checking in on team members at a personal level goes a long way, even if they don't show it, and helps to build trust, respect, and a sense of ownership over their role.
- Learn how to manage: This might seem obvious but management is a skill. One of GitLab's favorite books is High Output Management by Andy Grove, in fact their employees can expense the book if they choose to purchase it. It provides a comprehensive overview of a manager's role and purpose.
10. Remote workers earn less
44% of workers would take a 10% pay cut to work from home forever. But does that mean remote workers earn less?
Decoupling jobs and locations doesn't mean remote workers are paid less. Normalizing this way of working helps to equalize access to career advancement opportunities and fair salaries. Due to the nature of remote work, your worth and salary are less tied to your location and how "noticeable" you are in the office and are more tied to outcome-based KPIs and performance.
Research from PayScale that analyzed thousands of salaries determined that remote workers make 8.3% more than non-remote workers with the same job and 7.5% more in general.
Not only that, but one of the key benefits of remote work is it usually leads to a lower cost of living. Everything from food, going out, transport, rent, and mortgages are cheaper outside of major metropolitan areas, which add up. The average American commuters can spend as much as $5,000 per year on their daily commute alone. That doesn't even factor in everything else.
While remote work once might have resulted in a lower salary when it was a tiny niche, it's time to put this myth to rest. As remote work becomes the new normal, companies are starting to pay the same salaries independent of location. To do otherwise puts companies at a disadvantage when it comes to retention and hiring.
Some companies, like Stripe, have taken things a step further. They realized the cost benefits of a remote future early and offered to pay employees $20,000 to leave New York City and San Francisco to save on expensive commercial real estate costs. Even prior to COVID in 2019, Stripe was at the forefront of this remote work revolution and announced its fifth engineering hub would be remote to "tap the 99.74% of talented engineers living outside the metro areas of our first four hubs."
Twitter and Square have said that staff can work remotely permanently. Most of Shopify’s employees will permanently work remotely. Office centricity is over”. Brian Armstrong wrote that Coinbase will be embracing a remote-first culture. Companies all around the world are embracing remote offices as the future of work, and are experiencing a 25% lower turnover rate than those that don't.
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