I love remote work, and I’ve been working remotely for the last five years, but I think there are some serious downsides too. In spite what all the “remote work is the future!” articles of the last year claim, it’s not all perfect, or suitable for everyone.
Working remotely means less socializing with your coworkers: fewer chats over the coffee machine, you don’t go out to the pub for a pint, that sort of thing. I think you shouldn’t underestimate the value of these kind of things: it’s just a lot easier to work with people you get along with well socially.
Conflicts will inevitably happen; it’s just part of human nature. But the better we get along socially the higher the chance is that we can resolve things amicably without thinking (though not saying) “they’re just a bloody idiot!”, or being left with a feeling of lingering resentment. The more you’ve socialized with someone, the more “social goodwill” you’ve got to fall back on in times of conflict.
It’s hard to communicate over text well. Even if we ignore international cultural differences, the lack of body language and direct feedback makes it easy for misunderstandings and miscommunication to happen. We all phrase things awkwardly or too harshly on occasion, and we can all lose our temper a bit (some more frequently than others). This is normal, but when you write it in text it’s there; there is no opportunity to immediately correct it based on your conversation partner’s feedback; there is no body language to clarify the meaning, there is no opportunity to immediately add nuance. The recipient will just be left steaming over your shitty remark. It’s much easier for things to escalate.
Video conferencing is a bit better, but in my opinion still a poor substitute over an actual conversation, and being in video chats all day also isn’t really an option. In practice, a lot of communication will happen over text (chats, emails, issues, etc.).
Especially for more junior people the lack of feedback and guidance can be a very detrimental. You can’t just pop in and ask how they are doing, or sit next to them and guide them through some things. When I guided an intern years ago I would regularly just turn around (he was sitting behind me) and look on his screen to see what he was doing and how he was doing it, and try to offer some helpful guidance if needed. I felt it was very helpful for him (at least, I hope so, although last I heard he didn’t pursue his career in IT and is the manager of a McDonald’s now). This sort of thing is much harder to do well remotely.
The lack of guidance for more junior programmers is already a big problem in the IT industry specifically because for decades there have been many more junior people than senior people, and remote work makes this worse. Generally I wouldn’t recommend remote work for entry-level and junior jobs.
Another big downside is that remote work can get lonely; most of is don’t hang out with friends every single day, and it’s not uncommon to not have a serious conversation with anyone for days on end, especially if you live alone. Depending on where you live and your personality, you can restructure your social life a bit to compensate for this, which is what I ended up doing, but it’s something that takes some amount of effort and isn’t necessarily for everyone.
For this reason alone, I feel that remote work on a grand scale might not really be a good thing. Western society in general seems to have a bit of an issue with social contact – how many of us talk to our neighbours?
This isn’t something that can be ascribed to a single cause, or something I have an answer to – but we already tore down the church and village communities for many, and I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to tear down the “office community” too. Not that I think these communities were necessarily the best (I’m not religious), but tearing it all down without … something … as a replacement may not be wise.
Don’t get me wrong, I love working remote: I have fewer headaches (why are so many offices so badly ventilated?!), don’t have to mentally block out noise all day long (which I find very draining), and can make my own schedule. In general, I’m much more productive and happier.
But in the torrent of enthusiasm of remote work in the COVID era, it’s probably good to focus on some downsides, too. Personally, I’m skeptical that it’s “the future of work” and will introduce a paradigm shift. And if it does, we should be acutely aware of some of the downsides.
Other people have listed some other downsides, such as a lack of structure or work/life balance. These have not been any problems for me personally (I very much like the lack of structure, and feel the “eight hours bum-on-seat” model is equally problematic). Some other perspectives: