Over the last 15 years, the number of people who work remotely has grown by 159 percent globally, and in the UK 68 percent of businesses currently offer their employees flexible working, according to research by Merchant Savvy. Remote roles also lead the way in the technology sector, with 29.2 percent of remote jobs posted by companies from the IT sector worldwide.

While there’s no single factor that has driven this dramatic increase, a recent survey from social media management platform Buffer found that 40 percent of remote workers see flexible working as a key workplace benefit. Other cited perks include the ability to work from any location, and having more time to spend with the family.

As child and adult social care costs continue to soar, flexible working has enabled many white-collar working parents to complete the school run or care for elderly relatives whilst working a full-time job, a concept that might have been unimaginable in the not-so-distant past.

As women continue to take on the majority of care-giving responsibilities, many are likely to find themselves shut out from the world of work if they’re unable to conform to traditional workplace ideals. Research shows that the tech industry will need at least 750,000 workers with digital skills to meet future demand. With almost two million women in the UK economically inactive as a result of caring commitments, the technology sector can’t afford to miss out on these potential employees with outdated working practices.

Furthermore, organisations that are yet to embrace flexible working as a norm are set to lose out in the battle for talent when young millennials and Gen Zs start to enter the workforce. A Deloitte study found that nearly 75 percent of millennials believe that a ‘work from home’ or ‘work remotely’ policy is important, while a separate Ricoh report found that a third of European workers would be willing to take a 10 percent pay cut for an employer that embraces flexible working.

Although the benefits of remote working have been widely noted – particularly in an age where more than one in 10 people globally suffer from a mental health problem – could this way of working also cause a negative impact on employees?

The same Buffer survey found that 19 percent of respondents struggled with loneliness and 17 percent had problems communicating and collaborating with their colleagues. Amir Salihefendic, CEO of Doist, was quoted in the survey saying: “Remote work isn't just a different way to work – it's a different way to live. And, unlike what you might see on Instagram, working remotely doesn't mean you jet set to exotic locations to drink piña coladas on the beach.

“We need to acknowledge that isolation, anxiety, and depression are significant problems when working remotely, and we must figure out ways and systems to resolve these complex issues.”

Combatting cabin fever

Michael Crider is a journalist and author who has been working remotely since 2010. Crider enjoys the fact that he can wake up 20 minutes before he’s due to start work and is able to play his choice of music aloud without upsetting any colleagues, but acknowledges that working from home for the best part of a decade isn’t without its challenges.

“For most of that time I've lived alone, and I've noticed that going days without holding any long conversations can sometimes make my speech halting or clumsy,” he tells Techworld. “Not seeing people in real life does present communication barriers. You lose a lot of context from people's speech patterns and body language.”

Crider admits he isn’t a particularly social person, and even when he’s not working, he’s prone to spending long amounts of time on his computer. However, he adds that “even for someone less sociable like myself, cabin fever is a real thing”.

He tries to combat this by working from coffee shops every once in a while, or spending a couple of hours catching up with friends in order to recharge. However, this does little to combat the difficulties he has connecting with co-workers he is yet to meet in person.

“Sometimes, it's hard to remember that they're not just little pictures and lines of text on a screen,” he says. “For this reason, I try to meet them physically whenever I can, be it on a work trip or if I just happen to be in the same city for vacation or family travel. Even if it's only a single lunch, seeing those people in 'real life' helps me communicate with them over work chat.”

Marilyn Devonish is a multi-disciplinary therapist and remote working management consultant who has been working remotely for 20 years. Although she enjoyed the human connections that could be built in an office environment, she often found the open-plan setup to be distracting – and her rush-hour commute was making her increasingly unhappy.

For Devonish, when she made the decision to work from home, it came with a number of compromises.

“If you don’t have a fully functioning remote office there can be the practical things like needing to laminate something so you need fewer paper copies, or grabbing a folder you need if the information isn’t readily available online,” she says.

Stationary needs aside, Devonish also misses the office banter and the ability to just pop into a meeting room to have a chat with someone – a working norm that is not afforded to people working outside a traditional office environment.

Despite the struggles they face working remotely, both Crider and Devonish say the freedom and flexibility offered by remote working outweighs the negatives and they plan to continue working from home in the long-term.

Always-on culture

Presenteeism is a very real and pervasive issue in many high-pressure sectors such as IT. Hannah Thompson, a consultant at Tyto PR, witnessed this culture frequently in her old office job; she would regularly see people working at their desks simply to show they were there, rather than because they actually had work to do. She says there was also an expectation from management that people constantly needed to be in the office which she found was unhelpful for productivity and wellbeing.

Workplace collaboration tools such as Slack, Zoom and Skype for Business have made it easier, and more commonly accepted, for employees to continue working whilst away from their desks. However, while employees can now be productive without being chained to their desks, the downside of these new tools is that some more zealous employers expect their team to be contactable round the clock.

In 2019, a profile of luggage startup Away by The Verge unearthed how these expectations can lead to a toxic working environment, with employees finding their annual leave cancelled and overtime pay withheld if they weren’t working long enough. Employees were also often berated in front of their virtual colleagues on Slack. One former employee even recalled going into the office over Thanksgiving in order to meet workplace expectations.

In 2017, France passed into law the "right to disconnect", which allows employees to legally ignore emails that are sent after they’ve clocked off for the day. Labour party leader hopeful Rebecca Long-Bailey has also pledged to end the "24/7 culture" which sees people bombarded with work-related messages after hours.

However, while remote working seems to be a sensible way to tackle this ‘always on’ work culture, Buffer’s survey found the opposite is perhaps true, with 22 percent of respondents saying they struggle to disconnect from work when they work from home, making it a bigger problem than loneliness and communication issues.

Devonish believes that overworking is a negative side effect of remote working that is rarely talked about. Flexible working requires a level of trust between employers and employees and, in her view, remote workers “often try to prove they haven’t been sitting around all day watching daytime TV or sipping lattes” but are actually doing what’s expected of them.

No one-size-fits-all solution

According to Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and cofounder and co-CEO of My Online Therapy, there’s no universal approach when it comes to remote working.

“I do really think that there are very different personality types that lead to people finding working from home beneficial versus those who find working from home more problematic," says Touroni. "So, I really think that whether working from home helps you or hinders you psychologically, or causes difficulties, depends on you as an individual and what your underlying psychological vulnerabilities might be.”

For example, Dr. Touroni says that for people who struggle with self-motivation or are known procrastinators, working in an unstructured environment might negatively impact them and could lead to feelings of worthlessness or a difficulty engaging with tasks.

Similarly, people who like to bounce ideas off their colleagues might struggle with the loss of social interaction, which could ultimately impact productivity and leave them feeling lonely and isolated. Dr. Touroni therefore believes it’s important for people to think carefully about these potential issues before accepting a role that completely removes them from an office environment.

“With my patients, I always look at all aspects of their life and how they might be contributing to or maintaining their emotional difficulties,” she explains. “So, if I perceive that working from home is one of those elements then it would be a question of whether there's anything that can be done to change that situation, in terms of mixing some amount of working from home versus going to the office.” 

For Thompson, working remotely since June 2019 has positively impacted her mental health.

“Previously, my commute massively limited how much free time I had, and I was often too exhausted to use that free time how I wanted to,” she says. “Having flexibility in location means that I’ve been able to see friends more regularly, visit family more often, and get a dog – all of which has led to me being happier as a person.”

Like Crider, Thompson’s current team is made up entirely of remote workers. However, she believes this reduces feelings of FOMO – fear of missing out – amongst her colleagues, as they’re all in the same boat. This doesn’t mean she is exempt from feelings of isolation however and, on those occasions, Thompson prioritises speaking with her colleagues and proactively organises meetups with friends.  

“If I was to return to that environment, I think I’d actually feel like I was missing out on the benefits offered by remote working,” Thompson says, echoing a sentiment expressed by the majority of remote workers we spoke to. “I’m not ruling out returning to an office-based environment someday, but I’d want to ensure there was some level of flexibility around it.”