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There are a lot of things to celebrate about 2020's special brand of remote work: Its short (read: non-existent) commutes, the unique opportunity to fold the laundry while wearing a tracksuit during a meeting, its ability to keep many office workers from transmitting COVID-19... But, as with many of the responses to the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic, there are major downsides to remote working, too.
While I'm not be advocating for a return to in-person office culture when it contains a threat to anyone — whether the white-collar professionals who are currently taking their calls from Zoom or the essential workers they'd be putting at additional risk by being out and about — there are some lesser-known issues pertaining to telecommuters that should be considered at both an individual and organizational level.
One 2016 study that looked at remote work for over almost 20 years found it had "widespread negative consequences" on the lives of telecommuters, primarily due to its breakdown of the barrier between work and essentially everything else. But there are negative impacts of remote work beyond sharing your dinner time with your cell phone and the mental chaos that can produce. Here are some of the potentially dangerous downsides of remote work to be aware of, according to academics, labor journalists and other experts.
It's likely no surprise that studies across the last decade have found that remote employees work more hours than colleagues who work in an on-site or office setting. During COVID, the average newly remote employee is working three hours longer than they did in the office. And the impacts of those extra hours can be extreme.
Working more means less time doing what you enjoy or spending time being still and with loved ones. One study found that remote work increased feelings of mental and physical fatigue amongst stressed employees, which can lead to feelings of burn out and lower productivity. People with external expectations tugging at them are at the worst risk — just ask one of the many moms who are working from home right now.
Studies have also found that much of this overtime is for naught. Working more when you're working from home has less impact on professional growth and earnings over time, according to one set of research.
Burn out isn't the only negative impact that remote working can have on our brains. Sherry Turkle — a professor in MIT's Social Studies of Science and Technology Program — said in her recent book that relying on technology to mediate our social interactions can be detrimental to how we interact with the world. We "forget how essential face-to-face conversation is to our relationships, our creativity, and our capacity for empathy," according to Turkle. This leads to prioritizing efficiency and the ability to sit in sweatpants over the humanity that leads to better results in the long run — both personally and professionally.
One unlikely side effect of working remotely en masse? New migration patterns. While hordes of newly remote employees leaving the cities may feel positive, especially for anyone who has to commute during rush hour, it may have detrimental impacts.
Business Insider's George Pearkes points out that there are "concerns that once workers aren't tied to physical locations anymore, they will effectively be competing in a global market where they are relatively expensive versus workers in other countries. Higher-prerequisite jobs that shift remote within the US might shift remote outside of it." This could lead not only to a shift in where employers go to find employees, but a shift in how much bargaining power employees have, especially those with less specialized skills or who are just starting their careers.
Another potential harm with allowing talent to live anywhere? "Unless whole industries go remote, it may prove hard to find a new role if you're fired as a remote worker outside a major center for your industry," Pearkes says. Less stable and accessible job markets can mean financial disaster, but also damages to mental and physical health.
Without the natural socialization that comes from office environments, conferences and industry happy hours, it can be difficult for anyone to network. However, the careers of early-stage professionals are especially at-risk of being permanently altered by a new remote work standard.
Upwards of 70% of all jobs being secured through connections. While later-stage professionals may be able to lean on and build off their established networks, early-stage professionals may struggle to find their first job or subsequent jobs without the normal means of building a network. They may also struggle to make the connections necessary to find career mentors or sponsors, and miss out on the development of important professional skills — from negotiating office politics to public speaking. This can lead to feelings of helplessness and real social and financial detriments.
As Laurel Farrer writes in Forbes, "most office workers have absolutely no idea how many hundreds of hours and millions of dollars are invested into making their office environments OSHA-compliant." Many don't know the regulations their offices follow, either, causing them to set up potentially dangerous workspaces in their homes.
"Obsession grew over the aesthetics of bookcases, webcam lighting, and potted plants, but no thought was given to the details that will keep us able to work," Farrer writes. "In just a few months, the workforce has regressed 50 years in workplace safety advancements by ignorantly designing home offices that are exclusively form over function."
Some of the health concerns newly remote workers should consider: Ergonomics, lighting and glare, shock and fire hazards, and tripping hazards and cord placement.