Is a Flexible and Remote Work Environment Really Better for us?

Is a Flexible and Remote Work Environment Really Better for us?

This post has nothing to do with China, Japan, or even travel.  It’s just about the monster that has taken over my life and kept me from writing in this blog: my job.

Despite relocating to Dallas for this job, the nature of my role allows me to have a mostly flexible and remote working environment.  I haven’t visited the Dallas office in over a month.  In fact, I work from home and on the road almost all the time.  Many envy me when I tell them I work from home, but whenever I hear their words of longing, I can’t help but think…

Is a flexible, or remote, working environment really better for us?

The Line Between Work and Personal Space Begin to Blur

I used to tell people that I loved work more than school because, unlike school, work didn’t give us ‘homework.’  As a graduate student, the worry of papers and homework always loomed over my head even after class ended.  I thought back to my work days when work ended at 5pm and didn’t follow me around.  It was great to clock out, go home, and not worry about the monster that was my job until the next day.

I’ll tell you now: a flexible work schedule destroys that clear barrier between work and personal space.

To the company, “flexible” work hours means that you’re always on call.  I get emails at all hours of the day and night (even at 2am!) and, because I work from home, it’s hard for me to stop working.  There is no one telling me that I need to go home or put my computer away.  The work keeps coming from all time zones and all offices around the world, and sometimes I literally work until midnight trying to finish it all.

Even on my week off, it was hard for me to ignore emails that kept popping up on my phone.  Because I work remote and was used to answering emails on the go, it was hard for me to distinguish that I was even on holiday.

Although there are times I love the flexibility (no more long commute!), I must admit I really miss having that clear distinction between work and home.

Remote Work Hinders the Cultivation of Real Relationships

Sunset in Portland

Despite working at my job for almost a year, I just barely met my colleagues in-person last week–in Tokyo, no less (they’re not even based there).  For the last few months we’ve only communicated through messenger, calls and emails… and honestly, it hinders the real relationships we could cultivate if we actually worked side-by-side.

The first few months of my job were really hard because… well, I worked alone.  I was a remote worker, so I had no one to tap on the shoulder when I had a question.  Instead, I had to ping or email someone and often I didn’t get a response.  It’s so much easier to shirk responsibility when we don’t have to face someone in person.  This made training really hard and led me to feeling extremely lonely, isolated and disconnected with my peers.  After a few months I got used to it… but man, those first few months were really rough.

It’s Super Lonely

Sunset in LA

Let’s be real, most of us make friends through school and work…

….but what happens when you work remote?  How are you supposed to meet people?

I’ve made zero friend-like relationships at this job, and it’s not because my coworkers suck–it’s because we don’t have enough real-time interaction to really get to know each other.  It’s hard to befriend someone over instant messenger, emails and calls; especially when we’re all busy and pressed for time.

“I totally get you,” my Canadian-translator-friend in Tokyo, who also works from home, said with a sigh when I told her my remote-work-woes.  “I get so stir-crazy and lonely at home, sometimes I go to the convenience store just to speak to people.”

I’ve gone days without talking to a real human being–and honestly, it’s not healthy.  It’s just not.

It can be somewhat inefficient (?)

The view from my office in Tokyo

Sometimes, I can’t help but wonder how much more we’d actually get done if we could just talk it over in person.  It’s so much easier to ignore an email or ping on instant messenger–but it’s so much harder to brush someone off in person.

Plus, online communication can be overwhelming.  The flood of emails, instant messenger and notifications can be a handful.  How are we supposed to read–and respond–to it all?  Although phone calls help clarify a lot of internal miscommunication, I can’t help but wonder how much more effective it would be to discuss and resolve problems in person.

….but it’s not all bad

Awesome street art in New York

There are some great perks to flexible work, like:

  • Shorter commute times (or none at all)
  • Being able to go to the doctor/dentist or pick someone up from the airport without taking PTO
  • Cooking lunch/dinner from the comfort of home
  • Working form almost anywhere (I’ve worked from Dallas/LA/Portland in the last few months)
  • Self-allocating work time; such as starting work later and then working later to make up for it

And what’s my final verdict?

I’ve thought about this a lot.  As someone who identifies as an “ENFJ” (emphasis on the E) on the Meyers Brigg test, it’s really goddamn hard for me to not have any human interaction at all.  It’s been a struggle for me to not work on a “real-life” team and have the bond of accomplishing something together.  I miss real connections I make with co-workers.  Essentially, I feel like remote work enables us to turn our work relationships into hollow, meaningless pacts of duty.

Plus, remote work makes us work more.  Come on.  I work way more from home than I ever did in the office–and not in a good way.

If I could choose, I would say having two flex days a week would be ideal.  Three work days in an office would force us to interact with our team and peers and grow relationships, but then the two flex days would give us some freedom to do things that need to be done (like go to the doctor or pick our kid up from daycare) and catch up on work.

In terms of my overall life…

View from my company’s Tokyo office

Two weeks ago I woke up at 3am, looked at my phone, and saw an email from my boss:

“Can you come to Tokyo in 2 weeks?”

I swore and went back to sleep.

In the last month I’ve gone from Portland, to Toronto, to Ottawa, to Montreal, to New York, to Tokyo, to LA, to Anaheim, to Dallas, and back to New York.  Going to the airport has become almost like a daily commute and I’ve read more books on planes than I can count (finished clockwork prince trilogy, and man, that is the YA-fantasy trash I live for).

Although I was excited to go to Tokyo, it was a blur.  Meetings upon meetings upon meetings and, after a mere five days and extremely horrific jet lag, I had to fly back to the USA.

God, I love this view from my Dallas home.

Coming back to my home in Dallas yesterday was… how do I put it?  It was bliss.  Lounging around all day with tea, a book, and some good shows on Netflix was like heaven.  Thanks to “flexibility” I will be working tomorrow (Sunday) from home (cause I have so much work).  Still, it feels great to have one day ‘off’ and recover in the comforts of my home.

I want to write more, but it’s hard for me to do it on the road and to balance with work.  I miss writing… and I miss nature.  Dallas is great, but seeing the photos of mountains and forests from my friends in Utah and California make me miss a good outing in the outdoors.  I hope I can take a nature vacation soon.

Miss you all.  Sorry for the absence.

So what are your thoughts?  Do you like remote and flexible work?  Do you think it should be the way of the future and screw the traditional system?

14 thoughts on “Is a Flexible and Remote Work Environment Really Better for us?

  1. I agree with you 100%. After decades of working (mostly in the office) I’ve concluded that working from home is less efficient, more lonely, AND it makes people more vulnerable when it’s time for a layoff. In fact, I suspect that the only folks who really prefer working from home are those who actually feel uncomfortable working with others. Best wishes…

    1. Glad you agree! Some people think I’m crazy for crticizing this new-found “freedom,” but I don’t think it’s everything everyone cracks it up to be….

  2. I think if you’re an introvert, or have social anxiety, working form home would be so much better.

    Or maybe you’d just stress over texts.

    But you are so right about the line being blurred when working remotely. That happens to me all the time. For some projects/ volunteer work I field calls and messages and emails constantly (or it feels that way). And I get no writing of my own done. People are used to being able to reach me easily and they often take advantage (i.e., shoot me a text instead of reading a past email to figure out the answer).

    This week I began blocking out hours where I turn off phone and computer internet. It worked one day. It didn’t on another, where I made the mistake of checking my phone and got sucked in.

    1. I totally agree that flexible/remote work is better suited for introverts. My husband would love to work remotely and wouldn’t have any issues not talking to a human being for three days. It really depends on personality.

      Ahhhh that’s smart to turn off phone and computer/internet and blockout time. I’m not that strong. May I ask if you write on a laptop or with notepad? Do you just hut off wifi when you’re writing on a computer?

      I made the mistake (?) of combining my work and personal phone, so it’s hard to escape. But honestly, I’m just too responsible.. if I see someone needs help (even on my day off) I just have to respond. Ugh, hate myself sometimes.

      1. I know, I am compelled to respond also. Even as I tell myself, “It can wait…” I write on the computer, and I shut down every application except Word and put my phone in a different room.

        My husband would also be fine not talking to another human for days. Meanwhile, I know all the neighbors and their dogs.

  3. (disclaimer: I work remotely for the past ~8years)

    You touch a couple of valid points (blurring the line, lonelines, being “always on”) but! Those are problems of time arrangement/communicating limits more than problem with remote work.

    When I started remote working I ended up in the very similar situation (I was working almost all the time and then there was always still more work) – it was exhausting. Fast forward now – I love remote working (though I would like to have some sort of office banter, but I make up for it) and I could give you a couple of tips:
    * maintain strict work schedule as you would do in the office: you work 8am-4pm and afterwards you close your laptop and are off; ideally you should mute your work mail-account on your mobile and only respond to urgent calls (but only if your contract mandates you to be on call!); don’t touch your computer/phone (for work related activities) during weekend – it’s your time to relax and not to worry/stress about work (and don’t worry about appearing as “jackass” because you are not responding – when you would live the office you would not respond either)
    * if it helps – dedicate some room/space as your ‘office’ and don’t mix it with your personal stuff (apts in US are generally huuuge so that shouldn’t be a problem); if it helps (it helped me a lot at the begining) – find a co-working space nearby or some people in the same situation and rent some space to draw a line between work and personal space
    * for me it worked wonders to start early and finish work early (and then have afternoon to myself) – working until late made me exhausted more often (time to go to bed just after finishing your work and then you start with work next day – bad experience)

    In the end the flexibility allowed me to travel a lot and learn a lot (imaging dedicating 2h daily to commute which I could dedicate to my partner or studying – win/win 😉 )

    1. These are some really great tips!

      Unfortunately I can do a strict 8am-4pm schedule because I’m overworked. I literally eat lunch (and sometimes dinner) at my desk at home and I still don’t finish everything I need to do. I just have to shut my laptop off sometimes because I know that my brain is so fried I’ll get nothing done anyway.

      I do have a separate work space and it helps A LOT. I don’t enter that room on weekends, period (unless I really have to).

      for me it worked wonders to start early and finish work early (and then have afternoon to myself) – working until late made me exhausted more often (time to go to bed just after finishing your work and then you start with work next day – bad experience)

      I think that’s something I should really work on. I get so depressed when I finish work at 10pm sometimes… it feels like I have no personal time, and then I just stay up late trying to prove to myself I can still have time to myself. Then I don’t sleep enough.

      There’s a ton of perks to flexibility, but as an extrovert I think it’s really hard for me. Also, I relocated to Dallas without my husband and not knowing a single soul in Texas. If my husband was here it would be better, but moving to a new workplace and being completely remote really doesn’t help with my friend/social situation….

      Thanks for the tips!!!! I’m glad flex work has been good to you these 8 years 🙂

  4. I noticed you said you relocated without your spouse. Quite a few people at my present company are in the same situation (including myself). Some of us fly back to be with our spouse every other week (3-day weekend). I’m still working on that weekend, but at least I’m with my spouse. Also we spend a lot of time on the phone – not talking, but just spending time together. It’s sometimes FaceTime, sometimes just audio. It makes it much more bearable. Don’t know if these are an option for you. I also recommend exercise, as it forces your mind to disconnect for an hour. You can listen to something in another language if you want in that time.

  5. I love your new blog look! Super clean and fresh. Whooohooo!

    Yeah, I often joke that I teach to get me out of the house. For a homebody like me, I fear working online because I wouldn’t want that human contact until they found my dead body in the shower.

    So, I totally get it. But hey, you took a risk, tried something new, and now you can say you’ve done it. Maybe the flex sched could be suggested? I think that does seem super ideal.

    I used to envy traveling workers until a friend told me all the ways it sucked and that kind of put a reality damper on it. Still. Racking up those miles and enjoying a unique lifestyle. We always want what we can’t have.

    Perhaps in my younger days I might have rocked the remote work sched. My ex is doing that and that’s how he’s segued back from expat life, living in a very small town in the middle of nowhere – and he loves it. I find it amusing when he says he likes the people he works with, but he’s never “met” them.

    Hope you get some balance and breathing room. Sounds like the person above made some suggestions. Good luck! xo

    1. Aw, thanks Lani! I still gotta fix some bugs with the new blog design but I like it 🙂

      Yeah I used to envy traveling workers too, but now I know that… it sucks. Business trips are so draining. It’s nice to have *sometimes*, but traveling on a weekly (or even monthly) basis is just downright horrible. I’m glad I had this experience, but man, it sucks.

      Hahaha I can relate to your ex. I like the people I work with despite never ‘meeting’ them. Unfortunately my job is still tied to the 9-5pm schedule, so I can’t work from some remote beach in Thailand with this job because I need to align with work times in the US. I do envy your friend being able to work from anywhere–but also, it means there’s really no line between work and play at all. Some people do really well with an unstructured schedule like that, but for me it’s rough.

      Thanks for the comment!! I think I’ll be ok, this whole experience has been eye-opening. I used to think remote work would be cool–but it’s actually kinda not, lol. Wouldn’t have known this otherwise!

      1. Never know, never try. 😉

        And as far as the ex- he’s worked with computers (IT) for pretty much his whole career so I think it depends on you and your lifestyle and needs.

        Sometimes we have to take certain roads to figure out what works for us, right?

  6. I’ve been working from home since the beginning of 2016 and I quite like it. It’s true that it is quite lonely, but I am an introvert I guess (that test says I am ISFJ) and besides I’ve always found easier talking to people online than in real life, haha. Working from home has also been definitely good for my health as cooking myself and walking Nico made me lose several kg in the span of a few months (even now, 2 weeks postpartum, I’m thinner than I was when I was working in Shanghai. Those office snacks are the devil).
    If my company was within a reasonable distance though, I wouldn’t mind working from the office one or two days a week.

    However, that “flexible” thing sucks. I’ve always been very firm about working extra time. If there is something urgent one day then of course, but on a regular basis? No way. At 6.30 pm I’m out and if anyone needs anything from me they can wait until the following morning… or they could have asked earlier! It’s just not worth it. If you can never finish your daily tasks within the day, and you are not slacking off (which I don’t think you are doing), then the company is saving a lot of money with you because you are doing the work of two people!!

    1. I know you love working remote, Marta! You always write about it on your blog. I think it’s really good for introverts, but it’s a killer for extroverts. I’m not an extreme extrovert, but it still kinda hits me hard. I miss interacting with real people.

      I wish I could be firm with your 6.30pm rule….!!!

      “If you can never finish your daily tasks within the day, and you are not slacking off (which I don’t think you are doing), then the company is saving a lot of money with you because you are doing the work of two people!!”

      In response to the above–you’re absolutely right. I think that’s why more and more big companies are switching to ‘remote’ work. They advertise it like it’s so cool and they’re being good to us, but in actuality they are having us work twice as hard cause we can always be on the clock. Before we HAD to leave work at the office–but now, we can take it anywhere (on our laptops, mobile phones–literally work follows me anywhere). All my coworkers also work 12 hour days and complain about being tired. It’s sad but I think this is corporate america’s new strategy to kill us and get the most bang for their buck.

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