"It is probably going to be the single most important new category in hiring...We're going to see an era of everyone employing remote tech workers, and it's not too far away. In fact, now's the time to prepare for it.”
- Naval Ravikant, Founder of AngelList and Angel Investor
Are you truly ready to embrace a future of remote work? Do you feel prepared for dealing with the unique challenges it brings?
Even before COVID-19 changed everything, we knew the workplace landscape was rapidly shifting. Between 2005 and 2020, the number of remote workers grew by a whopping 140%.
Our recent health crisis has only accelerated this trend. It gave us all a crash course in organizing teams remotely. And, judging by the reports from Buffer, GitLab, and PWC, people aren't exactly thrilled about going back to the office.
We've read their reports and are bringing the biggest takeaways to you. And one of the biggest is that people seem to really like at least some flexibility when it comes to choosing where they're working from - and many organizations are preparing to go down that road.
The familiar challenges of remote work are still here
The issue, however, is that some companies still haven't adapted to less traditional methods of working.
The problems they (and likely you to some extent) are facing include:
- Helping your employees unplug and separate work from free time
- Treating remote and non-remote workers the same
- Having too many meetings that aren't valuable enough
- Embracing the different world of asynchronous communication
Let's take a deeper dive into a few important 2021 remote work statistics you need to know and what you can learn from them to overcome these challenges.
The Most Important 2021 Remote Work Statistics (and 4 Tips for Working Remotely to Take Away From Them)
The respondents come from all over the world, and include both those who had turned to remote prior to COVID-19, as well as those who were forced into it.
We'll be analyzing their findings to show you how to become better at supporting your remote teams.
1. Unplugging has become issue #1 for remote workers in 2021
According to Buffer, the biggest challenge remote workers are facing has changed - it's now separating work from free time (or unplugging). Last year, Buffer's survey participants found communication difficulties and loneliness the most troublesome.
27% of the 2021 survey respondents cited not being able to unplug as their biggest struggle with remote work. Difficulties with collaboration (16 percent), and loneliness (16 percent) are a distant second this time around.
COVID's part in this cannot be understated. With the majority of employees worldwide forced to work from home, many boundaries have become fuzzy. Routines have changed, and while spending more time with family members is nice, it often leads to unexpected distractions throughout the day.
When you throw social distancing measures into the mix, the situation becomes even worse. Not being allowed to go see friends after work colleagues in person makes it easier to forget how long you've been working and remain stuck in that perpetual working limbo.
Key takeaway for managers - help your team disconnect from work
If your team can't unplug at the end of their day, they're in serious danger of experiencing burnout. The most worrying remote work statistics we've seen were reported by Qualtrics + SAP:
"Since the outbreak of the pandemic, 75% of people say they feel more socially isolated, 67% of people report higher stress, 57% are feeling greater anxiety, and 53% say they feel more emotionally exhausted.”
There are plenty of things you can do to help people with these issues. Your first priority should be to make sure people are taking breaks and blocking off time for themselves. Encourage them to work on both the physical and mental aspects of their health.
This could mean exercising, better organizing their living space, talking to their friends more, meditating, or simply taking regular walks outside. Establishing new rituals at home can go a long way in bringing much needed stability to your people's lives.
Here's GitLab's breakdown of the habits that have helped people avoid burnout the most in 2021.
If you want more in-depth advice on how to help your employees structure their day and unplug, you can start by reading this article.
2. Remote is here to stay
As we've already mentioned, the current health crisis has forced all of us into working from home in 2020 and 2021. But it's not all bad - people have become increasingly aware of the benefits remote work brings with it.
Let's take a look at GitLab's report to uncover some of them:
These benefits are something a traditional office just can't compete with. It's no wonder then, that an overwhelming majority of employees would like to work remotely at least some of the time in the future.
According to Buffer, this includes both people who've been remote prior to the health crisis and those who have been forced into working from home due to it (each group accounts for 50% of the survey participants):
These statistics provide a pretty clear picture of the future: remote work is here to stay.
People are now more aware that their jobs can be done from anywhere. They will expect their companies to offer remote-friendly work environments as a result. But that's not nearly as simple as it sounds.
Key takeaway for managers - engaging with remote employees is different than with an in-office team
It seems like providing employees the flexibility to work remotely (at least partially) is on the agenda for many companies. A survey from PWC back in January 2021 showed as much:
The report shows that less than 20% of companies are planning to go back to an office-based model. The majority of them are likely to implement at least a partially remote approach and give employees more flexibility in the near future. Even though a hybrid model sounds awesome in theory, it brings challenges of its own.
Unlike fully distributed teams, where the same rules apply for everyone, partially remote often suffer from a lack of balance.
Remote team members can feel left out of important social interactions like celebrations or last-minute meetings. They are also more likely to feel overlooked for promotions, and underappreciated compared to those who share an office with their manager, among other challenges.
If you're planning to lead a partially remote team, here's what you need to pay special attention to:
- Make time for small talk in your meetings with remote employees
- Use video as much as you can in personal meetings like 1 on 1s (remember: nonverbal communication is important, too!)
- If possible, get together with your entire team face to face at least once a year
- Make whiteboarding and ideating remote-friendly
- Have longer, more meaningful 1:1s with your remote team members
We've written a number of other in-depth recommendations for helping you to manage remote employees.
3. Managing remote employees usually means more meetings
Buffer's 2021 report has shown that 52% of people who were forced into remote work due to COVID-19 are attending more meetings than before. This comes as no surprise. Without the face time we're used to in the office, we have to keep in touch with our teams through more meetings.
More frequent meetings are likely to stay the norm for those people if they decide to stay remote, unless they embrace asynchronous communication. However, we all know online meetings are a lot different than face-to-face check-ins (so much so that we've compiled some scenario-specific tips on how to handle them!).
Your remote team members can't just stop by your office if they want to talk to you. They also can't pull you aside in the middle of the day if there's an urgent issue that needs your attention.
Another problem with online meetings is the possibility of the other person misunderstanding your intent. Picking up non-verbal cues becomes much more difficult if you're not sharing the same physical space and especially when video is off.
Key takeaway for managers - put more thought into your remote one on ones
The best way to counter these challenges effectively is to make the most of your one on ones with your remote team members.
Set aside an hour a week for each of your team members. This may sound like a lot, and it is. You can always end early, but with so much to cover, it's much better to have a full hour available to cover everything and really dive deep into any particular issues.
Expand the topics of your 1 on 1s
Use this time to discuss topics both on an individual and company level. 38% of GitLab's survey respondents noted that more visibility into the work within the organization improved their sense of connection, yet when you're remote it's easy to feel out of the loop on those things.
Asking the right scenario-specific questions is also a great way to improve the quality of your one on ones. It can lead to remote employees telling you about what's bothering them before it's too late to fix things.
They can be questions about their remote lifestyle, such as:
- What's your favorite part about working remote?
- What's most challenging for you in your daily work routine?
They can also serve as a way for you to gather feedback, like:
- Are there any tools that we should try out that could help us improve our remote culture? How do you think they would help?
- Do you think our decision-making process works effectively while also supporting our remote culture? What would you change?
Or they can serve to show you want them to feel more connected:
- How could I better support remote staff like you?
- Do you feel supported by the team so that you could go to anyone asking them for help?
By asking these and similar questions in your 1 on 1s, you'll learn how to unlock your remote team members' best at a time where they're likely more comfortable being candid due to the private nature of the meeting. You can check out our remote work questions for more scenario-specific suggestions on what to ask in your remote one on ones.
4. Asynchronous communication is one of the biggest challenges of managing a remote team
The majority of remote workers are working in teams across multiple time zones. According to Buffer, almost 60% of remote workers said their company operates in 2-5 time zones. 20% percent work in teams that span six to ten time zones, whereas only 2% said that their organization worked in a single time zone.
Most importantly, 74% of their respondents shared that people on their immediate team are in multiple time zones.
This means people are probably used to asynchronous communication, right?
Well, weirdly enough, it seems like we're still not that familiar with async-first tools. GitLab's survey shows that organizations are still reverting to office-centric ways of communication:
Key takeaway for managers - learn how to create an async-first culture
Asynchronous communication is great for a number of reasons. It allows people to give up the usual nine to five schedule and work at peak periods of energy and creativity.
Apart from more flexibility, the point of async-first is to let people work without being interrupted by pings and meetings all day long.
That's why the stat from GitLab's survey is a bit worrying. It doesn't seem like we've fully grasped the culture of working with teams that span across time zones. Luckily, there are simple steps you can take to prepare for a truly async-first future.
These steps were recently outlined by Doist CEO Amir Salihefendić, and include:
- Use tools that promote deep work and async communication. This includes Github pull requests, Basecamp, and Twist or email over Slack. These tools are unlike real-time communication apps which can lead to an ASAP, always on, notifications-heavy culture.
- Make sure your team members are good at written communication and coach up those struggling with it. This will reduce the need for more frequent meetings, because good writing skills are a must in an async culture.
- Give people time to consider something and set reasonable deadlines on when you expect an answer, as opposed to expecting an instant response.
- Have communication channels for emergencies. However, don't resort to using them too often - this defeats the purpose of being async in the first place.
If you don't have a process for asynchronous communication, you're risking creating more difficulties for your team members. According to GitLab, 24% of employees think this can lead to silos in the workplace.
Switching to a more asynchronous communication format isn't as easy as flipping a switch, but there are certain things you can do to become better at it. They include:
- Preparing ahead of time
- Paying special attention to your tone & emotion
- Being clear & specific
- Starting with the gist of an idea first, and then evolving it as your team familiarizes itself with it
As you start mastering asynchronous communication, you and your team will start noticing some crucial benefits.
You won't feel like you need to respond to a message instantly and you'll avoid building up stress from constant interruptions. For more tips on how to get better at engaging your team remotely, you can check out this post.
We may think we're used to the challenges of remote work by now. However, the remote work statistics from these 3 studies in 2021 have shown us otherwise. These challenges are evolving, and they will continue to change as we move into an increasingly remote future and offices re-open post-COVID.
We live in a world riddled with distractions, and unplugging is now by far the biggest problem for distributed teams. Working whenever you feel like it can easily turn into working continuously throughout the day. That's why managers need to pay special attention to ensuring their team members disconnect from work often enough.
As we've seen in PWC's report, most companies are planning to allow people to work remotely at least some of the time. This is a contrast to 2020 and most of 2021, where everyone was forced to work from home all the time due to COVID-19.
That's why leading partially remote teams will become another huge unforeseen challenge for most of us. When working conditions aren't the same for everyone, the risk of remote team members feeling left out becomes very real.
Add to that our inexperience with truly asynchronous communication and remote 1:1s, and it seems like we have a lot of learning and adjusting ahead of us.
Lighthouse helps remote leaders and we're remote, too - here are more tips for working remotely
The entire Lighthouse team is remote. That's why we have plenty of experience, and seek out other experts to share how to make remote work easier for you.
On top of reading the links we included in this post, there's another proactive way of preparing for the future: Try a 21-day free-trial of our Lighthouse software, and you'll receive actionable advice on how to bring out your remote team's best.
This includes situation-specific questions for getting people to open up about any remote working challenges, plus a rapport section to remember key things about your team, all so everything you need is in one place.
Lighthouse integrates with your favorite tools including as Slack, Trello, Todoist, Teams, and Outlook, which are key for the success of many remote teams.
Start your free trial today to see why hundreds of managers are using it to stay connected to their people, even when they're continents away.