16 Oct 2015

Background & Data

A while ago, I posted on Twitter and asked remote employees to tell me, in one word, the hardest thing about working remote.

I ended up getting way more responses than I thought I would: over 450 responses (some of those responses are definitely joke responses -- this is the Internet, after all).

I did a bit of analysis of these words. I started by doing some manual aggregation (changing eg. 'lonely' to 'loneliness') and a little bit of spelling correction. I then grouped the words by frequency, and discarded anything that only showed up once. This got rid of most of the obvious jokes/trolls, but left "pants," which received 7 (!) votes total. I manually discarded that, along with "nothing," which received 5 votes. I then bucketed the data, subjectively (here's the raw data). It's pretty easy to see the themes, even before bucketing. Here are the top 5 words and the number of times they occurred. These results are probably completely unsurprising if you've ever worked remote, or even if you've worked with someone who is remote:

  • communication, 41
  • loneliness, 32
  • isolation, 26
  • timezones, 15
  • discipline, 8
  • After bucketing the individual responses, the themes are even more stark: half the responses relate to the difficulty of isolation, and another 20% or so are about the difficulty of communication.

    Thoughts & Feelings

    My motivations for doing this survey were, honestly, a little selfish. I've been working remote for nearly 3 years straight now, and it's varied between awesome and incredibly, incredibly hard. Things are getting better, but until October I'd been sliding towards a personal nadir: my physical and mental health has been deteriorating steadily for the past 18 months, and I was dealing with a situation at work which felt like an enormous professional and personal failure. I was seeking reassurance that at least some of the difficulty I was facing wasn't solely of my own making; I wanted a sense of camaraderie.

    I'm reassured, seeing this data, that I'm not alone: I feel comfortable asserting that the things that make working remote hard aren't, primarily, logistical; they're emotional.

    I'm a classic nerdy introvert, and all things considered I'd rather be alone or with people I know really well most of the time. But that doesn't mean that being alone in my office all day long for weeks at a time -- even when I get to talk to people on IRC or over video chat -- is good for me. I recently started renting an office with a friend. Now, a few times a week, I ride my bike for 20 minutes to get to the office, say good morning to someone who I don't live with (!), go to a different coffee shop for coffee, go to one of a different set of places for lunch, and at the end of the day take 20 minutes to ride my bike home. On days I do this I am qualitatively happier. As a bonus, I have a place I can leave my work laptop overnight to give myself physical and mental distance from work when I need it. I'm not saying the cure to all remote-work woes is to just go rent an office, but there is something important that comes with a physical separation between work and not-work.

    There are obvious reasons for feeling isolated as a remote: missing out on hallway conversations, not being able to get lunch with your co-workers or go for a walk with a trusted confidante to talk out a hard problem, not being able to grab a whiteboard to brainstorm an idea, not eating the delicious pastries in the kitchen, and on and on. But I wonder if part of the isolation, too, comes from the sense of being isolated not only from your co-workers but from the world at large.

    I continue to believe that organizations that can figure out how to make remote work awesome and sustainable are at a competitive advantage. (John O'Duinn explains this better than I can) However, like anything groundbreaking and transitional, it's hard, and requires constant work to do well. I'm trying my best to figure out things that don't work and try to make them better. I'd love to hear things that others have done to make their experience -- especially the emotional experience -- as remotes better. Hit me up on Twitter (@moishel) with suggestions or anecdotes or just for productive commiseration.

    Published on 16 Oct 2015 Find me on Twitter!