Remote Work Challenges and Solutions

Jan 16, 2021, 16:21:54

Despite all the perks remote workers enjoy, there are a number of challenges that arise from working out of the office. According to Buffer’s 2019 State of Remote Work report, the most common problem remote workers have is unplugging after work – an issue 22% of respondents said they experience.

Loneliness is the second most common problem (19%) while collaboration (17%), distractions at home (10%), time zones (8%) and staying motivated (8%) are all issues that affect remote workers and the companies they work for.

First, we’re starting with the most common remote work challenges for teams. These are the issues remote teams often experience in terms of working together effectively from different locations and the challenges team managers trying to get the best out of everyone.

📌 Managing projects

Starting right at the top, the biggest challenge with remote working is managing projects when your team is spread out across multiple locations. Whether it’s a mix of in-house and remote staff or an entire team of remote workers, managers are responsible for making sure deadlines are met and targets are hit.

Without having a physical presence, communication is more difficult and keeping track of individual tasks is problematic, especially for complex projects and large teams.

Thankfully, there are tools for just about every challenge a remote team manager could experience. Above all, you’re going to need some project management software to assign tasks and keep track of progress. There are plenty of options available for this like Organisify. The great thing about Organisify is that it gives you multiple project views to keep track of progress while its task management system is great. Tasks can be assigned/reassigned and team members can set progress statuses for everyone to see.  It offers a greater depth of team management features, such as advanced permissions and dedicated pages for teams, and the ability to communicate at the task, project and team level.

📌 Remote collaboration

The most common challenge remote teams report in studies is collaborating from different locations. How can a team of designers work on the same project when they’re spread out across the country or world, for example? When team members are in the same office, they can interact with documents, items, projects and each other without any real limitations.

However, remote teams are highly limited and even interacting with the same document poses challenges.

The good is that, much like project management software, there are countless collaboration tools designed for all kinds of tasks and teams that will help you break down those remote co-working barriers.

The first thing you need for remote collaboration is an effective communication channel. Email simply doesn’t cut it for remote team communications. You need something instant, responsive and flexible. Organisify has established itself as the go-to communication platform for remote teams – and for good reason. It provides all the basic features you need – instant messaging, availability statuses, notifications, group chats, etc. In many ways, Organisify is the simplest collaboration tool for your team and this is credit to how good a job it does of simplifying communications essentials.

📌 Tracking tasks and productivity

Now we’re getting into some of the more complex problems of managing remote teams. To hit big targets, you’ve got to make sure all the smaller tasks are getting completed in a timely manner. Keeping track of the progress multiple remote workers are making on a daily basis can be a daunting prospect.

How can you keep track of progress on individual tasks while also keeping a keen eye on project-wide progress? Well, the project management tools we looked at earlier will help you do that in a reactionary sense. In other words, they’ll show you when team members have started tasks and finished them, but you only get this information after these interactions take place.

They don’t really give you live feedback or tell you how productive team members are being while they work on tasks.

To get a more real-time look at team progress, you’ll want a project management tool like Organisify. The platform prompts team members to provide quick “check-in” details about what they’re currently working on so you can see what everyone’s up to at any given time. Team members can see what everyone else is currently working on, what they got up to yesterday and their availability status. You can also discover which tasks individual team members are most time-efficient with, allowing you to assign tasks to the most suitable person.

📌 Working from different locations, time zones, etc.

One of the greatest freedoms remote working gives businesses is the ability to hire talent from around the world. The downside is, much of this talent can be working in different time zones, which can put your team out of sync. In some cases, parts of your team could be snoozing while other parts are trying to get things done on the other side of the world.

Add this to the freedom remote working gives your team members (maybe they have to or prefer to work in the evenings, for example) and there are no guarantees everyone is going to be switched on when you need them.

The best way to solve this problem is to have a few guidelines in place for your team members. Now, you don’t want to start infringing on the freedoms remote working has to offer but there needs to be some kind fo balance if productivity is going to be achieved.

Ideally, you want the key members of your team to have a fairly regular schedule. It doesn’t necessarily matter when they choose to work, as long as they’re consistent so you generally know when they’re next going to be available. Whether they decide to work specific hours every week or schedule availability time for the week ahead, you generally want to know who is going to be available (and when) on a weekly basis.

📌 Dealing with language and cultural differences

When you’ve got a remote team of workers from around the world, you’re also likely going to have a rich mix of language and cultural backgrounds coming together on projects. The most obvious result of this is varying levels of English proficiency (or other languages) but there are more subtle cultural differences that also need to be understood.

By having a cultural understanding of the people on your team, you’ll be in a position to recognise which aspects of remote working are more difficult for certain members and help them overcome them.

Not all cultural differences are quite so nuanced. Differences in religious beliefs can be more obvious and it’s imperative that these are respected, including religious holidays that may require time off or participation (eg: Ramadan). Where things can get tricky is social/political principles, especially if you’ve got team members in countries where human rights, animal rights or anything else are observed in a different way.

Let’s start with the language aspect first. Above all, everyone needs to understand that language ability is never something someone should be criticised for or made to feel inadequate about. Whoever makes the call to hire team members is ultimately responsible for deciding whether they have the required language skills before bringing them on-board.

Native speakers need to be aware that misunderstandings will happen and take whatever possible steps to make them less likely/severe. Patience is crucial and speaking clearly, in simple English, will make it easier for non-native speakers to understand.

When it comes to important info, send details to non-native speakers via email. When you talk, people only get one chance to understand everything but they can read text at their own pace, read it multiple times if necessary and use a dictionary for any words they’re not familiar with.

The most important thing is for non-native speakers to know they can ask about anything that’s unclear to them without it being held against them.

Now, cultural differences are more complex and they can affect remote teams in two key ways:
  • Some cultural differences can impact the way your team works together
  • Others can potentially cause misunderstandings, offence or disagreements
For example, you’ll often find the level of openness people are comfortable with varies greatly around the world. I’ve already mentioned that complaining is typically frowned upon in Japan and I’ve also experienced a reluctance to say “no” in many other parts of Asia.

The good news is, with a relatively basic understanding of workplace culture, you can anticipate these differences and avoid problems. Practically speaking, it’s no different from hiring someone who’s worked in an office their entire life and training them for remote working – it’s all about adapting work practices.

The more challenging cultural differences to manage are the ones that have the potential to cause offence. A rogue generalisation about religion, for example, or having a strict vegan working with someone from a country with a less-than-spectacular animal rights record.

To avoid potential issues, you may choose to encourage open dialogue about culture, religion, politics, etc. and promote tolerance and understanding across all topics – kind of a there’s no right or wrong philosophy. If that doesn’t work, you may have to discourage all sweeping statements about these topics and keep conversations on more professional subjects.

📌 Building/maintaining trust

There are obvious trust issues that can arise among remote teams when you can physically see what people are doing. In some cases, team members may have never met each other face-to-face and this has all kinds of subconscious effects on trust between them.

We’ve already looked at a number of tools that can help deal with some of these issues – for example, Status Hero helping team managers understand what team members are working on and project management tools that track progress.

However, the are a number of other steps you can take to build and maintain trust across your entire team.

  • Get to know each other: Here at Venture Harbour, we organise team meetups every month and getaways twice a year to build a social bond between everyone
  • Be responsive and reliable: When team members are responsive and tasks are completed on time, trust typically remains high. It’s the equivalent of knowing people are there for you when you need them
  • Promote transparency: Promote transparency at every level and demonstrate the benefits to team members
  • Get the right collaboration tools: Be strategic in your choice of collaboration tools – which ones promote transparency, allow face-to-face video calls, make people accountable, etc
  • Create shared goals: When people have shared goals, they have an invested interest in working together and covering each other’s backs
  • Avoid micromanagement: Check in with team members but avoid micromanagement, as it can reduce incentive
  • Lead by example: Show your team members that you’re trustworthy and willing to trust them
📌 Maximising productivity

Poor productivity is the worst thing for remote workers and also one of the most difficult challenges to overcome.

The longer it takes to complete tasks, the more they eat into your personal life and the less effective you become as a team member.

If you’re am unproductive remote worker, things quickly start to fall apart and working from home (or anywhere else) feels more like a curse than a perk.

Productivity isn’t only an issue for remote workers and there’s a lot of scientific research going into this topic these days. There are also plenty of tools designed to help businesses, teams and individuals maximise productivity.

So let’s take a scientific approach to solving this problem. Here are some key findings from studies that look into the most common productivity killers:
  • Multitasking reduces productivity by up to 40%
  • Humans lose focus on a single task after 5-20 minutes
  • It takes up to 23 minutes to regain focus after being distracted
So, based on those scientific findings, here’s a simple three-step plan to maximising productivity:
  • Avoid multitasking: Set a single goal for each day and focus on achieving that target
  • Work in short bursts: To keep focus at a higher level and increase motivation with multiple short deadlines
  • Remove distractions: Stop unnecessary distractions from killing your productivity
📌 Overcoming distractions

Distractions are another productivity killer that can turn remote working into a nightmare and compromise team progress. Distractions at home were the fourth most common problem reports in Buffer’s 2019 State of Remote Working report and I understand this problem very well.

Some will argue that working from home isn’t technically remote working but, as someone who spent years working remotely around the world and now predominantly works from home, I can say this problem is equally common for me in both scenarios.

If anything, there are more distractions at home than in a hotel room.

A workspace that helps you focus is the best way to block out distractions – something minimal, tidy and practical. Ideally, this should be a separate room dedicated to work and nothing else. This isn’t somewhere you work and then later sleep or occasionally play guitar.

This is where you come to get stuff done and the place you leave when the day’s target has been hit.

That takes care of the real-world distractions but you also have the digital distractions to take care of. You know, those quick Twitter checks that turn into an unscheduled break or email notifications that grab your attention and bring progress to a halt.

📌 Staying motivated

Staying motivated is another common challenge reported by remote workers and I think this essentially comes down to being unsupervised. Without the presence of supervisors and team members, there’s less pressure to get things done and you can also miss out on that group satisfaction of hitting targets as a team.

If you’re working as part of a remote team, it’s important to talk about motivation with team leaders and colleagues. There’s no shame in some of us having more natural motivation than others. What counts is doing everything you can, collectively, to maximise motivation for everyone.

📌 Unplugging after work

There’s not much point in working this way if you can’t switch off after the day is done and it’s impossible to maintain productivity if you never feel like you get a genuine break.

The best way to switch off after work is by getting everything done that you set out to do before the day is over. This is why productivity is so important because it’s you instinctively know that you deserve to switch off when you’ve ticked everything off the day’s list.

With this in mind, you can see why it’s so important that you set achievable targets for each day and routinely hit those targets. Otherwise, you constantly feel like you’ve never done enough and it’s hard to switch off when you’re not working.

📌 Make remote working work for you

Remote working brings a lot of potential benefits to the table but you’re never going to get to a point where you can enjoy these unless you achieve a level of productivity and discipline that helps achieve a work-life balance. There’s not much point in working remotely if your job starts eating into your personal life and vice versa.

That divide needs to remain in place and this can be challenging if you work from home or remote locations. We’ve looked at ten of the most common remote work challenges in this article and solutions to overcome them.

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