Miriam Groom, an industrial and organizational therapist and HR strategist, specializes in employee coaching and counseling. In this interview, she shares her advice about how to overcome the most common pitfalls and challenges of being a remote worker.
What are the most common psychological or emotional pitfalls related to transitioning from a traditional office job to becoming a remote worker?
Every individual will experience this transition a bit differently. It really has to do with their personality type. The way people manage their time autonomously and the boundaries they set for themselves are two of the major issues that can cause a lot of stress. “For instance, someone with a perceiving personality type—a type that prefers relaxed, spontaneous schedules, as described by MyersBriggs—may have difficulty with the lack of formal boundaries keeping them in check. These people might end up feeling overwhelmed by too much unstructured free time. Someone who relates more to the judging personality type, characterized by a task-oriented and ‘type A’ personality, however, may find themselves working overtime and on weekends because they can’t separate work from life. Both types can, however, adapt to remote work given the right tools and by learning new behaviors.
How can someone deal with the stresses of having to separate their personal and professional life once they begin working from home?
Those who end up working overtime and on weekends can consider scheduling breaks for activities like eating lunch, doing 15-minute meditation sessions, or simply closing their computer for a few minutes. It sounds obvious, but making personal time a formalized ‘to-do’ item can definitely help people feel more balanced. It’s one thing to tell yourself that it’s time to stop working, but it’s another thing to work it into your schedule as a real activity.
Without supervision from superiors or co-workers, what strategies can you share for staying focused and motivated as a remote worker?
Again, the strategy will depend on the individual and their personality. Someone with perceiving traits will have a harder time staying motivated, as they tend to procrastinate and want to do things that are fun rather than follow rules and check things off their list. For these individuals, asking for routine check-ins with their team can help them stay on track. Ultimately, it comes down to understanding your workstyle and personality so you can identify approaches that make sense for you. There are many tools to discover your working style, such as psychometric tests and other assessments.
When someone starts working remotely, they often feel isolated from their co-workers and no longer part of their organization’s culture. What should be done to counteract this
A sense of belonging is important for all employees, be they extroverted or introverted. Replicating an in-person environment isn’t always possible, but people still need to try to bond. This can include a 15-minute ‘virtual coffee break’ each day or making plans to meet in person if the situation allows it. Companies should encourage casual chatting and virtual hangouts, if they don’t infringe on workflow or take up too much time.
What are some of the signs that someone is not adjusting well to being a remote worker from an emotional or psychological standpoint? What should they do about this?
It can be hard to identify signs when you can’t see a person’s face. Nonverbal cues can communicate a lot, however, so I recommend having meetings with the camera on so you can gauge people’s facial expressions and body language. “Some signs of isolation can include answering fewer emails as well as seeming less engaged and less involved in meetings and other virtual activities. People expressing sadness and depression are, obviously, some of the most obvious signs they need help adapting to remote work.
If someone is having trouble focusing on their work as a remote worker, what are some strategies for regaining and maintaining their focus?
There are different solutions to this problem depending on the psychological profile of the person in question. Someone with a judger personality type may feel overwhelmed without the structure they were once used to. Helping them create a roadmap and then triaging activities so they know where to prioritize their time can help them focus and stay on track. A person with a perceiver personality may end up lacking the discipline needed to perform uninteresting tasks, so helping them identify low-hanging fruit and take baby steps when tackling large projects can help them feel more focused and productive.
When someone takes breaks from work during their workday as a remote worker, what are some of the things they should do to stay healthy from an emotional/psychological standpoint?
Meditation, breathing exercises, and physical exercise are all really important. While many of us have sedentary lifestyles in general, going to a physical workplace usually requires more movement compared to waking up and flipping open a laptop. People working from home should be prompted to get up and move around throughout the day. Scheduled exercise can be a companywide policy if these breaks are kept short so that people don’t skip them.
How can someone overcome anxiety related to being a remote worker and having to take on and learn new skills to meet their work obligations?
When it comes to anxiety, it’s critical to identify your stress triggers and then work from there. Different people become anxious for different reasons, so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution here. Working with a career counselor can help someone figure out why they feel so anxious and how to deal with it. Some remote work-related anxiety may come from having to learn different project management software, time tracking tools, and so on. A creative with a perceiving personality type, for example, might find tracking their hours and creating productivity reports for their remote manager incredibly anxiety-producing. They can consider talking to their supervisor to see if there’s a workaround for this, or they can ask a colleague to take these tasks off their hands if applicable. Finally, honesty is the best policy, and explicitly telling a manager, “These new administrative tasks are making me anxious” can be the best way to manage the issue.
Are there specific scheduling techniques you’d recommend when it comes to balancing work and professional life as a remote worker?
Yes! Schedule downtime in your calendar in the same way you would schedule a meeting. These breaks can include your lunch hour, a quick break to run an errand, or even just 15 minutes to stretch and re-center yourself. “Because people can sometimes get caught up in virtual meetings all day, it’s also important to book meeting-free time to allow for your individual work. Finally, consider scheduling 15-minute meetings as a default, as 30- to 60-minute meetings are often unnecessary.”
How can someone overcome the overwhelming urge to constantly check their work emails, voice mails, and text messages during their off-hours?
People get addicted to checking work emails the same way they get addicted to social media and other online distractions. Understand that screens are addictive, and consider turning off notifications on evenings and weekends. It’s important to take our lives and our health as seriously as we take our work.
From a psychological standpoint, what are some of the biggest mistakes you see first-time remote workers make?
The list is long. Working into the night, not leaving the house, not having any kind of routine (including hygiene routines), not taking breaks, and failing to implement time management techniques are among the most common. Working in a physical environment typically forces us to follow strict routines that include commuting each day, taking lunch breaks, and following a lot of external cues and prompts. We can re-create these on our own in a remote environment, but it takes self-awareness, deliberate effort, and some relearning.
If someone must share their home office workspace with a spouse, partner, roommate, or even their kids, what tips can you offer for maintaining their sanity, and privacy, and avoiding too much close contact during their workday and off-hours?
Like in most situations, communication is key. It’s important to kindly tell the people you live with that you need a certain amount of space and quiet time to work. When it comes to small kids, I recommend using color-coded signs (think red light, green light) rather than a written sign so they can see when you are available. I sound repetitive, but scheduling time to go for brief walks can really help you to re-center, and it relieves some of the stress that can come from sharing a workspace. Finally, noise-canceling headphones are always a great investment.
What strategies can someone adopt to avoid burnout when they experience too much time in virtual meetings?
Virtual meetings can be exhausting. Employees can sometimes explore alternatives to videoconferencing, such as a simple voice call, or they can agree on an email template that allows for a brief exchange of ideas without the need for a virtual meeting. Sometimes meetings are unnecessary or are booked for 30 minutes when they only need to be 15 minutes. My recommendation is to be strategic about video calls so that people don’t end up talking into their screen for hours every day.