Remote work is making us remote from our work

Emily Hackeling

Emily Hackeling,

Content Marketing at Front

3 December 20200 min read

Why do we feel so unmotivated when working from home? Remote work has many advantages, but here we’ll explore why WFH can sap our energy.

Working from home used to be a triple shot of espresso chased by a Red Bull with a dash of Ritalin for my productivity and focus.

I loved going to the office. I loved my commute — a 20 minute bike ride. I loved the atmosphere and seeing my coworkers and the view out the 6th floor window. The free snacks were nice.

But when I really need to focus, to shut out the world and crank out pages, I’d take a day to work from home. I’d work faster, I’d have more inspiration, I wouldn’t task-switch. In the morning I’d start with a blinking cursor on a blank page and eight or nine hours later, I’d have a 12-page draft of mostly usable content.

Some combination of the change of scenery, a lack of distractions, and an imminent deadline kicked my brain into overdrive. So I’d work from home maybe one day a month, chasing the productivity dragon.

But that dragon is gone now.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I cloistered myself in our spare bedroom for the equivalent of a human gestational cycle. But part of me really thought I’d magically have that work-from-home level of output five days a week. Or at the bare minimum not zero days a week.

Why you feel less motivated working from home

I am not alone.

We took a survey of remote workers and found the same malaise I’m feeling has permeated the majority of employees:

  • 58% say working from home has made it difficult for them to see the larger purpose of their job within the organization.

  • 69% feel detached from teammates.

  • 63% feel detached customers or end users.

  • 30% say they have considered changing careers entirely in this period.

Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi surveyed 20,000 workers to try and understand how working remotely affects motivation, and their results were likewise pretty stark. Remote work, for all its upside, is just less motivating on average. But when you take away the choice of where to work, motivation plummets — 17% to be precise.

Imagine me in February. Office attendance was encouraged, but by no means mandatory. Then it’s April and I’m working from home full-time, no choice. The average worker according to this data would’ve seen their motivation drop over 20 points. Somehow mine feels like more.

All this research was done before the pandemic, so it’s impossible to know how 2020 might have impacted the findings. I’m going out on a limb to suggest they’d be exacerbated. McGregor and Doshi point out that economic and emotional pressure and inertia (that’s the title of 2020’s autobiography) depress motivation, and all our collective life experience says, “duh.”

Stress. Lack of agency. Physical isolation. An unprecedented global catastrophe. A creeping sense of nihilism. That’s what’s causing your lack of motivation.

So just solve all that and you’ll be good.

Distance is the problem

My wife has the opposite issue.

Well, the unprecedented global catastrophe are the exact same. But she’s an optician, and her stress comes from being unable to get away from people. She fits glasses to people’s faces for a living, and no amount of hand sanitizer can cure the anxiety that comes from being so close to so many strangers every day at work.

One thing she’s got up on my situation, however, is she’s got no lack of motivation.

It’s tough to “phone it in” when you’re inches away from your customer’s face. When your CSAT feedback comes instantly in the form of a crease at the corner of the eyes. When how a person sees (and looks) is dependent on your skill.

And despite being closed for much of the spring, reducing hours, and going appointment-only, her business is thriving.

Like I said, her job has its own set of stressors — all of which seem a lot worse than “not feeling as motivated as I used to” — but it does give me a bit of insight into why a lot of us remote workers are struggling with this particular issue.

It’s the distance.

We’re so removed from the impact of our work that we don’t even know why we’re doing it at all.

Getting closer to your customers and your coworkers is the solution

I’m looking at a dashboard of line graphs, bar graphs, and a Christmas tableau of green numbers and red numbers. All my energy and creativity and productivity goes toward making more of those red numbers turn green and making the right-most bar in the graph millimeters taller.

And they’re just so abstract from any sense of emotional validation. The analytical side of my brain is saying, “Yes. Very good. Green numbers means green money.” The creative side of my brain is simply desperate to know if those numbers like me as a person.

McGregor and Doshi write that experimentation is at least one part of the answer to the question of how to increase motivation at work, and their results are compelling. Look how much more motivation there is on the right:

In the abstract they focus mostly on that word: experiment. But I’d like to focus on another word: meaningful. “Allowed to experiment or solve meaningful problems.” The experimentation is only a part of it. They’re not, after all, experimenting with new ways to solve Rubik’s Cubes.

What makes a problem meaningful? I think it’s the effect it has on people.

Does solving the problem improve someone’s life? Does it strengthen a relationship? Does it bring a person happiness? Does it make an impact?

A lot of what you’re doing right now that feels meaningless could be having an impact. You’re just emotionally distant from it, same as me. Like, if a blog falls in the forest, does it make a sound?

We need to take a page out of the retail playbook (not the hours, the pay, or the benefits) and get closer to our customers and coworkers. We need to see the impact we’re making on them with our efforts. And yes, we need to experiment and solve problems, but we can’t just accept the quantitative feedback loop of the dashboard or the scorecard.

We need an emotional feedback loop.

Here’s what I propose:

  1. Spend time with your customers on video chat. Talk to them about what you’re working on and find out whether and how it impacts their lives.

  2. Reach out to your coworkers and tell them how their work made a difference to you. And ask them what you’re doing that makes an impact for them!

  3. Figure out which things you’re doing that don’t make an impact for your coworkers or customers, and stop doing it! Do something else instead!

Front can help with some of this stuff. We even published a remote work guide with more tactical tips for thriving while WFH. But for me, thriving amid remote work means getting less remote from the impact of my job.

Written by Emily Hackeling

Originally Published: 3 December 2020

Stories that focus on building stronger customer relationships