BlogLeon Zucchini12 min read

6 Effects of Remote work: What Science Says and Some

6 Effects of Remote work: What Science Says and What You Can Do

Remote work has exploded over the past couple of years… and it’s here to stay.

According to Microsoft’s “New Future of Work” study, 56% of respondents reported that they already worked remotely in some capacity — and 51% of hybrid employees said that they would consider a switch from full-time to part-time remote work.

But how does remote affect us and what can we do about it? We’ve all had our own experiences over the past couple of years, but what does the science say?

In this post we’ll look at six effects of remote work based on scientific studies and try to draw conclusions about how to make the most of it. We’ll start with three adverse effects and then move on to the more positive aspects.

Effects of Remote Work (according to research)

  1. It can cause work to spill over into private time

  2. It blurs the boundary of work and private space

  3. It’s sometimes related to loneliness and negative emotions

  4. It lets people actively managing their work for greater effectiveness

  5. The increased autonomy can increase emotional energy

  6. People benefit from the greater flexibility it allows

This post draws heavily on Microsoft’s New Future of Work publication (Teevan et al., 2021), so if you’re interested in details then definitely check it out or check out the slide version and more material here! References are included at the end of the post.

To Start: Some Good News

Remote work can have good and bad effects. But we wanted to start of with some good news: It seems people are getting better at managing the balance between well-being and work.

According to 31,000 people from 31 countries in a study conducted by Microsoft in 2022, 53% were more likely to prioritize their well-being over work than before the pandemic.

That’s excellent news for both employees and their employers!

1. Spillover of Work into Private Time

What the Science Says

One of the most significant effects of remote work is that it can lead to a spillover of work into private time. Who doesn’t know that feeling of doing a quick round of emails while on vacation, or taking a call on a weekend?

A recent study by Microsoft found workdays have extended by 46 minutes, with a 14% increase in weekend work and a whopping 28% increase in after-hours work (Microsoft WTI 2022).

It’s intuitively clear that when working from home, the lines between work and personal life can get blurred. That’s supported by studies showing that flexible work patterns impact “permeability” — or the intrusion of work into personal time (Morshed et al. 2021, cited in Teevan et al. 2021).

Working remotely can cause work to spill over into private time

That can lead to problems including among others

  • Less time for self-care (e.g., sleeping)

  • Increased conflict in a relationship

  • Inability to disengage from work quickly

Spillover of work into private time can even make you less productive: According to a survey by Ford, 78% of engineers had trouble managing their work-life balance during the COVID pandemic, and 22% of those even reported lower productivity (Ford et al. 2021).

Some Suggestions

If spillover of work into leisure time has many detrimental side-effects, so it makes sense to keep it in check. But how can you do that? Here are some ideas:

  • Establish clear boundaries between working hours and private time, e.g. email sleep-times or rules about what hours you’ll answer your work phone.

  • Try using separate devices to avoid getting sucked into work during private time.

  • Make a deal in advance: Ask your friends and family to help enforce non-working times.

2. Intermingling of Work and Private Space

What the Science Says

Working remotely can make it difficult to separate work and private spaces.

Research on the way people distinguish between private and work life suggests people often compartmentalize so the two domains don’t interfere with each other (Nippert-Eng 1996). That can be challenging when work and private life are happening in the same place, leading to a feeling of being ‘always on’.

That’s supported by studies a study by Williams (2018) about tools that help people disconnect after work: They found tools that people disconnect can reduce stress and promote wellbeing.

The boundaries between private and work space can get blurred

Some Suggestions

Separating spaces for work and life during pandemic lockdowns was challenging for most people, but now we have more opportunities. Here are some ideas for you to separate spaces for better wellbeing:

  • Create dedicated work and private areas at home (if you can). For example when I work from home I do it only from my little desk in the corner (never from the sofa)

  • Try a co-working space even if you aren’t going to the office. Wherever I go there seem to be a lot around, and it can also be a fun way of getting to know people you would otherwise not have met.

  • If you can’t manage a dedicated work space, you could try putting away work materials at the end of the day so that unfinished work thing isn’t “staring” at you all evening.

3. Negative Emotions

What the Science Says

Working from home can be lonely and isolating.

In a study by Mann and Holdsworth (2003), employees who worked from home reportedly had increased levels of guilt and irritability (though it was based on interviews with a small group of journalists). That was especially true for employees who had fewer opportunities for social interaction with colleagues, which is typical for remote workers.

Watch out for negative emotions and guilt… and keep in touch with people

Another fascinating study by Glint (2021) identified contributors to employee burnout. The top answers by employees who reported a sense of burnout were all things that are related to remote work:

  • 41% felt disconnected to colleagues

  • 38% felt their workload was overwhelming

  • 35% reported conflicts between demands from home and work

Some Suggestions

If you experiencing feelings of anxiety or depression over a sustained period of time, please contact a medical expert for help.

For the more mundane, everyday ups and downs related to remote work here are some ideas:

  • Actively connect with colleagues. Take advantage of tools like video and chat to keep in touch with people at work — maybe even scheduling time to do the outreach. That’s borne out by research from Microsoft (graphic below).

  • **Proactively communicate about overwork or conflicts with private life. **Let your manager know if you’re working late hours or juggling family responsibilities. I’m not sure if they’ll be understanding, but it can’t hurt for them to at least know.

  • **Accept negative emotions like guilt but don’t take them at face value. **Negative emotions normal. Instead of fighting against them, it can sometimes help to try meditating or exercising to help relieve stress and deal with them more effectively.

Impact of strong workplace relationships — from Microsoft’s Study on the New Future of Work

Intermission: Curiosity

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Give your productivity a boost and download Curiosity… and now let’s get back to remote work.

4. Actively Managing Work for greater Effectiveness

What the Science Says

Autonomy one of the key components of workplace satisfaction. With remote work, people have greater freedom in how to structure their days and weeks They’re are using the greater autonomy to plan and track their time on their own (Ahmetoglu et al., 2021)

In addition, people are using the greater autonomy to focus and get more done. Houck (2021) found that meeting volume has decreased by 78% and meeting-free days have increased by 22% (Houck, 2021).That gives people more time to focus on their individual work with less meeting stress.

However, there are also conflicting findings: Microsoft measured an increase in the time spent on Teams meetings by a whopping 252% (Microsoft WTI, 2022).

Changes in the number of meetings — from Microsoft’s “Making Hybrid Work Work”

Some Suggestions

  • Actively manage your tasks — it’s a good idea whether you’re working remotely or in the office. The research suggests that remote work is making this easier and more common.

  • Try to bunch together meetings. That’s another good practice wherever you are, and being able to take meetings remotely should make this easier. It’s also great to have a meeting-free day once every now and again, where you can able to focus on closing tasks and taking care of any lingering projects.

5. More Emotional Energy

What the Science Says

In a 2015 study, Anderson et al. found that*+ **remote workers reported higher degrees of positive emotions and lower degrees of negative emotions than their office-bound counterparts. They found that remote workers reported having more energy, being more productive, and feeling less isolated than their in-office counterparts.

Remote work has been linked to more emotional energy

Sardeshmukh (2012) suggests this could be linked to the increased autonomy that remote employees experience, giving them a heightened sense of control over their work environment. It can be significant for employees who feel like they don’t have much control over their work environment.

Another potential reason is improved technology allowing for better workplace connection (e.g., Lal & Dwivedi 2009). If you feel connected with others and have a sense of belonging, you’ll likely feel more energized.

Some Suggestions

  • Use the additional energy. This is one of the places that letting work energy spill into private life might be helpful: Try to harness some of it for family, friends and hobbies

  • Use technology to further increase your connection and emotional energy, e.g. through informal chats with colleagues

6. Greater Flexibility

What the Science Says

Remote work can be a great way to increase flexibility in your life. You no longer have to follow a 9-to-5 schedule, so you can set your hours and take breaks when you need them.

In a review of work-life integration challenges in neurophysiology, researchers found that people have different needs for work-life balance. Their path depends on their goals in life, pursuits, and circumstances (Feigon et al., 2018).

Another study with Redditors found that greater flexibility at work also led to greater freedom in their leisure and family time (Cho et al. 2022).

Some Suggestions

While working from home, you can control your schedule and work when convenient for you. This can help you feel more motivated and productive, improving your overall experience as an employee and a human being.

  • Try to be clear about your goals. What are you working towards (or for)? That will help you use the flexibility in the best possible way.

  • Use the flexibility for your life, not just for work. Take a walk over lunch, work from a friend’s spare room to spend an extra day with them over the weekend. You know how it works… 😉

Summary

Remote work isn’t going anywhere, so it makes sense to think about how it affects us and how we can use it to our benefit.

The fascinating studies by Microsoft and others provide some insight into the effects of remote work on ourselves — as employees and human beings.

I hope there were a couple of pointers in here that you can use to improve your experience with remote work… and make the most of this exciting opportunity!

Do you have any best-practices or suggestions we missed? Let us know in the comments!

References

Ahmetoglu, Y., et al. (2021) ‘Disengaged From Planning During the Lockdown? An Interview Study in an Academic Setting’. IEEE Pervasive Computing, 20(4), 18–25.

Anderson, A. J., et al. (2015) ‘The impact of telework on emotional experience: When, and for whom, does telework improve daily affective well-being?’ European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 24, 882–897.

Cho, Janghee, Samuel Beck, and Stephen Voida. ‘Topophilia, Placemaking, and Boundary Work: Exploring the Psycho-Social Impact of the COVID-19 Work-From-Home Experience.’ Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 6.GROUP (2022): 1–33.

Feigon, M., et al. (2018) ‘Work-life integration in neuropsychology: a review of the existing literature and preliminary recommendations’. The Clinical Neuropsychologist, 2018, 32(2), 300–317.

Ford et al. (2021) ‘A Tale of Two Cities: Software Developers Working from Home during the COVID-19 Pandemic’. ACM Transactions on Software Engineering and Methodology 31(2) [online]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1145/3487567

Lal, B., & Dwivedi, Y. (2009) ‘Homeworkers’ Usage of Mobile Phones; Social Isolation in the Home-Workplace’. Journal of Enterprise Information Management 22(3), 257–274 [online]. Available at: DOI 10.1108/17410390910949715

Microsoft Study: Glint (2021) ‘Concerns on Virtual Work in a Hybrid World’.

Microsoft Study: Houck, B. (2021). “Happy and productive hybrid developers: How to have it all” [video]. Available at: https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/research/video/talk-series-developer-productivity/

Mann, S., & Holdsworth, L. (2003) ‘The psychological impact of teleworking: Stress, emotions and health’. New Technology, Work and Employment, 18, 196–211.

Microsoft Study: Microsoft WTI (2022). Great Expectations: Making Hybrid Work Work. *Microsoft WorkLab: Work Trend Index 2022. *Available at: https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/worklab/work-trend-index/great-expectations-making-hybrid-work-work

Microsoft Study Morshed, B. M., et al. (2022). Advancing the Understanding and Measurement of Workplace Stress in Remote Information Workers from Passive Sensors and Behavioral Data. (Under Review)

Microsoft Study: Williams, A. C., et al. (2018) ‘Supporting Workplace Detachment and Reattachment with Conversational Intelligence’. Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems., Paper 88, 1–13.

Nippert-Eng, C. E. (1996) ‘Home and work: Negotiating boundaries through everyday life’. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sardeshmukh, S. R., et al. (2012) ‘Impact of telework on exhaustion and job engagement: A job demands and job resources model’. New Technology, Work and Employment, 27, 193–207.

Teevan, J., Baym, N., Butler, J., Hecht, B., Jaffe, S., Nowak, K., Sellen, A., and Yang, L. (Eds.). (2022) ‘Microsoft New Future of Work Report 2022’. Microsoft Research Tech Report MSR-TR-2022–3 [online]. Available at: https://aka.ms/nfw2022

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