Can You Handle a Remote Job? Researchers Explain Why Some People Are Wired for It

"There are negatives and positives."

woman with phone

Recently, I learned that I don’t hate working from home nearly as much as I thought I did. The revelation was the result of a move.

Strangely, I don’t hate working from home if my living room gets a little sunlight and can fit an actual desk and a chair. I had time to make myself eggs for breakfast. I saved about $5 on transit swipes, and probably about $10 on coffee and food. When I wrapped for the day, I was able to watch the evening news, an extremely nostalgic source of pleasure that I don’t often get to experience unless I both leave work a little early and my commute is especially fast (a confluence of events which has in my professional life happened precisely 1.5 times). 

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So why, then, am I still commuting into the office like a sucker? As two of the world’s leading authorities on the topic recently told me, while working from home may have its virtues for many, without it, we might find ourselves missing the office.

remote work
If you only worked from home, you might find yourself missing the office -- and seeing people -- more than you might think.

Why We’ll Always Need the Office

The biggest reason working from home is so alluring to many is that commutes are terrible for our mental health. Just spectacularly bad. A particularly influential study of German commuters published in 2007 estimates that, if your commute lasts just 23 minutes, your salary needs to be about 19 percent higher for the commute to be worth it, happiness wise. In other words, nixing your commute will still make you happier even if you’re eliminating a fifth of your take-home pay.

I think part of this is because commutes make us feel powerless. When something bad happens in our work or personal life, it might be stressful, even profoundly so — but at least we can do something about it. When a traffic jam hits, you just have to sit there and seethe. Fortunately, it’s getting much easier for people to commute less or not at all, says Alan Felstead, a professor at Cardiff University in the U.K. who studies the changing nature of work.

“If you look at all the figures, at almost any country in the world, the share of workers doing some or all of their work remotely has gone up,” Felstead tells Inverse. “There are negatives and positives.”

The positives align very much with my experience. Working from home saves a bit of money, both for workers and possibly employers. (There are some upfront costs at first, setting up the infrastructure to accommodate remote work, but it also looks like these upfront investments pay off in real estate and energy savings, according to RAND.) People who work from home are also a little more productive, work a bit harder, and report higher satisfaction and company loyalty.

So why, then, aren’t we all doing it? Well, lots of jobs simply require you to show up somewhere. But even with jobs that can be executed perfectly remotely, there are some harmful psychological effects to remote work.

“[Remote workers] definitely have greater difficulty at reconciling home and work life. They have more difficulties in deploying boundaries for when they’re working and when their home life is,” Felstead explains. “They have greater difficulty unwinding and are more likely to report worrying about work after work.”

remote workers
Felstead's research shows that the percentage of remote workers, though hard to measure, continues to trend up.

Those are some spicy downsides! And I think they explain some of my previous reticence about working from home; namely that doing so made me feel like the lines between my work life and my home life were more unclear, which can be stressful. Fortunately, I was also able to get a hold of Sara Jansen Perry, a professor of management at Baylor University who has also studied remote work. Perry’s research was a bit more prescriptive: It sheds light on what makes us more predisposed to the remote life.

“When you’re working remotely, you have less structure, less access to people to ask questions about how things should get done,” Perry explains. “The more emotionally stable you are, the more likely you are to find ways around these challenges.”

Perry’s research found that emotional stability — i.e. how freaked out you get about stuff — is a key ingredient to successful remote work, because it means you’re better equipped to handle the ambiguity that will inevitably arise from working on your own. The other ingredient, she explains, is autonomy. Micromanage an emotionally mature worker, and you’ll annoy them. Conversely, workers with low emotional maturity may need those extra touch-points.

So what can we do about this, besides having a manager who is thoughtful and well-studied on the literature about how to best help and incentivize remote workers? Felstead thinks the easiest solution is to put your phone in another room as soon as it’s quitting time. Smartphones, he argues, exacerbate the ambiguity that arises when we work from home. Those after 6 p.m. pings could be an important message from your boss; they could also be a Tinder match. When you’re working from home, it’s important to try and mitigate this ambiguity as much as possible.

Perry had some other interesting advice, which was to think carefully about how much human interaction you need to thrive.

“Having a really rich interaction, like over lunch with someone, might totally satisfy you to be alone for the rest of the day,” she points out. “But maybe you need more, smaller interactions throughout the day. It depends on the richness and meaningfulness.”

To make a long story short: Working from home is great, but only if you’re suited to it. If working from home stresses you out, communicating more with your boss about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it is essential and will mitigate some of that stress.

Making sure you still have face-to-face interaction when you’re working from home is also likely very important. Finding a work-from-home friend to grab lunch with, then, might be the other ingredient to making the most of it.

After all, a long lunch or two is likely justified. Between the time saved on your commute and the extra productivity, you can probably make a long lunch work, get everything done to keep your boss happy, and still have time to make the evening news.