What to Know About Starting Your Career Remotely

Article By: Harvard Business Review
Written By: Kennedy Edgerton

When I first stepped onto campus as an undergraduate student, I was determined to make as many friends and connections as possible. I wanted to form lifelong memories, and ultimately, forge professional relationships that might help my career. You could find me at almost every seminar, interest meeting, or networking event on campus (and maybe even a party or two).

Outside of the classroom, I completed several in-person film and journalism internships alongside my typical responsibilities with the college newspaper, rugby club, and filmmakers club. Calling myself a social person would have been an understatement, and I expected to maintain that level of activity upon entering the workforce.

After graduation, my professional career did start off strong. I was offered a position with Forbes Advisor as an updates editor — though it came with an unexpected challenge: fully remote, online work.

Like me, around 15% of Gen Zs around the world currently work in fully remote positions. For many more recent grads, this set up may initially seem like an attractive option. It offers geographic flexibility, access to a global job market, and in some cases, improved well-being and work-life balance. While these benefits have certainly reigned true, in my experience, there are also unique challenges that come with starting your career remotely.

If you’re a recent grad who is considering this kind of work, you should know what obstacles might come your way — as well as how to overcome them. Here are the challenges I’ve personally faced and the tactics that have helped me thrive in a remote environment.

Challenge #1: Isolation

The most prominent challenge I faced when beginning my career remotely was intense isolation and loneliness during the workday. Video meetings and Slack messages quickly became the norm for interacting with my colleagues. While digital communication did offer some unique benefits — like chatting with people around the world — I missed the intimacy of in-person interactions. Most of my days were spent holed up in my room, staring at a screen for eight hours. I could almost feel my social skills declining, and my mental health took a hit as a result.

Loneliness is not an uncommon feeling for people in my position. Fifty-three percent of remote workers find it difficult to connect with other employees, according to a 2023 Pew Research survey. To manage the loneliness, I knew I had to make a change. That’s when I intentionally began to establish a healthier work-life balance.

How I Overcame It

1) Working from a new place.

I began commuting to a coworking space at least once a week to mix up my work environment and engage with new people face-to-face. Many coworking spaces have open desks with free-for-all seating, conference rooms, lounge areas, and other commodities (like free coffee) that make the experience comfortable. Anyone — remote, hybrid, and even in-person employees — can visit these spaces, which leaves room to socialize.

Watercooler conversations and group lunches used to be a thing of the past. But in a coworking space, surrounded by other people, my workday returned to what I was accustomed to. I formed new connections and my productivity increased. Most importantly, the simple act of getting dressed, leaving my home, and heading to a different location boosted my confidence and made me feel like a part of the workforce.

There are multiple coworking spaces in almost every major city in the country. In fact, coworking space inventory is expected to hit 41,975 worldwide by the end of this year. All this to say, there are plenty of options available. Some spaces allow you to pay daily to access the facility, or you may have to pay a monthly fee (usually between $90 to $250) for a standard subscription.

If a coworking space is out of your price range, a coffee shop is often the next best option.

2) Working with a friend.

If you have friends or family members who also work in a fully remote or hybrid environment, consider doing that work together. You may not get the same thrill of meeting new people, like you would in a coworking space, but you will get to connect with a familiar face.

My sister works a hybrid schedule, so for two days a week, we began to do our jobs side-by-side. This setup was much less isolating than sitting alone in my room. What’s more, working next to a friend or family member eliminates the need to break the ice, and can help keep you accountable and make the job more joyous. Data from Gallup shows that workers with friends around are more likely to remain at a job than someone who primarily works alone.

3) Joining a club or an intramural sports team.

Working alongside someone was just one part of the equation for me. I also needed to be more intentional about connecting with people outside of office hours.

When I was in school, I put a great deal of effort into building community and participating in extracurriculars. I played for the school’s rugby club, joined the local filmmakers association, and worked as a writer and opinion editor for the college’s online newspaper. But once I graduated, bogged down by remote work, I had forgotten the importance of continuing those efforts in my day-to-day life.

If you have an interest in something new or want to return to something you used to enjoy, empower yourself to do so. It can be as easy as going online and searching for local interest groups in your area. Meeting others and forming genuine relationships is easier when you share a common passion or goal, and meet regularly.

Challenge #2: Distractions

When I began to work remotely, I felt like I was waking up and working from my bedroom. In the comfort of this space, with my colleagues and manager miles away, I sometimes struggled to manage distractions when carrying out the items on my to-do list. At any hour of the day, my parents or siblings might call my name, walk into my room to ask a question, or request my help with work around the house. All this, on top of the TV blaring loudly in the next room.

Fortunately, I learned fairly quickly that distractions could be avoided by establishing boundaries with those around me and adjusting my environment.

How I Overcame It

1) Rethinking my routine and space at home.

I established a morning routine — involving breakfast, writing exercises, and fitness — that prepares me for the workday. I also changed up my room to make it more comfortable to work in. I swapped out my old desk for a smaller, motorized standing desk that I placed directly in front of my bedroom window for maximum sunlight. My next addition was a miniature dry erase board placed on the wall next to the window. Now, when I walk into that space, I feel ready to focus, and this boosts my confidence and sense of purpose.

If you also have access to a private area in your home — whether it’s a corner of your bedroom, the guest room, the basement, or another non-communal area — I recommend turning into a “mini office.” It will likely boost your productivity and can emulate the experience of being in an actual office. This is important because, without a boss looking over your shoulder, you’ll need a reason to show up and deliver. If you can make that space bright, physically comfortable, and add a plant or two, you may even enjoy being in it.

2) Removing entertainment systems from my space.

Televisions, personal computers, video game systems, or speaker systems were big distractions in my home space. Removing these things from my environment positively impacted my workflow and helped me separate “work” from “play.”

While it may seem extreme, I recommend removing all potentially distracting technologies from the space you choose to dedicate to work. Keep your television in the living room; turn off your iPad until the workday ends; hide your video game system in the attic or basement; unplug your Alexa or use it only to play music that helps you focus. If you’re someone who frequents social media, you may even consider taking it a step further by removing social media from your phone or placing your phone on airplane mode. (I deleted Instagram from my iPhone and logged in on my personal laptop instead.)

To motivate myself, I take breaks throughout the day to check my personal laptop and social media. In this way, I’ve shifted these distracting technologies into rewards I get to engage with after completing important tasks — and research shows that receiving an immediate reward after completing work tasks increases intrinsic motivation.

3) Establish boundaries with others.

Creating a dedicated space for work and removing technologies from it was only half the battle. If, like me, you end up working in a space where other people live — you’ll probably need to establish boundaries as well.

In my case, I invited everyone in my household to the living room for a family meeting. At the meeting, I expressed my concerns about noise in the house and other factors that negatively impacted my productivity. Following that, I shared my working hours and asked my family members to limit noise and refrain from entering my room during that time. From that point on, they were more mindful of my boundaries, allowing me to maintain better focus on my work.

In your case, try talking with your family members, roommates, or whoever lives in your work-from-home environment to establish boundaries and protect your productivity. For instance, you might ask others to wait until your lunch or off time to interact with you.

A recent Baylor University study found that remote employees who establish breaks for non-work tasks — including chores, self-care, and family interactions — experienced lower stress levels than those who used breaks for other tasks. Another study found that establishing boundaries between the work and family areas of your life can reduce conflict as you transition between them.

Challenge #3: Communication Gaps

As an in-person intern, I had the luxury of popping into my boss’s office to ask for advice on any project, or sliding over to a coworker’s cubicle to request those reports that were a few weeks late.

Working from home, however, limits communication to Slack messages, video meetings, or phone calls. In those first few weeks, I learned that communication delays often stem from two factors:

  • Asynchronous work: Your coworkers may be unable to look at messages right away, as they could be preoccupied with other tasks or working different hours than you.
  • Poor connectivity: Temperamental video conferencing technologies and poor internet connections can cause lapses in communication. Low-quality sound, buffering, and other technology-related disruptions are inevitable from time-to-time.

As a new remote employee seeking mentorship and guidance, the communication gaps caused by these factors could feel frustrating. In fact, 69% of remote workers report experiencing burnout from digital communication tools. For me, getting comfortable working independently and leveraging my critical thinking skills were vital to my success.

How I Overcame It

1) Taking notes and getting clear directions.

When I started at my new company, learning was at the top of my priority list. Team meetings presented the best opportunities to ask questions before tackling large-scale tasks. I could easily message a colleague or manager if I needed additional direction on a specific task. However, that access changed when my manager announced a month-long vacation.

Instead of panicking, I took action to ensure that I would have no trouble getting work done while he was gone. In our one-on-one meeting later that week, I asked for clear and precise directions regarding my upcoming projects and took detailed notes to ensure I could perform well without oversight.

In your own situation, when you’re assigned a new task to tackle at work, go back to the basics you learned in school: Take notes and ask plenty of questions. No question is a bad question — especially when time and money are on the line. During team meetings, ask follow-up questions to receive as much clarity as possible. Synchronous activity is rare in the remote realm, so take advantage of every collaborative moment.

2) Review similar projects for reference.

If you work for an established company, there’s a high chance that a team member has done your job or something similar to what you do in the past. As a new employee at Forbes Advisor, I noticed that other editors had published content similar to what I wrote. When immediate oversight wasn’t available, I reviewed the previous work of the writers and editors before me to get an idea of the unique style and format that Forbes Advisor followed. Although I put my own spin on it to keep things original, my work still adheres to our company’s editorial guidelines.

Your company may have similar projects or forms that you can reference when taking on a new assignment. For example, if you’re a copywriter, there may be organizational guidelines that can help you format any work you take on. Or if you’re a sales associate putting together a pitch deck, check your company website to see if there are examples of how your colleagues have built them in the past.

By reviewing past work and taking detailed notes, you can often find the information you need without relying on someone else for advice.

. . .

Remote work can be a blessing and curse for those just starting their careers. The benefits are now clear to us, but if you’re unprepared for the unique challenges remote work brings, you might struggle to find your footing — especially in those first few weeks on the job.

The reality is that this kind of work requires a significant amount of autonomy, personal drive, and motivation. Fortunately, if you’re willing to lean into those things, you can overcome obstacles like isolation, distractions, and communication gaps to ultimately thrive in your career. Expect your relationship with remote work to be a give and take; if you follow the tips listed above, you may just find the balance you need and enjoy the freedoms remote work can bring.