UCL News


The freedom trap: How to manage remote working

17 March 2020

Remote working requires high levels of time management and self-discipline and is not always experienced as a lifestyle of autonomy and freedom, according to a new UCL study.

Remote working

The longitudinal study, published in the journal Information Technology & Tourism, suggests that remote workers often overlook the role of discipline when first starting out, and do not foresee how managing work-life balance can become problematic.

In the context of the coronavirus outbreak and expected changes to the future of work, anthropologist Dave Cook draws on the findings of his research to provide pointers for home working.

Cook’s five self-help points for remote working:

1. The best remote work/office set up 

  • Take time to get the right set up at home
  • Budget for key items like a laptop stand if you don’t have a monitor, the right chair to protect your back or a headset if you’ll be on the phone a lot and live in a shared house
  • Make an effort to separate work and home life as much as possible otherwise it will become an unmanageable mess and its likely you’ll experience burnout
  • Set clear boundaries about what spaces and times are for work. Be clear about these boundaries with online co-workers, friends or family 
  • Spend time at the end of each day in first week to write down what works and what hasn’t and re-evaluate this to make changes for the second week

2. Making sure strict daily routines are set up

  • People think they can work from home intuitively. But it doesn’t all fall into place automatically. Think about how you will structure each day the evening before
  • Make a clear division between work and non-work spaces. If you can, work in a spare room away from the living room or bedroom. If you can’t, set up and then dismantle your workspace every morning and evening
  • Create an imaginary commute. It could be as simple as walking for 15 minutes in the morning before you start work. Or walking over an imaginary divide. Ensure that you strictly follow government guidance about whether you can leave your home or not. If you do go out, make sure you follow the correct social distancing protocols.
  • If you can, add rituals like going out to the shop to avoid experiencing cabin fever. And at the end of the first week write down your rituals, pop them on the fridge and stick to them

3.  Homework etiquette

  • Find a way of communicating what your boundaries are to your colleagues and manager
  • Communicate when you are and when you aren’t working (you might need to revisit this from time to time)
  • Be very precise about meeting times and scheduling calls and put them in a shared diary so colleagues can see when you have an appointment
  • Try to avoid only communicating over direct messenger (e.g. Slack) as this can allow for endless interruptions. It’s hard to bring everyone to a decision on direct messaging platforms
  • Try to avoid transferring remote working etiquette to friends and family – i.e. you shouldn’t need to schedule calls with loved ones, allow for some spontaneity in your life

4. Managing distraction

  • Limit smart phone use unless it’s vital to your job
  • Get the right tools whether it is using time management tools like FocusMe or Momentum Dashboard to prioritise your work or create specific times of the day for focused work
  • Blocking out 2-3 hours in the morning for focused work is a popular approach used by experienced remote workers. It’s called MIT (Most Important Task) and it's a promise to achieve your most important task/goal to yourself (and your team)
  • Beware Facebook. You might need to go on there for work (there are work related groups), however it’s designed for distraction, and it’s a time eater
  • Email a to-do list at the start of the day to your manager and check out at the end of the day. You can quickly evolve onto better tools like Trello

5. How to maintain work/leisure boundaries

  • When you are at home, smart phones can easily become distracting time-sucking devices. And work and leisure tasks can blur into a mass of unstructured tasks. Think of your laptop as a work device and your smartphone as a communication device
  • Get on top of your mobile and how you use it. Screen Time of iOS and similar features give you a reality check and help you to reduce use for a healthier, happier life
  • Avoid answering work emails out of hours, otherwise it becomes the norm. And there is no way back
  • At the end of the working day do something that feels good – whether it’s making calls to loved ones, an activity or hobby or going for a walk if you can

Lead author on the study, PhD researcher Dave Cook (UCL Anthropology), said: “Millions of people are now starting to work from home during the coronavirus outbreak – many for the first time. Remote working is not easy even when people make the choice themselves. For some the thought of remote working creates anxiety while for others the prospect of the freedom can appear exciting but quite soon this ‘freedom’ can become onerous, leading people to feel lost and unsupported.”

“People need to have a long hard think about what kind of person they are, what their working style is really like, and to develop the right working strategy accordingly. Think about whether you are someone that needs external structures like deadlines or if you need to outsource some of your discipline to other people. Some people are great at managing themselves, but not everyone is. That’s why offices and teams were created in the first place, and it can’t all be transferred online automatically”

The research draws on four years of fieldwork conducted between December 2015 and August 2019 with 16 participants, 27 remote workers who were interviewees and 25 support staff. The research was conducted within four co-working spaces in Thailand (two in Chiang Mai and two on different Thai islands) and participants were mostly educated millennials under thirty-five from the United States, continental Europe and the UK.

Cook added: “If you are living on your own, going into an office can be the main social interaction. My research showed that those that did really well are couples or people remote working with a co-worker even if working on different things.

“It’s much harder to self-regulate maybe alone that’s why a lot of long-term remote workers go to co-working spaces. People go to co-working spaces even if they don’t know each other because simply being around other people working, increases productivity. This concept is called co-presence.”



Media contact

  • Natasha Downes
  • tel: +44 20 3108 3844
  • E: n.downes [at] ucl.ac.uk