Remote Working And Mental Health: How Leaders Can Support Employees
The office as we knew it is dead. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies around the world have recognised that their employees now need to work remotely. This crisis is in all likelihood to bring about the emergence of a new normal in the professional scenario, that of remote teams or distributed workforces making the actual geographical location of a person inconsequential while discharging their professional commitments.
Indeed, a March 30, 2020 survey by Gartner found that a significant number of American workers who have been forced to stay indoors and work-from-home because of the pandemic may in all probability see themselves permanently shift to this altered work arrangement. The survey included 317 CFOs and business finance leaders and concluded that 74% expected at least 5% of their workforce who previously worked in the company's premises will post the pandemic crisis, turn into permanent work-from-home employees.
The shift to working remotely has been a challenging transition for all stakeholders. Employers who initially feared that productivity would take a toll have been convinced otherwise; researchers at Airtasker polled 1,004 full-time employees in the U.S. and found that working from home had increased their productivity. However, the transition has also introduced conflict between employees' personal and professional lives. With the blurring of the traditional 9-to-5 window, and the juggling of work and deadlines with home-life, employees face added anxiety, stress and strain.
Remote working can impact mental health due to enforced isolation, anxiety and an increasing lack of work-life separation. A 2017 United Nations report found that 41% of remote workers reported high stress levels, compared to just 25% of office workers.
Business leaders are at a crossroads right now. How they tackle mental health in the remote workplace will determine the organisation's profitability in the coming years. Happy employees are believed to have higher levels of productivity and perform better in leadership positions. They are also less likely to take sick days or burn out and quit. In fact, in a study conducted by research company, Psychological Technologies, it was discovered that if every employee in the country was 1% happier, it could add an extra £24 billion to the UK economy.
Here's how leaders can better support mental health for their teams:
Addressing Isolation And Keeping Employee Morale Up
A study on loneliness and social isolation has shown that it can be "twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity." Daily interactions reinforce a sense of well-being and belonging in a community. For workers in remote teams who have grown accustomed to group lunches, team meetings and watercooler conversations, feelings of loneliness are likely to intensify as they no longer have the physical presence of a colleague to turn to.
To address this, leaders can set up peer-guided check-in systems to ensure no employee feels isolated. A few minutes of non-work-related chat before a meeting can also go a long way in promoting social interaction, as it allows workers to reconnect and talk about daily stressors and successes.
While traditional team bonding activities and excursions are difficult to execute when teams are located in different parts of the world, strategically designed virtual team building activities can fill this vacuum. For example, GitLab, which has the largest all-remote workforce in the world, encourages setting 'virtual coffee breaks’ during work hours for its team members to foster collaboration and create a more comfortable work environment. Companies like Kahoot and Steam make it easy for remote teams to connect through interactive games that can be played from anywhere. Else, icebreakers like “Favorite Things”, a virtual trivia night with prizes held on Zoom can work as well.
From encouraging your team to share pictures of their work desks at home to collaborating on fitness challenges, these initiatives will improve team morale and make your employees feel unified and supported.
Burnout is a systemic problem that is largely driven by an organisation's culture. With remote workers and distributed teams, leaders unable to supervise their teams in person might feel the urge to micromanage their employees. As a result, managers have resorted to draconian measures to make certain each employee is always online and working, such as instructions on "responding within just a few minutes to a Slack or Google Hangout message from your colleagues" as this demonstrates.
But this will only lead to feelings of insecurity and unnecessary stress. It erodes morale. Employees may feel pressured to demonstrate that they are working despite not being in the workplace which can result in them needing to prove that they are working every minute of the day. Case in point: a 2019 survey by cloud infrastructure company Digital Ocean found that 82% of remote tech workers in the U.S. felt burnt out, with 52% reporting that they work longer hours than those in the office, and 40% feeling as though they needed to contribute more than their in-office colleagues.
Therefore, leaders need to be flexible to prevent employee burnout. Instead of synchronous work, use asynchronous tools and channels such as Google Docs or Slack as much as possible, so that workers can contribute to a project or discussion in their own time. "The crisis accentuates what remote companies already understand-that work does not need to happen at the same time," comments Prithwiraj Choudhury, an Assistant Professor in the Technology and Operations Management Unit at the Harvard Business School. "If you post a message in Slack, trust that people will be responsible and come to it when they can."
It's also important for leaders to measure productivity based on outcomes their employees produce, not the hours they work. And trusting employees to accomplish what has been agreed they should accomplish is key to this. Natalie Nagele, the co-founder of Wildbit, which has 29 team members across 5 countries working on multi-million dollar products for developers, agrees. "I think there’s an opportunity here to learn how to be a manager that values output, not time-in-seat," she comments. "To me, the value of remote work is that trust and that ability to empower every person to manage their time, to manage their days and their responsibilities around an output. We make a promise to each other: I’m gonna deliver on this thing, and if I can’t deliver it to you, I’m going to communicate why."
Striking A Work-Life Balance
When working in a remote team, employees can find that the spatial and temporal boundaries between the office and their private lives blur, leaving people struggling when maintaining work life balance. School is out and workers who are parents have additional responsibilities to entertain and educate their children, or to take care of their elderly relatives.
Leaders can help support employees by negotiating schedules that enable them to juggle both work and family responsibilities. Let them decide the best times and ways for them to work. By doing so, employees will have the freedom to figure out times of the day when they are the most productive. This will enable them to focus better, and be more efficient in terms of their output. Companies can also launch a dedicated parents' social channel to give employees an outlet to share their concerns, connect with colleagues facing similar challenges, and exchange tips and advice.
It's important for this flexibility to extend to the entire team, as everyone deserves to be able to sign off from work, and enjoy some downtime with friends and family.
The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the surprising ability of many organisations to adapt swiftly to the physical needs of its workforce. With the right initiatives and leadership, they might be able to support employees' mental health needs too.
Now more than ever, empathetic communication between leaders and employees is essential for both their mental health and the business health of the company. If leaders are flexible, supportive and trusting, employees feel more enthusiastic and motivated to get their work done. Projects will be completed on time. There is a higher quality of work. And according to Gallup, highly engaged teams show 21% greater profitability for companies. It's a win-win for everyone.
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Image credit: Safety At Work