Many employees have been working from home for the majority of 2020 at this point, but that’s not to say that managing remote workforces is now easy or straightforward. Sure, we may have overcome the initial technical and administrative blips that marred the first few months of the great office shutdown, yet there are still a number of cultural and behavioral changes that are going to take a lot longer for employees and employers to get comfortable with.
SEE: Wellness at work: How to support your team’s mental health (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
Winter will likely pose the biggest stress-test that remote workers have faced since the start of the pandemic – certainly from a wellbeing standpoint – as seasonal changes, holiday stressors and fresh waves of COVID-19 take their toll on employee wellbeing. Here, experts offer their advice on what actions business leaders, managers and employees themselves can take to help stay productive and motivated through the end of 2020, and beyond.
Give time back
Remote workers report working longer hours since the start of the pandemic, yet much of this time appears to be spent sat in Zoom calls and virtual meetings. Abby Payne, chief people officer at software company SailPoint, says managers should look at giving time back to staff by cutting down on unnecessary meetings and creating more time for informal interactions.
“To lessen the Zoom and meeting fatigue that we are all battling, designate certain times throughout the week where there will be no meetings. As an employee, if your company doesn’t implement initiatives like this, try to set aside some times for yourself throughout the week,” she says.
“Create space for leaders to engage in casual interactions without an agenda or specific work topic. While it’s hard to fully replicate ‘water cooler’ talk, enabling opportunities for conversations with no formal purpose can lead to innovative, fun, and engaged connections.”
One of the best things that managers and executives can do is lead by example, says Payne: “Be transparent about your own challenges working in this new dynamic. Share what’s worked well and model the behavior for others.”
SEE: COVID-19: A guide and checklist for restarting your business (TechRepublic Premium)
Make IT work
Many employees have been forced to troubleshoot their own IT issues over the past few months, which has created hurdles in the transition to remote work. After all, understanding all employees’ home equipment, such as their routers or network, falls outside of IT departments’ traditional support.
Liz Beavers, an IT and technology expert at software company SolarWinds, says IT can take away some of the technical headaches for staff, which in turn can support HR in reducing burnout among remote workers.
“Now more than ever, it is paramount employees feel supported and have positive experiences with their internal service providers,” Beavers says.
“IT and HR leaders should look for feedback from employees and communicate about various experiences or opportunities, to continually improve the employee experience. Digital tools are the primary mechanism to reach employees quickly and easily – whether it’s fixing a software bug or hosting happy hour over a video conference. It’s through these interactions that HR and IT can identify opportunities to collaborate and innovate business processes.”
SEE: Remote working: Why we feel more burned out now than we did in the office (TechRepublic)
However, Beavers points out that IT departments have been particularly overburdened since offices went remote, and says employees should be given the resources they need to troubleshoot their own issues when appropriate.
“It would be beneficial if there were knowledge articles that provided guidance to help employees independently solve their at-home issues, without getting IT involved,” says Beavers.
“As companies move into the 2021 remote work landscape, I think we’ll see a larger focus on how organizations can educate employees about their own technology and provide knowledgeable self-service portals to help improve the employee experience.”
Most managers recognize the strain employees have been working under in 2020, not least because they’re the ones charged with trying to keep teams engaged and motivated in the face of extreme uncertainty.
Even so, now more than ever is the time to practice empathetic leadership, says Chris Mullen, executive director of The Workforce Institute at tech company UKG. “Every great employee deserves a great manager,” he says.
“Managers need to show this empathetic leadership by understanding where their employees are right now and what’s important to them – because we don’t know what’s behind the scenes. There might be something happening with the family, maybe someone is ill or sick.
“I think it’s okay for managers to ask employees, ‘How are you doing really?’ Because ‘fine’ is not always the best answer.”
Mullen points out that some employees might be too anxious to raise any concerns they have about work out of fear of being reprimanded, or putting their job in jeopardy. Yet the responsibility is on employers to ensure that staff can bring their problems to the table without worrying about any negative repercussions, Mullen adds.
“The onus is on the business to say: ‘How can we help you be more productive? How can we help you curb the burnout, curb the mental health issues?’
“Individual companies need to start thinking [how] to equip your managers to do that.”
Support your managers
While everyone has their own unique problems to deal with, it’s important to bear in mind that we’re all in the same boat.
While some might feel the urge to land blame for workplace stress at the feet of their managers, it’s worth remembering that they too are having to adapt to the new working environment, and much like everyone else, are effectively learning as they go.
“The double whammy for a manager or leader is that oftentimes they are trying to help employees at a time where there’s a high chance they have these issues as well,” says Ania Krasniewska, practice vice president of advisory at Gartner HR.
“There’s a lot of focus on the employee, as there should be: any attempt to shift the stigma and make it OK will go miles, but making sure that we also have that layer of support for managers themselves.”
SEE: Telecommuting 101: How to support and manage a global remote workforce (TechRepublic)
Krasniewska points out that many managers have had to take up an additional role akin to a counsellor capacity in recent months as they attempt to encourage their teams. Managers themselves probably didn’t envision this happening when they signed up to the job, she adds.
“They’re not trained psychologists, although they are close to the people, and they are the first port of call usually for people to raise their hand and ask for help. But sometimes, it’s a question of just putting some of those better communications tools, identifiers into the hands of managers so that they also know what to do.”
Lead by example
Many of us have become accustomed to working remotely during the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we should consider it business as usual. As we head into another lockdown, it’s more important than ever that employees are proactive when it comes discussing mental health, says Emma Carrington, advice and information service manager at Mental Health UK.
“The most effective way to make your workplace mental health-friendly is to talk about it and encourage everyday conversations about wellbeing, being open about what you’re finding challenging and encouraging colleagues to prioritize things that can support their mental health,” Carrington says.
“We can all lead by example too, wherever we are in the hierarchy. If you look after your own mental health, take regular breaks and plan your annual leave – even if there’s nowhere exciting to go – you will encourage others to do the same.”
Employees should also be encouraged to get outside while the sun is still out. “As the days get colder and darker, make sure you adjust your schedule so that you can get outside at lunchtime while it’s still light, and encourage your colleagues to do the same,” says Carrington.
“If you don’t need to be sat in front of a screen, maybe you can take your phone out with you and go for a walking meeting?”
Champion top-down messaging
There’s still a stigma around mental health, which means some people might be reluctant to talk about it openly in the workplace. To combat this, leadership – all the way up to the most senior levels – should lead the conversation around mental health so that employees know they can bring their concerns to management without any fear of judgement.
“Having open discussions about mental health, especially at the highest level, sends a message to staff that it is OK to talk about these issues, especially during the challenging times we are living through,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind.
“To help stay mentally healthy at work, employers should encourage employees, particularly line managers, to continue to have regular catch ups with colleagues, even virtually, and create space to talk about wellbeing as well as work,” she says.
Mamo says it’s also important to create spaces where employees feel comfortable to talk about their problems.
A board representation of age, gender, ethnic background and seniority talking openly about their experiences can help staff feel reassured that they’ll be met with support and understanding, she says.
“Internal communications are really important, as are regular surveys to check how well supported employees feel, and whether there’s anything else you should be offering to promote wellbeing and help prevent worsening mental health, at what is an incredibly difficult time for many people.”
Mental health awareness training can help managers better recognize and support a colleague who might be struggling with mental health, though Mamo says managers need not necessarily be an expert to spot the signs and encourage conversation.
“Ask people how they are and listening non-judgmentally to their response. If someone does talk to you about their mental health, try not to make assumptions about whether or how their mental health may affect their work, and remember what they’ve told you is confidential.”
While businesses should be prepared to offer support to any employees who need it, individuals are ultimately in charge of looking after their own mental wellbeing.
Where possible, try to establish a clear work-life balance. Taking regular breaks and getting outside during daylight hours is a good way of breaking up the work day and helping to create a ‘buffer’ of sorts between work and home.
Also, when you stop work at the end of the day, make sure you clock out properly. “Don’t be tempted to dip back into work, and try to take your mind off work by taking part in something else that gets you away from your physical workspace, such as contacting a loved one, cooking, having a bath or doing some physical activity online, if possible,” says Mamo.
Mamo also suggests consider joining a peer support group to discuss feelings with people who have similar experiences. Mind’s online peer-support community, Side by Side, for example, offers a moderated platform available to everyone with a mental health problem aged 18 and over.
You should also talk to your coworkers if you are finding working from home difficult, says Mamo.
“Working from home can feel really isolating, and while loneliness isn’t a mental health problem, it is linked to our mental health and can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety and so it can be beneficial to schedule in regular check-ins with your manager or colleagues.”