The last twelve months has seen a massive shift towards remote working across many industries. While the UK may be gradually moving towards a more normal situation, it is likely that working from home, or at the very least a hybrid arrangement, is going to remain a common feature of working life. Indeed, several large companies, such as BP and the Nationwide Building Society, have already signalled their intent to offer employees more flexibility in their roles in the future.
For many years, there has been a call for employers to be more flexible and offer remote working options, especially for working parents, workers with chronic illnesses or disabilities and those with caring responsibilities, however change has only happened now as companies have been forced to adapt by the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic.
While remote working does offer employees more flexibility and more control over their work life balance, it also poses many challenges. With the move towards remote working enforced at short notice, some companies have managed better than others to put in place the necessary support.
Factors to consider range from the technical, i.e, what platforms to use to collaborate, internet issues and how to overcome them, to the more people focussed problems. Once your team is up and running remotely and the practical considerations are taken care of, how do you keep your team engaged and feeling valued?
At a time when we as a nation are already experiencing high levels of loneliness and isolation caused by being kept apart from family and friends, it is even more important that the mental wellbeing of your team is a priority. It's important to remember that not every member of your team will enjoy working from home, many will lack adequate space at home to turn into an office, some will have less than reliable internet, and many will be juggling other responsibilities. Even the quietest employees will more than likely miss the social interaction of office life. Furthermore, a recent survey by jobsite Monster, found that 69% or respondents reported experiencing symptoms of burnout while working from home.
So what can business leaders do to look after the mental wellbeing of their team while working remotely?
This is when those leaders who have put in the time and effort to establish an open and transparent culture will see the benefits. It is vital that your team feel able to ask questions, voice concerns and suggest improvements. With a positive and open culture in place, it is easier to create a supportive environment where employees are engaged and feel valued. It also means that they are more likely to acknowledge when they are struggling and ask for help.
This is one area where the leadership really needs to set an example. Working from home can rapidly lead to the blurring of boundaries between the professional and personal, so there needs to be clear and consistent guidelines in place. For example, sticking to a daily timetable, with no out of hours or weekend emails might work. Another idea is to keep work channels strictly for professional use and maybe have a dedicated platform where colleagues can socialise or discuss other matters if they wish.
Take a Break
Following on from the above point, employers must ensure their team take adequate breaks, for example sticking to a clear lunch break to ensure everyone can take a moment to relax and recharge. Similarly, employees must be encouraged to use their annual leave, and not be contacted during this time.
Jane Fraser, CEO of CitiGroup has introduced 'Zoom free Fridays' as a way of counteracting the stress of working from home during a pandemic. Think about if there are ways you can give your team some breathing space and get them in the diary.
It's a good idea for leaders to take time for regular catch ups with your team, both collectively and individually. Group meetings where colleagues can set the agenda can be useful. Some team members work better in a group and may feel emboldened by the presence and support of their peers, while others may prefer the more individual approach. A weekly check in with everyone where they can bring up more private matters is a good way to keep the channels of communication open.
It's vital that this communication is also a two way exercise, again coming back to our first point about the importance of establishing an open and transparent workplace culture.
Signpost Sources of Help
It is incredibly important that employees are able to access help as and when they need it, without fear of stigma or rejection. There are external bodies that can offer help and support, such as trade bodies, ACAS or Mind, but in the long term it is good to think about your in house offering.
Research by mental health charity Mind found that 56% of employers said they would like to do more to improve staff wellbeing but don't feel they have the right training or guidance.
One option is to think about implementing mental health first aiders, in order to provide support for your team and identify possible areas of concern. By putting mental health on the same footing as physical health, it sends a clear message that any issues will be taken seriously.
Fundamentally, what must be emphasised is that it isn't enough to make a token gesture or short term spotlight, it has to be woven into every aspect of workplace culture and policy. As a recent FT article pointed out "It is not enough to say you offer corporate support for mental health: employers need to practise this"