Even when it’s imposed, remote working can have concrete benefits – let’s make the most of them. At the same time, be mindful of the real risks and plan for them.
Start with awareness raising
To ensure that the benefits and risks are understood, run a (webinar type) session for everyone who’s being required to work from home.
Having leaders who have been trained in the basic management of mental health plus a cadre of mental health first aiders will both help enable a safe and productive work environment during any period of imposed remote working. There is obviously great uncertainty in a moment of this sort. Inevitably too, there’s greater pressure when people work remotely: it becomes more difficult to spot low mood and the signs of mental ill health.
Suggested content of any initial engagement with your people
Without doubt, remote working is an opportunity, position it as such. Perhaps explore combining healthy living advice around sleep, activity levels, nutrition, gym membership, mindfulness apps etc.
At the same time explore the possible downsides and encourage each team to discuss and develop their own norms of communication to combat those downsides. Where agreements are made about how the team will communicate, it’s important to make specific individuals accountable for ensuring that those different elements actually happen.
As part of any discussion it’s particularly important to ensure that:
anyone working remotely is aware of the support mechanisms being made available to them: apps, mental health first aiders, EAP, counselling etc.; and
individuals understand that they are going to be asked about their mental health and that there’s an expectation they will talk about how they’re feeling: these conversations should be seen as normal.
Remote working – the pros
- Enhanced productivity - more focused approach to work, less distraction.
- A dividend for everyone (including potentially the employer too) from less travel time.
- Potentially better for health, people can work during the hours that fit their energy cycles.
- Significant environmental dividends too.
Remote working – the cons
- Acknowledge that remote working can be isolating.
- Remote workers are more susceptible to feelings of self-doubt.
- Also less easy to switch off e.g. checking emails throughout the evening/weekends.
- Lack of human connection. Harder to spot any changes in behaviour due to lack of physical interaction.
- Possibly easier to assume everything’s is ok when it’s not. Can’t see if colleague has mental health challenge.
Buffer’s report – The State of Remote Work (2019)
Sample size of 2,500 across 15 countries identified the biggest struggles of remote working as:
(not) unplugging after hours;
Tips for staying connected
We have to work harder to make sure we are connected during imposed periods of remote working.
- Establish set hours when everyone will be online. This can work well across multiple time-zones. Allow perhaps three core hours each day. Helps to create more sense of team camaraderie.
Think about the tools that you use, stick with ones designed for remote teams: Zoom; Google Meets; Skype for Business; Slack; Twist; Microsoft Teams; Trello; Boomerang. Consider:
real-time collaboration e.g. Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams;
tasks, transparency and more e.g. Trello; and
planning meetings & time zones/tracking time off – Boomerang, Doodle.
- Virtual tea breaks - schedule some time with a colleague working remotely for a general, relational rather than transactional chat, the kind you might have if you bump into someone in the local communal area. Not just leader/manager with one of their team; peers too. This will help both parties.
- Virtual fireside chats? An open call for anyone who wants to dial in. Maybe just 30-40 minutes a week? Can be positioned solely as a bit of fun, a mid-week social call for people who want to catch up with colleagues. It may feel odd without some structure, so experiment. Perhaps specific topics can be covered off – maybe use the forum to discuss a topic the team needs to address (but this is possibly stretching the concept). Could a game or other sort of distraction be organised?
- Updates and newsletters become an obvious tool.
- Encourage everyone to add a profile picture to their outlook email profile. It doesn’t have to be them – but something that creates a talking point.
- Consider increased use of team surveys – something to creates topics of discussion.
- Of course, if social distancing policy/rules allows the team to meet face to face, retreats, mini-retreats or events become important too.
Communication (best practice)
- Weekly check-ins become mandatory.
- Standard, transactional/managerial communication to include goal setting and clear outputs. Avoid reliance on random office interactions to help get things done.
- Place more focus during periods of enforced remote working on: weekly/monthly priorities; having more regular reviews/career conversations; and particularly ensuring that achievements are being formally/explicitly recognised.
- Possibly explore/consider use of: stress/health assessments, reviews, follow-ups: and pulse or similar surveys (on engagement?)
Specific tips for managing mental health during periods of remote working
- Keep in touch with the person – not just their work output.
- More regular communication helps a manager/leader to assess if somebody is struggling with their MH.
- Important that regular discussions about workload become part of the weekly check-ins.
- Tell stories, talk about how you, how others on the team are finding it: the good and the bad. Leave space and listen for any response.
- Promote peer to peer connection in your team.
- Encourage people to: take breaks, exercise properly,focus on what they’re eating; and not become hermits!
For managers/leaders and for mental health first aiders
- Mental health first aiders can play a proactive role during an enforced period of remote working: they can acknowledge that mental health issues are linked to remote working and specifically ask about how people are adapting. Also they can suggest themselves as someone to raise issues and suggestions with.
- Openly acknowledge that there can be serious mental health issues linked to working remotely. People are not alone in these struggles and it’s okay to not be okay.
- Ask specifically about how people are adapting to the new way of working. Listen non-judgementally to what they say. Make suggestions.
- Encourage people to do things that remind them that they are part of something bigger than their home office.
For the workers themselves
Establish a work zone at home. A dedicated workspace can be crucial for productivity and focus. A space you can step into and then leave, close the door on or walk away from when the working day is done.
Stick to a schedule! It can be easy to procrastinate or overschedule yourself when away from office. Also important to wake-up at a certain time, get showered and get dressed just like you would if going into an office environment. Routine can be key.
Practice self-care. Time to disconnect is important. Take some time out each day for exercise/meditation. Get out of the house, get out of your head! Make time for some social activities e.g. lunch, coffees, dinner. Rest and relaxation are important.
Your key resiliency components are likely to be more difficult to maintain when you’re isolated and working in a vacuum. Manage your physical energy proactively and focus on ways of maintaining your:
perspective and emotional intelligence;
clear sense of purpose and values; and
strong social network/connections (which may require ingenuity during a period of social distancing).