Working from Home in Challenging Times. How to Support Your (Newly) Remote Workforce.

To help protect their employees during the Coronavirus outbreak, many organizations have asked their staff to work from home. 

Working from home isn’t a new concept - in 2019, Owl Labs found that nearly two-thirds of people spend a portion of their time working remotely. For employees, working from home has many benefits (goodbye, rush hour!) but there’s also significant drawbacks, particularly when the transition has been dramatic and abrupt. 

Even for employees who have years of remote working experience, the current situation has the potential to be extremely frightening, stressful and demotivating. Virtually overnight, many in-person employees have become remote employees, with no clear idea when they’ll be able to return to the workplace. 

April is National Stress Awareness Month, and now more than ever it’s crucial that employers support their staff - so what are the steps you can take, to ensure your employees remain motivated, positive and healthy, during these challenging times? 

4 common remote working challenges - and how to overcome them 

There’s the misconception that working from home is easier than heading into the office - you can dodge the morning commute; run your business from the comfort of your sofa, and formal business attire becomes a distant memory. 

In reality, working from home presents plenty of challenges. 

Even if you previously gave employees the option to work from home, the current situation is drastically different. Before, your staff were free to pop back into the office at any point, and they didn’t have the additional stress and uncertainty caused by an ongoing global health crisis. 

In these challenging times, even employees who have previous working-from-home experience, may find themselves struggling to cope. 

In this article, we’ll cover all the major challenges of remote working, and then explore ways that you can help your employees navigate these challenges. 

1. Reduced managerial support and supervision

For remote workers, keeping in close communication with their project leads, managers and supervisors is crucial. Even an employee who genuinely wants to remain productive and motivated while working from home, may become frustrated and demotivated if they’re not getting the managerial support they require. 

To help keep employees motivated, managers should schedule regular check-ins with their teams. These sessions might take the form of one-on-one audio chats; weekly video conferences with their entire team, or managers can simply set a few minutes aside each morning, where they can catch-up with their employees over instant message. 

For the best results, these sessions should be regular and predictable, with managers defining clear rules regarding the frequency, timing and means of communication. Your employees will feel much happier, if they know they have a 9AM video chat with their manager scheduled every morning, instead of the vague promise that their manager will speak to them “at some point” during the day. 

2. The breakdown of workplace relationships

While it’s possible to run your business via email and instant messaging alone, this will almost inevitably have a negative impact on interpersonal relationships. When communication is purely text-based, it can cause issues that may not have occurred if employees had the opportunity to communicate in a more natural way. 

Consider how easy it is to read an SMS in the “wrong” tone, and assume that the sender is being rude or sarcastic. Now, imagine that your employees are exchanging hundreds, or perhaps even thousands of emails and instant messages every single day - that’s a lot of opportunity for misunderstandings! 

Email and instant messaging may be more convenient, but it’s vital that you monitor how your employees are communicating, to ensure they still have contact outside of the written word. 

If you’re using a communication and collaboration tool, then your employees should have easy access to video and audio conferencing. Video conferencing in particular can give your employees many of the same visual cues as face-to-face interactions, providing valuable context that enables coworkers to better understand each other’s emotional and mental state. 

When employees have this context, they’re more likely to correctly interpret subsequent text-based communication. For example, during a video conference it may become clear from an employee’s body language, tone of voice and expressions that they’re under a significant amount of stress. An employee who has this insight, is more likely to be understanding if they receive a subsequent instant message that seems terse, or simply a bit “off” - correctly assuming this is the behaviour of a stressed coworker, rather than the sign of a deeper issue. 

Video and audio calls also tend to have a more informal feel, compared to written forms of communication such as email. This informality can encourage more casual communication between coworkers - even something as simple as chatting about weekend or evening plans at the start of a conference call can help maintain healthy working relationships. 

3. Loneliness and social isolation  

Loneliness has always been one of the biggest challenges of remote working. 

Until recently, there were lots of ways that employees could work from home without becoming socially isolated - whether it was joining a gym, enrolling in an evening class, volunteering, or simply making a point to visit friends and family during the working week. However, the Coronavirus outbreak has made many of these activities impossible. 

In the worst case scenario, one of your employees may be self-isolating due to a suspected infection or because they have a medical condition that puts them at increased risk of developing a severe illness from COVID-19. Self-isolation is a uniquely lonely experience that can potentially have a devastating impact on a person’s mental health, but even if your employees aren’t completely isolated then chances are they’re still suffering from a lack of social interaction. 

Unfortunately, in the current climate you can’t “fix” the problem of social isolation, but you can take steps to help fulfill some of your employees’ social needs. 

Many communication tools allow you to create channels, so why not create a channel where employees can discuss non-work related topics? 

It’s possible that some of your employees may be hesitant to use these informal channels - what if they make a post and no-one responds? What if their manager disapproves of them spending so much time discussing the latest Netflix shows, when they could be focusing on work instead? 

You may need to give your informal channels a nudge, in order to get the conversation started. For example, you might post links to a few interesting articles, or ask a question - even something as simple as asking your employees whether they had a good weekend can be enough to spark conversation. 

You may also want to arrange video or audio hangouts outside of regular working hours. To make these hangouts more appealing, you could schedule some activities, such as multiplayer games or a virtual pub quiz. If you really want to boost morale, then why not turn these hangouts into virtual office parties, by ordering takeout for everyone who joins the call? 

While this kind of virtual hangout may sound forced and perhaps even a little cheesy, it can provide a much-needed distraction for anyone who’s currently stuck at home. For a remote worker who’s spent their entire week in self-isolation, the prospect of hanging out on a livestream with their colleagues, can be a huge morale boost. 

If you don’t want to arrange your own hangouts, then there’s plenty of third party events happening online. Countless organizations and individuals are running virtual events ranging 

from online exercise classes, to Instagram Live gigs from well-known artists, and even tours of popular tourist attractions such as aquariums, zoos and museums. For employees who are stuck indoors, having a full schedule of virtual events can help them maintain a positive mindset during these challenging times - plus, it gives them something to talk to their colleagues about! 

If you’ve created one or more informal channels, then who not ask employees to share information about any events they’re planning to “attend”? Logging into the same livestream as a coworker and then chatting about the experience afterwards, can help your employees feel like they’re still part of a team, and give them some much-needed social interaction. 

4. Poor mental health

If your employees are feeling socially isolated, then it’s going to impact their mental health. However, in the current climate there are many other factors that may also be chipping away at your staff’s mental wellbeing, including financial uncertainty, worry for vulnerable friends or family members, or concern over their own health. 

As a responsible employer, you need to ensure that your staff know where to find support, if they need it. 

There’s many different ways that you can support your staff, including working with HR to create a formal mental health policy; nominating a staff member who’ll act as a designated point of contact for any employee who’s struggling; or you might schedule some training, for example enrolling your workforce for an online mental health course, workshop or webinar. 

You should also consider circulating some useful resources amongst your staff, for example charities such as The Mental Health Foundation have produced guides to looking after your mental health during the Coronavirus outbreak, and the NHS Mental Health Services have compiled a reading list focused around maintaining a healthy mindset. Even emailing your staff links to a few of these resources, can be enough to open a dialogue surrounding mental health, and clearly communicates to your workforce that you take their mental wellbeing seriously. 

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