Remote Workplace Wellness
Fitness classes. Nutrition challenges. Team building exercises.
All of these are great examples of workplace wellness programs designed to help support both the physical and mental wellbeing of employees. Effective wellness programs not only help employees, but they also improve engagement, increase overall productivity, and can help with recruitment and retention efforts.
But there is a new wellness challenge for today’s employers. FlexJobs reports that that remote work has grown 44% over the last five years. Another survey by Miro shows that close to 70% of companies have at least one full-time remote employee. Unfortunately, some traditional wellness programs may not meet the needs of remote employees who face different challenges than their colleagues who are in the office. The University of Southern California Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy surveyed adults working from home and found that 74% reported they developed a new mental health issue and 65% reported a new physical ailment.
Anxiety, loneliness, and depression are common complaints from individuals who work remotely. And while none of these issues are exclusively a problem for distributed employees, there are some specific challenges they face.
Challenge 1: Isolation and Lack of Belonging
Employees who work outside of a traditional office setting miss out on “water cooler” talk. While video conferences are commonplace, they can often be very task oriented and don’t accommodate much small talk. Take some time during these virtual meetings to allow participants to share a little about topics of interest before diving into work.
Managers should also be aware that often remote employees feel they don’t receive as much recognition as their in-office counterparts. Become more deliberate about recognizing their efforts and encourage team members to send their congratulations and compliments when a job is well done.
Challenge 2: Building and Maintaining Trust
Trust is a crucial factor for distributed teams. There should be trust that each person knows how to do their assigned work and that they’re accountable to each other. Managers build trust through individualization, keeping their promises, and frequent communication. Remote workers need to know who they can turn to if they are encountering problems, and managers should make themselves available via an open door policy.
Challenge 3: Burnout and Difficulty Maintaining Work/Life Integration
For many people, the last few years have been their first introduction to remote work. When work is conducted at home, it becomes difficult for some to set boundaries. There may be a sense that work is never “off.” 65% of workers interviewed for a survey conducted by Mental Health America reported that they feel they are working more hours than they did when they worked in a traditional workplace setting. Remote employees should be encouraged to take PTO and not feel like they must check in on those days. Time away from work increases productivity upon return, it does not detract from it.
While on the topic, taking short breaks for physical activity can help alleviate stress and burnout. According to a research paper by the Stanford Center on Longevity, individuals working from home report increased sitting and decreased levels of physical activity as compared to pre-COVID habits when they were in the office. If you have an in-office physical challenge, find a way to make a virtual scoreboard so everyone can participate, which can help motivate everyone to get up and get moving.
Challenge 4: Out of Sight, But Not Out of Mind
When you don’t see an employee every day, it can be hard to gauge their mental health. Mangers and colleagues may notice when an in-office employee is beginning to show signs of burnout or depression, but a remote employee who may only be seen on video or heard via phone for shorter periods of time, and may be able to mask their mental health more easily. One thing that may signal a remote employee is struggling can be an increased number of missed deadlines (this can also be a sign of burnout). Keeping the lines of communication open is key. Which leads us to our final challenge.
Challenge 5: Communication Breakdowns
There are several factors that can adversely impact communication with distributed team members. You may have team members in different time zones and scheduling can become an issue, which in turn impacts the ability to collaborate in real time. Some people may communicate better on the phone than video, or perhaps better on Slack than Teams. If most of your communication is via email and chat, there is a much greater chance of miscommunication because of the lack of physical and verbal cues. Make sure that the medium fits the message. Find the right delivery system to relay information; like they say, some meetings should have been an email. But the reverse is also true, some emails should be a meeting.
It’s better to be safe than sorry, so try to overcommunicate rather than under communicate. Sharing frequent updates about the business and team projects can help keep your workforce on the same page.
All of these challenges may mean that employers need to reevaluate how they measure success. The less time employees spend in the office, the less context employees have about what management expects from them. Managers should be explicit about what they expect from their teams. Oftentimes, time spent at work can be confused for results. Shifting to a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) focuses on actual output and tasks completed rather than how, when, or where they do it.
Remember that each employee is an individual, so employers should consider conducting Remote Worker Profile assessments to understand how an employee effectively manages their workload when working remotely. These assessments will gauge a variety of characteristics including:
The results of these assessments can help management develop a strategy that addresses the needs of all employees, no matter what type of remote worker they are.
Remote work is no longer a trend and employers can’t forget their obligation to the health and wellbeing of all their employees. By recognizing the special challenges remote workers face, managers can help create a healthy and productive workplace for all.