The COVID-19 pandemic has forced organisations across the world to shift to remote working – a monumental operational change testing both processes and digital tools. This shift also is creating unique and unforeseen managerial challenges related to employee wellbeing, productivity and collaboration.
Adjusting to Remote Working
Remote working has not historically been part of the UK’s employment culture, though there have been more calls for the traditional office-based model to loosen. Just 1.7m of the UK’s 32.6m workers primarily worked from home last year, according to the Office of National Statistics. The same survey found that less than 30% (8.7m) of employees had previously worked from home, though less frequently. How organisations respond to the challenge of adjusting to remote working will have significant impact in the short term – and a lasting impact on the future of work.
Adjusting to remote working is different for everybody, and it’s important that leaders work to ensure that physical remoteness doesn’t lead to emotional distance. Managers should encourage employees to be open with their struggles and challenges. Employees need to know that it’s okay to feel upset by a rapidly changed situation. Similarly, managers should be prepared to give a higher level of reassurance, guidance and support to team members, since working remotely suits some personalities better than others. By losing much of the social element of working in the same space, teams should continue to connect personally as well as professionally. With some tweaks, the usual quizzes, team lunches and Friday drinks can be transferred to the digital world to maintain morale and the sense of connection.
Another key priority is maintaining productivity. Technological and digital solutions have made it easier for us to do our work from outside the office. So much of communication is non-verbal, so regular video chats can reduce misunderstandings between colleagues. While one formal weekly team meeting may have sufficed in the office, remote working requires more regular meetings to help keep your team connected both personally and professionally. Communication tools such as Microsoft Teams – with chat and video call functions – can be a good substitute for face-to-face contact. Increasing the frequency of check-ins also can help each team member feel connected, supported and clear on expectations.
When it comes to implementing tech or new systems, everyone starts at a different level of understanding. Developing How-To videos can help colleagues learn how to install desktop or mobile apps for email; use video conferencing solutions like Zoom or Microsoft Teams; engage with internal communications platforms, like Yammer; to or access other platforms like the document management system, SharePoint. Developing these guides helps to ensure that employees are comfortable with the technology they need to use.
If you already have resources to help employees transition to remote working, signpost them. If you don’t, now is a good time to create them. Make guides readily available on isolation, looking after your mental health, how to engage with Employee Assistance Programmes and working effectively as part of a virtual team. In some organisations, this is new for everyone so managers and leaders may also need guiding on how to lead a team remotely.
The shift to remote working – particularly at a time when social activity is restricted or forbidden – means it can be very difficult to separate work and home life. Some employees could feel obligated to work more hours than they would normally, since there is no travel time before or after work. Encourage employees to maintain separation, like making a clear distinction between workspaces and leisure spaces. Employees with children are also having to work around the closure of childcare providers and schools. Consider supporting these parents by shifting regular meetings to accommodate their schedules in caring for their children.
It’s easy for work responsibilities to creep into personal time when remote working, so a clear disconnection from work is vital for mental health and overall productivity. Recommend that employees try mindfulness apps such as Calm, Thrive or Headspace, as well as staying active through yoga or Pilates to help them stay focused, healthy and happy. It has never been more important to encourage kindness and openness across your team to help people adjust to new stresses.
Has Work Changed Forever?
With this monumental challenge comes a great opportunity. If organisations implement remote working effectively, it will become a viable option over the long term, allowing for increased flexibility and potential cost-savings on office space. The extraordinary context of COVID-19 has required managers to provide a different level of support, and this should return to a normal level as the workforce adapts to remote working. After an initial period of individual learning and adjustment, and with the right level of support from their managers, employees will find their own balance and methods to get the most out of their workdays.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused truly extraordinary challenges, but perhaps some silver linings can come from the extended period of changing the way we work. Organisations should keep a close eye on how productivity and their customer services are impacted. We could learn to adopt remote working as standard rather than as a temporary measure. When we return to something close to normal and the global health crisis has diminished, the context of home working will be far brighter.
Alison Hallett, Global Employee Experience Director – Cielo