Line Managers can turn the tide on the challenges remote workers face.
With benefits ranging from saving money on office space to better productivity and greater flexibility for staff, it’s not surprising that many organisations have made a permanent switch to remote or hybrid working.
Research shows that employees have embraced the change, with most people now working from home on Mondays and Fridays. However, remote working has also brought fresh challenges for employee wellbeing, with data suggesting that remote workers work longer hours, and that up to 80% of UK workers feel that working from home has negatively impacted their mental health.
Calling people back to the office full time is unlikely to be the solution (in fact, almost half of employees would quit if remote working was taken away), so what can employers do to prioritise the wellbeing and mental health of staff while working from home?
#1 Build meaningful connections
We’ve never been so well connected, yet loneliness in the UK is on the rise with remote work limiting meaningful interaction between colleagues. Around 1 in 20 adults report feeling lonely ‘always or often’ with younger people most likely to experience this; over 80% of under-35s fear the loneliness of working from home.
Line managers are closest to their teams so are usually the first to spot signs of employees becoming withdrawn or anxious. However, this can be harder to spot among remote workers. It’s important for managers to check in regularly with team members. A simple, “How are you?” can give employees the space to share how they are feeling. Encourage remote workers to switch their cameras on where possible so you can pick up on visual cues too.
Remote employees have fewer chances to socialise so also create opportunities for colleagues to connect. This might mean bringing back online quizzes, scheduling team lunch breaks or simply adding an extra five minutes to the start of meetings so everyone can catch up.
#2 Set proper boundaries between work and home
Remote work gives people more flexibility around how and when they work, which is a good thing for work life balance. However, without the physical office boundary, it can be hard for people to separate their work and personal lives.
Working from home used to be seen as a luxury and for many it’s hard to shake this idea that remote work should be earned. Messaging apps mean that work is always close by, with remote workers often responding outside of scheduled hours to prove they are working hard from home. This ‘always on’ mindset impacts employee mental health by piling on stress and making it hard to put work aside at the end of the day.
Help employees overcome this by creating clear boundaries between their work and home lives. This could mean returning to lockdown behaviours like taking a short walk before and after work or carving out a regular lunch break. Some organisations also provide an allowance for employees to use a co-working space a few days each month.
Most often, helping employees prioritise work life balance comes down to trust. If employees are confident that they are being assessed on their outputs, rather than time spent at their desk, they will be comfortable taking regular breaks or flexing their schedule around personal commitments without feeling guilty.
Managers can help by looking for signs of people working late or responding outside of working hours. Some employees may prefer to work flexible hours around caring or parental commitments, while others may be struggling to switch off. Either way, check in with people to understand what’s going on. Frame this in a compassionate way so it’s about helping them, not catching them out.
# 3 Role-model behaviours
A consistent factor in employee engagement is understanding what’s expected of your role and feeling that this is equal to your colleagues. It makes sense then that stress at work is often prompted by uncertainty around how to behave or what is acceptable. For remote workers, physical separation makes it even harder to see what others are doing and learn what’s OK. Grey areas around expectations aren’t good for anyone.
Reassure employees by communicating what you expect from your employees and ensure this applies equally for people working from home or in the office. For example, perhaps one of your guidelines is that no matter where they are working from employees can flex their working day around appointments or school pick-ups. Or you might relax your office dress code to reflect the attire of remote colleagues.
For these behaviours to stick, leaders and managers must role-model them. Preaching about work life balance while sending late-night emails sends a confusing message. Managers may well need to reflect on their own working habits to encourage better behaviours from their teams.
#4 Ask how your people are doing
Employers have a duty of care to assess stress at work and take measures to control it. This is easier to do when teams are in the office together but harder for managers to spot when people are working remotely or logging on at different times.
In these cases, use an employee survey to ask how people are feeling and highlight any issues. Wellbeing surveys are specially designed to measure the mental and emotional wellbeing of your people, but you could also add a set of wellbeing questions into your regular staff survey. Either way the data captured will help you understand whether any parts of your remote working policy are contributing to stress or burnout, and how you can build a healthier working environment.
Whatever method you use to gather feedback about remote working and wellbeing, you must follow up with swift action so employees know you have taken their views on board. Some actions will be down to managers to implement, while others will require more centralised support. Either way, keep employees informed about the progress of actions and how changes you make are linked to their responses. Some of the changes won’t be visible straight away, so ensure that remote workers are kept in the loop by sharing updates via your intranet, 1:1s, team meetings, and Town Halls.
Carolyn Nevitte is HR Director at People Insight in West End, England, UK, a company that helps organisations measure and improve the employee experience through employee surveys and expert consulting.