Change of Perspective

Alison Hallett, Global Employee Experience Director – Cielo, looks at how COVID-19 will affect working remotely

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced organisations across the world to embrace remote working. It represents a monumental operational shift testing digital tools and processes and creates unique managerial challenges to promote employee wellbeing, productivity and collaboration.

Adjusting to Remote Working

Prior to the pandemic, remote working was not a normal part of the UK’s employment culture. In 2019, the Office for National Statistics found that just 1.7m of the UK’s 32.6m workers primarily worked from home. The same survey found that less than 30% (8.7m) of employees had previously worked from home. This unprecedented situation serves as the litmus test for organisations and sectors that hadn’t previously considered remote working. How organisations respond to this challenge will have significant impact in the short term – and a lasting impact on the future of work.

Maintaining morale and productivity should be major priorities for organisations transitioning to remote working. Communication tools such as Microsoft Teams – with chat and video call functions – can help replace some of the face-to-face contact, but it might be necessary for some teams or organisations to increase the frequency of check-ins to ensure that each team member feels connected, supported and clear  on expectations.

At Cielo, we already had a dispersed workforce prior to the lockdowns, with a large proportion of team members working at different client sites, Cielo offices or out of their homes. This means many of our employees were already accustomed to using technological tools to stay connected. That said, having our entire employee base working remotely has been a big challenge even for us.

Adjusting to remote working is different for everybody, and leaders should recognize that physical remoteness should not lead to emotional distance. Encourage employees to be open with their struggles and challenges and remind them that in times of significant change it’s okay to feel that things aren’t perfect. 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.

When it comes to tech or new systems, everyone starts at a different level of understanding. To help, we developed How-To videos to support our colleagues adjusting to this “new normal,” covering everything from installing apps for Microsoft Teams, Yammer and email onto mobile phones to how to use other platforms remotely like SharePoint. Developing these guides helps to ensure that our employees are comfortable with the technology they need to use.

Video connections are another vital tool for remote working. So much of communication is non-verbal, so regular video chats can reduce misunderstandings between colleagues. Whilst 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.

Much of the social element of working in the same space is lost, but teams should work together to ensure there is still regular social contact. Quizzes, team lunches and Friday drinks can – with some slight tweaks – be transferred to the digital world. Finding ways to socialize will help colleagues have fun together and stay connected.

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. Cielo has prepared guides on isolation, looking after your mental health, the importance of Employee Assistance Programmes, working effectively as part of a virtual team as well as guides for managers on how to lead a team remotely.

Work/Life Balance

Another side effect of the shift to remote working is the potential to lose the traditional separation between work and home life. With work taking place in their homes, some employees could feel obligated to work more hours than they do when they have a commute. Employees with children also must work around the closure of childcare providers and schools. Encourage employees to maintain separation, whether it’s making a clear distinction between workspaces and leisure spaces or supporting parents by shifting regular meetings to accommodate their schedules to care for their children.

It’s easy for work responsibilities to creep into personal time when remote working, but a clear disconnection from work is vital for mental health and overall productivity. We’ve been recommending 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 allowing for increased flexibility and potential cost-savings on office space over the long term. The extraordinary context of COVID-19 has meant that managers are required to provide a different level of support. The support required from managers will return to normal 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 work days.

Social isolation is another challenge of remote working that is made significantly worse by the pandemic. When the current situation is resolved, employees can return to socialising with family and friends, going to the gym or going on holiday to maintain equilibrium and reduce social dependency on colleagues. Similarly, the stress of the morning school run has been replaced by having children at home all day while trying to work. When kids return to school or day care, the prospect of working from home will be much less daunting for employees with children.

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 client 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.

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