Taking Care

Alex Hattingh, Chief People Officer at Employment Hero on supporting employees who struggle with loneliness & remote working.

Even as the pandemic stabilises, there’s no doubt that the remote working trend isn’t going anywhere.

There’s been a mixed bag of feelings about this working style over the last 24 months. We’ve gone from feeling isolated during lockdowns, to loving avoiding the commute, to thinking about how we can use this model to its full potential.

We believe remote working is far more life-friendly overall than traditional models, but it does present some challenges. Without seeing your team in-person, you can miss the subtle dynamics that help to be a perceptive leader.

Remote working, for all its benefits, does not come naturally to everyone. What’s worse, you may not discover that your remote employee is struggling until they disengage or look to alternative employment.

What are the challenges of remote work?

1. Communication
When we were in the office, it was easy to get a sense of vibe. You could pop over to your colleague’s desk, meet someone in the lunchroom or gather for a chat around the coffee machine. It was easy to interact socially, convey information quickly and easily get a lay of the land. For remote teams, this is reduced to text and video on a screen. While remote working has made it easier for us to avoid distractions, it’s also made spontaneous communication far more challenging.

2. Remoteliness
Remoteliness is – you guessed it – a feeling of loneliness experienced when working remotely. In the absence of the bustle of the office, workers can begin to feel isolated and disconnected from their colleagues and organisation.

Even though 94 per cent of workers want to continue working from home in some capacity on a permanent basis, there are a few things we miss about the office. 54 per cent of workers in a survey that we conducted said they missed being able to easily speak to coworkers, and 44 per cent said they missed the sense of camaraderie with their team.

Like regular loneliness, remoteliness is a very subjective feeling depending on the individual. Some people may be able to spend long amounts of time alone and never feel a sense of remoteliness, for others, it may appear soon after they enter a remote work environment.

3. Work-life balance
Work-life balance is a paradox of the remote working environment. Without the commute and time spent in the office, remote workers get much more time back in their day. But, they also integrate their working life fully into their home spaces. When your laptop is in the same room as your couch, what’s stopping you from picking it up and flicking through emails? Unlimited access to work tools can make it all-too-easy for many employees to log on after work hours and be contacted 24/7. Before they know it, employees feel overwhelmed and overworked.

4. Disengagement
Our move to remote work has not happened in a vacuum. We’ve made the switch during an uncertain and chaotic time, which has negatively affected many employees and their family members. The stress of uncertainty is difficult to spot and remedy in a remote environment. Such anxiety can cause disengagement, a lack of focus, overwhelming fatigue and a drop in interest.

What warning signs can you look out for?

1. Withdrawal from communications
No morning greetings, one-word answers, a drop in contribution on team meetings; these are all signs that your remote employee may be struggling. This is especially true if they were a very active communicator when working face to face and you’ve noticed a shift.

How to tackle it: One-on-one (1:1) meetings are a manager’s best tool to confront these types of issues. These confidential weekly meetings between an employee and their direct reports build a sense of trust, and make it easier for the attendees to open a constructive dialogue.

If you have one, share the details of your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) with your team. This confidential counselling service can help your team members feel supported through tough times. If you don’t have an EAP, reminding your team of trusted mental health resources is a good alternative.

2. Cameras constantly turned off
We all have mornings when we’re not feeling like our most glamorous selves. We might have our hair in a towel, or be wearing our laundry day outfits. Once in a while, turning your camera off is no big deal; but if your team member never has theirs on, it’s a sign of disengagement.

How to tackle it: Firstly, create a culture of ‘cameras on’ at your company. Leaders should always have their cameras on and be visually engaging, setting an example for good remote communication etiquette. You may even wish to make a general request at the start of a Zoom call for all employees to have their cameras on.

3. A drop in productivity
If your employee is missing deadlines, dragging out their tasks and not meeting their role requirements; this is a big red flag. They could be feeling demotivated by the lack of an office environment, losing interest in their role or struggling to prioritise.

How to tackle it: Does your team have a task management system in place? How about clearly defined goals articulated through a step-based process like Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)? Using these tools can help increase transparency around productivity, and give you and your team members a clear indication of deadlines, workload and priorities.

Using these tools can increase visibility around productivity and help you and your employee discuss their workload and priorities. A confidential conversation might reveal that their workload is too much, they are fielding too many requests from other sides of the business, or there is a knowledge gap which is keeping them from completing their tasks.

4. Resistance to opportunities
When we feel disconnected from our work, we lose interest in growing or developing within our roles. If your team member has turned down opportunities for; learning or coaching, team-building days and events, celebrations, rewards, recognition or career progression – it’s likely that all is not well.

How to tackle it: Assign your employee the task of sourcing their own development opportunity. This could be enrolling in a short course, finding a mentorship or attending an event that they’ve always wanted to be a part of. Show that you want to invest in them, however they choose to learn.

Empowering them will not only support remote employees in re-engaging with career development, gaining new knowledge could help them rediscover why they were interested in their role in the first place.

5. They’re online constantly, or not at all
Being situated at either end of this spectrum is a red flag. Unless you have an asynchronous working agreement, spotting your employee online at all hours of the day is a sign that their work-life balance is taking a hit. There’s very little pay-off for this style of working. Our research shows that employees who felt they lacked work-life balance were a whopping 174 per cent more likely to experience low productivity.

To the other extreme, frequently being offline is another obvious warning sign that your employee may be struggling to stay present. While you don’t want to establish a surveillance culture – everyone is going to be offline sometimes throughout the day for well-deserved breaks and general interruptions – a constant inactive status might be cause for concern.

How to tackle it: We recommend tackling this one head-on during your 1:1 meeting. In the case of your team member always being offline, have a gentle check-in to say you’ve noticed they’re offline during the day and offer assistance to get them back on track.

If they’re always online, offer to help them prioritise their workload or delegate tasks to others. Discuss strategies about setting up their workspace or devices so that they’re not tempted to log on at all hours of the day. Leaders should also set an example; don’t reward working overtime or outside hours and make sure that you are taking adequate time to rest.

Help your remote workers refresh their mindset
It’s not unique to remote workers, every employee will find themselves in a rut every once in a while – especially while the pandemic situation remains up in the air. Covid fatigue can put teams on a fast track to burnout, which can quickly manifest when working alone.

To prevent our remote work employees from falling into a slump, share ideas for how they can refresh their mindset. They could reshuffle and rework their desk set-up or experiment with time blocking – where they use their calendar to time-block their day into sections.

You could also encourage employees to take some time out of the work day for a walk outside or exercise break. Sometimes all we need is a long walk and a good podcast to reset. Subscribing to interesting newsletters could also help them start their workday on the right foot – why not enjoy a little inspiration over morning coffee?

Finally, make sure that you have all the tools you need to keep your teams feeling connected and productive. Without the right equipment and tech, simple tasks can become admin heavy and time-consuming. If you have HR and employee engagement software, task management tools and a great meeting cadence – you set your remote employees up to have their best working experience.

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