Remote working is here to stay, whether it be on a full-time or hybrid basis. But while some feel it has enabled them to achieve a better work life balance, others have struggled with burnout and a feeling of never switching off. CAT MACDONALD, founder of consultancy True HR, discusses what business leaders can do to address wellbeing issues in the new working world.
HR leaders have experienced many challenges since the beginning of the pandemic and while 2021 may not have been plain sailing so far, teams are now better prepared than they were to deal with workplace issues as we head into the new working world.
One thing that is clear is that remote working is here to stay, whether it be on a full-time basis or combined with days spent in the workplace.
While businesses now have the technology in place to facilitate this, it is also important that appropriate policies are in place as we move into the “new normal” and beyond. Any remote working strategies introduced must be robust and able to withstand remote working in the long term.
However, despite some employees reporting a better work life balance as a result of an option to work from home, remote working is not without its challenges. One common complaint is that people feel they are ‘always switched on’ when working from home, with boundaries between work and home becoming blurred.
A recent survey found that 73 per cent of working professionals feel burned out, with many reporting Zoom fatigue. Meanhile, a survey of CEOs carried out by KPMG last year revealed 69 per cent of companies plan to reduce office space once the pandemic is over, highlighting a permanent shift towards home or hybrid working.
It is clear that businesses looking to do so also need to be aware of potential issues with colleagues working from home and to know how to spot a problem.
Looking after a workforce’s mental health and wellbeing has never been more important. The pandemic has seen a huge increase in the number of people struggling with mental health issues whether they have been working remotely or not, including feelings of isolation, worry about their and their family’s health or – for those on furlough in particular – anxiety over whether or not they would have a job to go back to.
Companies need to rethink the way they support positive mental health and wellbeing in the business and, where appropriate, introduce a strategy and policies that are effective in the new working world.
Training volunteers to become mental health first aiders is just one example of how businesses have increased their focus on supporting staff wellbeing. Mental health first aiders can play a key role in supporting their colleagues, carrying out risk assessments, recognising when someone is in crisis and generally promoting a positive workplace culture.
Others have introduced regular online events to promote team connectivity. At the beginning of the pandemic, many introduced a weekly quiz; however, this has evolved into a range of both social and fitness related virtual events.
A number of my own clients have hosted online keep fit sessions, yoga and even charity fundraising challenges where colleagues log their steps to reach a certain target. Other firms have tried everything from Friday night drinks and curry and chat evenings to a plank challenge to engage employees and promote team bonding.
Larger businesses have been able to use their in-house intranet to host a portal where wellbeing support and advice can be accessed, or where colleagues can offer positive feedback to each other for a task that was particularly well done.
The focus is now firmly on recognising and acknowledging the importance of employee wellbeing. Some businesses have introduced wellbeing days to allow people to recharge their batteries and recover from an exceptionally busy week.
Communication is vital, whether your team is working remotely, in the office or a mixture of the two. It makes it a whole lot easier to spot potential issues and to address them. This includes conducting regular performance appraisals or one-to-one meetings via video conferencing if you can’t get into the office for a face-to-face meeting.
Business leaders should not be afraid to tackle performance issues via video conferencing. It’s widely acknowledged that effective leadership has never been more crucial to a company’s success than during the pandemic, with managers needing to adapt swiftly to new ways of managing their teams.
One of the biggest challenges has been how to effectively manage people when you can’t talk to them face-to-face. Just because teams are out of sight, they must not be out of mind when it comes to employee performance management, even if managers are reluctant to raise issues for fear of impacting on an employee’s mental health.
Even when an entire team is working remotely, that doesn’t mean that the issue of under-performance can’t be tackled.
The first step is to assess performance and to understand whether an employee is under-performing or if they’re just doing enough.
It’s important to remember that for now, the water cooler chat, or even just stopping off for a quick word with a colleague on your way out to lunch, are on hold. This means that while working at home, most people are simply doing more. Some may be doing more than others, but the question is whether someone is still doing enough to fulfil their role.
And if it’s clear that an employee is simply not doing enough, don’t be afraid to tackle it. Managers may feel unsure about how to raise the issue of employee performance, particularly if the individual in question has the added pressure of home schooling.
Line managers have shied away from tackling under performance during lockdown, largely as a result of not wanting to impact on people’s mental health. Which is all very well, but if a member isn’t performing as they should be, that impacts on the workload and wellbeing of the others in the team – not to mention the line managers themselves. It’s a chain reaction, with implications for the entire team as inevitably someone else will need to pick up the work not being completed.
Follow the process
The first step is to talk to the individual and find out how they are doing and how they are coping with their workload. There appears to be an issue but there may be a straightforward way around it. If, for instance, the kids are home schooling or isolation, adjusting the hours of their working day could be a solution.
Good performance management includes finding solutions and this could be adapting working hours so they fit in around the school day. It may be that if it’s impossible for them to complete their tasks as they are looking after children or other dependents, they can be placed on furlough.
If no obvious solution can be found, then follow the formal process for managing under performance. Just because you’re working remotely doesn’t mean the issue has to be avoided. Have a couple of informal chats, warn the individual that the next step is to go through a disciplinary process and instigate that procedure if necessary. Even though you’re operating remotely, the process exists for a reason and it’s there to ensure fairness.
If you do have to go down the disciplinary route, it’s still fine to do this via video conference. The only times a meeting in person is vital is for a dismissal or redundancy – we’re all human and it’s a common courtesy.
Never underestimate the power of communication
To improve management of teams remotely, don’t underestimate the power of talking and having a catch-up with individuals. There’s nothing more disheartening than talking to a circle with someone’s initials in it, so encourage everyone to leave their cameras on!
It’s not about how you look or what’s in the background, face to face – albeit via a computer or smartphone – is far more powerful than a phone call. Never underestimate the impact of a face-to-face conversation, even if it’s only a 10-minute catch-up on a morning. If you were in the office, you’d be saying hello, making a cup of tea and so on, so make time to replicate this.
It’s an essential part of generating team cohesion and improving communication – something that’s easy to lose and difficult to recreate. You don’t even have to talk about work, just set aside the time for a regular connection.
It’s also easier to spot if someone is struggling than over the phone. They may appear disinterested, or contribute less than they might have done – and nobody is immune. Even virtually, you can ask your team to evaluate how they feel about their stress and energy levels, or what aspects of their role they find the most challenging.
When welcoming a new face to the team, preparation and organisation are key for virtually onboarding a new team member. This not only demonstrates that you are on top of things as a company, but it also highlights to your new employee that you have put in the time and effort to prepare for them starting.
To ensure they feel welcome and ready for their first day, they must have the right tools and resources available. Pinpoint what equipment and devices they will need and make sure these are with them ahead of their start date.
All tools and systems must be set up to facilitate their remote work. This means ensuring that your new hire is provided with a log-in, email address, passwords etc as required.
Decide within your team who will be responsible for sharing information with them regarding their first day. This should include:
- Links to join into any video conferences taking place;
- A clear agenda of what they should expect for their first few days;
- What time their onboarding sessions will begin and end;
- How they can prepare (ensure they have a strong WiFi connection, a quiet space to work, a webcam etc);
- An overview of the business, who their line manager is, working hours etc.
This may be the first time the new hire is working remotely, so be explicit and instructional as possible. This will help them feel confident and well informed.
Maintaining company culture with remote or hybrid working
Company culture defines the ideals, values, attitudes and goals of an organisation; it’s the invisible glue that holds your team together and defines how it operates. It’s a vital part of your business’s identity and ensures every employee is represented.
Creating a positive culture takes time and persistence. It’s more than just posters on the wall or a statement on a name badge, it’s part of the lifeblood of an organisation. It’s identifying what you stand for, how you achieve it then articulating these values both to employees and customers.
Businesses with a great company culture benefit from enhanced employee engagement, a lower staff turnover and increased productivity.
But it’s not something you can just introduce then leave – it needs to be maintained and to evolve or improve where necessary.
During the first lockdown last year, teams had to adjust to remote working overnight, leaving business owners wondering how to implement, replicate and maintain their culture without regular face to face catch-ups, team get-togethers and office banter.
Video technology has become vital in the past 12 months, not only as a way to meet clients but to keep teams together. A Zoom call may not replace a bit of water cooler gossip but it is a means of communicating face to face, albeit through the screen of a laptop or smart phone.
Never underestimate the power of talking – but cameras need to be on. Even if it’s only a 10-minute chat on a morning, it’s important leaders make the time to organise this for both communication and cohesion.
Some companies list their values on their website, making it clear to all what the business stands for. But it a successful culture runs deeper than this. When you’re having your regular chat or team huddle, try to thread your values into the language you use; include them on email footers and in appraisal documents.
It’s vital that everyone understands your culture and lives the values, from the CEO to the apprentice. When teams are working remotely, it becomes more important than ever for the senior team to be seen to embody the company values.
True HR founder and director Cat Macdonald (BA Hons, FCIPD) has more than 20 years’ experience in human resources across a wide range of sectors, from media to manufacturing and engineering. Cat works with clients in both unionised and non-unionised environments and has extensive knowledge and skills in employee relations, change management, training, communications and counselling. For more, go to https://www.truehr.org.uk/