What Needs to be Done to Make Remote Working Work for Everyone
Despite the havoc caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, many employees have enjoyed the benefits of remote work. Commutes have all but disappeared and many workers have been able to spend more time with their families while also feeling productive at work. In fact, a recent KPMG survey on remote work shows that nearly 70% of employees say their productivity has increased since working remotely, and 71% want to work remotely at least part-time after people begin return to the office.
And now, with nearly half of all Americans having received at least once dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, organizations are looking ahead to see what comes next when it comes to work. For many employers, that will likely mean a hybrid approach where employees can work in the office some days and from their home or other location on the others. Companies such as Ford, Target, Citigroup and TIAA, among others, have already announced hybrid work arrangements for most office workers.
Yet offering a hybrid solution comes with its own set of issues and complexities. Among them: additional videoconferencing technologies so that in-person and remote workers feel they’re on equal footing, and more sophisticated logistics capabilities to ensure that office buildings are being used smartly. Not to be overlooked either is the ability for companies to assess workers’ mental health.
Turning homes into offices
The pandemic forced millions of people around the globe to suddenly turn their home into their office. That transition happened nearly overnight and as a result, kicked off a wave of mental health implications that are serious and ongoing. Studies done by the Kaiser Family Foundation throughout the pandemic show that Covid-19 and the resulting economic crisis have caused about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. to report symptoms of anxiety and depression—a four-fold increase from pre-pandemic levels.
The ability of companies to monitor and respond to mental health challenges in a hybrid work setting will be a huge component of whether these arrangements succeed, says Dr. Robin Smith, a licensed psychologist who has worked with Fortune 500 companies on performance issues and was the therapist-in-residence for The Oprah Winfrey Show for many years.
On the heels of trauma
As she works with companies that are establishing hybrid formats, Dr. Smith says it’s important for leaders to acknowledge that this new way of working is originating from a trauma. “All the plans that companies are trying to put into place now are not coming from a good or easy time,” she says. “They’re coming on the heels of a collective trauma that the U.S. has undergone.” This is important to recognize because it allows employees to believe that the leaders of their companies “are aware of the hell that workers have endured,” she adds.
When the pandemic first hit, most employees believed that remote work and widespread business shutdowns were temporary. But as the months passed, and offices remained closed, it became clear that a new playbook was being written. “We’re not going to be resuming life the way it was,” Dr. Smith says. “Hybrid work is yet another change that employees have to adjust to, and this one is more permanent.”
The good news is that companies can put steps in place that can help minimize the potential mental health impact of a hybrid work arrangement. She describes these as a three-part process called acknowledgement, instrument, and co-creation. The first piece simply involves the manager recognizing that this new hybrid arrangement is not what anyone expected, and that it is yet another change for employees (the acknowledgment).
The instrument is a weekly face-to-face check-in (virtual or in-person) to see how employees are doing, where they need help, and how they are managing this new way of working. Dr. Smith says she advises managers to share their own feelings of vulnerability with workers first so that individuals feel safe about opening up. “People are a little shaky these days, so when a manager can share his or her story first, it’s much more likely that an employee is going to be honest about what they’re going through,” she adds.
The co-creation comes about when managers collaborate with employees to come up with effective solutions to address any issues. “There’s no point in giving feedback if there’s no action taken afterwards,” Dr. Smith says.
For example, as workers are brought back to the office, there will be meetings taking place where some employees are there in-person and some will have to join via Zoom or some other online platform. “There is a real risk that some of the employees who are still at home will somehow feel disenfranchised, especially if they want to be in the office, but haven’t been given that chance yet,” Dr. Smith says.
If an employee expresses that frustration, her advice is: don’t dismiss it. “Telling someone that we’re all a team and no one should feel left out only compounds the frustration. Instead, acknowledge the feedback and then use it to inform how people are brought back to the office or how Zoom meetings need to be conducted going forward.
“There are going to be plenty of issues that come up as we all adjust to a hybrid workplace,” Dr. Smith says. “But the research has show for years that if an employee feels cared for, it makes all the difference in the world how they contribute, their attitude and their endurance. There are so many benefits to taking care of people not only physically, but emotionally.”
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