Remote work has been a godsend for many employees. They can have a flexible schedule. Work can happen anywhere. There are huge time savings from not having to commute. And more time can be spent with family and loved ones.
According to Buffer’s 2021 State of Remote Work, 97% of survey respondents would recommend remote work to others, and 97.6% would like to work remotely at least part of the time for the rest of their careers. However, there are challenges unique to remote work that employees don’t experience at the office.
It’s harder to unplug. Collaboration is difficult. Communication is a problem. Not to mention, they’re lonely and distracted at home. (Heck, you might be feeling the same.)
Businesses need to adapt their wellness programs to accommodate the common challenges remote workers face. Otherwise, remote employees will burn out and disengage. And you’re not going to meet the goals you set for your employee wellness program. Consider how you can adapt your wellness program to overcome these three challenges unique to managing remote workers.
1. Mental health can be harder to see and manage.
Because you’re not seeing each other face-to-face, it’s harder to tell if your employees are feeling down. In person, you can read their body language and hear emotions in their tone of voice. You have an intuitive sense of when someone seems unmotivated, sluggish, or in a bad mood. Online, you lose this extra information when you’re only communicating through text.
To make employee mental health visible again, adjust your habits and wellness benefits to adapt to the digital workplace.
Connect via frequent video 1:1s
Managers should have regular check-ins with their direct reports by video. With video, you get all the body language and tone of voice cues that you don’t get via text.
Check-ins can go beyond work project updates and incorporate mental health, too. A simple “How are you?” can go a long way. Managers can ask about workloads and stress to avoid employee burnout. Then, offer proactive solutions and ask if there’s anything else they can do to help.
Get a pulse on mental health through weekly check-in surveys
Using a check-in survey isn’t a substitute for real-time 1:1s. But it’s helpful for tracking employee wellness week-to-week — both individually and as an aggregate metric across the organization.
These surveys can reveal an employee’s mood patterns and are an opportunity for employees to share challenges they're facing. Managers can then work to identify and improve the root cause of the bad mood before it leads to burnout.
Check-in surveys make employee wellness visible to HR and leadership, as well. Seeing high-level patterns, you can evolve policies to improve the mood across the organization.
People management tools like 15Five, Lattice, or Culture Amp have weekly survey features that help you track work goals, as well as employee mood. Make your surveys short (one to five questions), so they only take a few minutes to fill out.
Normalize mental health days
Leadership should set an example by talking about their own mental health and taking mental health days.
Mental health is just as important to our wellbeing as our physical health, yet the stigma around mental health issues prevents employees from taking mental health days. Or, when employees don’t feel comfortable sharing about mental health issues, they end up lying to their boss about why they’re taking a day off.
When employees power through the workday, HBR reports, three times more productivity is lost than when taking time off to recover from depression or pain.
2. Work-life balance is harder to achieve.
It’s harder to separate work and life when working from home. “Not being able to unplug” was the top struggle cited in Buffer’s survey. The laptop gets pulled into bed first thing in the morning. The kitchen table becomes the home office. After dinner, responding to just one message from the co-worker who lives in Hong Kong and has just started her day turns into a couple more to-do list items, and... oops, two hours have gone by. It’s time for bed. There goes self-care.
Other responsibilities tend to get piled on when working from home, too. Getting kids ready for school (or remote learning), caring for sick family members, and coordinating with the plumber on the broken toilet can all make juggling work and life more challenging. The beauty of remote work is that there’s someone home who can take care of these responsibilities. But, without a flexible work environment, employees can feel stressed and less effective at their jobs.
Provide family support
Family support is different for remote workers. Traditional offices can offer a daycare center, but remote workers must manage at home. Plus, some employees may be caring for older parents and relatives, a partner with a chronic illness, or a family member with a disability.
Broaden your family support policy to include support beyond kids. Consider offering parents and caretakers reimbursement for daycare, a babysitter, or other professional caretakers. Then they can stay focused on work while getting family needs met.
Offer flexible work hours
A flexible work environment is essential for managing all responsibilities well. Strict work hours make it hard for employees to meet other wellness needs, like going to doctors’ appointments, exercising, and caretaking responsibilities.
By offering flexible work hours, employees can do what they need to do to maintain work-life balance. Plus, people can work when they’re most productive, whether they’re an early bird or a night owl.
Support time boundaries
When your home is your office, it can be tough to implement time boundaries. And with teams distributed across the globe, it’s tempting to respond to messages whenever they come in. But not having downtime will make workers less productive and lead to burnout.
Recommend that employees set working hours in their calendar to limit meetings to reasonable times. Encourage people to set notification hours on team communication apps, so alerts don’t draw them back into work. And discourage phone notifications completely. Employees will be more effective at responding and getting things done when they’re at their computer, not when they’re preparing lunch or walking the dog.
Leadership should set an example by avoiding working or messaging outside of work hours.
3. Social connections can be hard to cultivate.
Research by Gallup shows that employees with a best friend at work are “seven times as likely to be engaged in their jobs, are better at engaging customers, produce higher quality work, have higher well-being, and are less likely to get injured on the job.”
It’s harder for natural bonds to develop when employees don’t run into each other at the coffee machine or chit-chat in the hallway between meetings. With 16% of employees reporting loneliness as their top struggle with working remotely, according to Buffer, remote companies need to create different opportunities for co-workers to connect.
Foster bonds through interest groups
At traditional offices, you can create opportunities to connect at fitness classes and happy hours. It’s important to provide a way for remote employees to build camaraderie.
Whether you use Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Google Workspace, create channels that people can gather around. Some ideas include a self-care channel, kids and family life, food, fitness, and crafts, just to name a few.
Build social ties with virtual events
But don’t stop there. Create Zoom events based on interests that co-workers can experience together. Maybe you get a fitness instructor to give a yoga class or a professional cook to teach employees how to cook easy, nutritious meals.
Building connections across teams gets difficult at large, remote organizations. To increase employee engagement, use virtual coffee chats to enable connection and build empathy.
Donut is a Slack integration that makes this easy. It connects two people at random to chat over Zoom at whatever frequency you choose.
Keep a bird’s-eye view on employee wellness
Staying on top of employee wellness on remote teams is inherently difficult because it can be invisible. Keeping tabs on your team’s mental health, work-life balance, and social connections is challenging when you’re not getting in-person cues. By implementing new habits and policies, you can build a thriving remote work culture that keeps employees engaged.
Continue to evolve your employee mental wellness program with insights from biannual employee wellness surveys. Wellness surveys can help you understand the impact of your remote company culture on employee wellness, identify the biggest challenges employees are facing, and determine policy changes to improve your wellness culture.