I’m writing this post on March 22nd. The specific date matters, because by the day – if not the hour – our reality seems to shift as the Coronavirus Pandemic changes everything. Perhaps the workplace is one of the pillars of modern life most affected. Of course, for many the workplace is a hospital or doctor’s office, grocery store, water or power plant, or another essential location where workers don’t have the option to work remotely. To all those people – thank you.
But for those of us who can work from home, an extreme experiment has begun very suddenly, and on a massive global scale. While tech giants like Oracle, Apple and Google were some of the first to urge all employees who can to work from home to do so, it’s now the norm, if not a requirement. Banks are installing trading equipment in employees’ home offices. Lloyd’s of London has closed its underwriting room for the first time in its 330-year history. Universities have moved to online learning. Netflix yesterday held its first video conference table read for an upcoming production. Things that might otherwise have been piloted and cautiously integrated are suddenly mandates. It can feel overwhelming, even disorienting.
So at a time of such uncertainty (and, let’s be honest, anxiety), how can you harness the power of your remote workforce? Not just to ensure productivity, but to help your employees through this time. I’ve been working remotely for the past two years, and am exploring this and other questions in a Remote Working Blog Series over the coming weeks.
At the best of times, working remotely can be incredibly effective. It can even be fun. But there’s one major challenge. Loneliness. Soon after the invention of the computer, thought-leaders of the time predicted that we would all shortly be working from home. It did not happen. A 2016 study in China gave employees at a travel agency the option to work from home. 50% volunteered to take part. At first, it proved a huge success with high employee engagement, productivity, and reduced costs from reduced office space. But when the initiative was rolled out to the whole company it ultimately failed because of one major complaint: loneliness. For the same reasons, shared work spaces such as WeWork have seen success in recent years alongside the rise of remote working in the US. In the words of my hero Brené Brown, “We are hardwired to connect with others.” That’s why even in the perilous times of a global pandemic, we must fight the very human instinct to find comfort in being physically close to others.
None of us know how long we’re going to be working in these new ways. And loneliness poses very real risks to productivity, creativity, engagement, and ultimately the mental health of your workforce.
So my advice to employers at this time is to over-communicate. With your internal communications and realigned culture, make loneliness the enemy. Make health and happiness the goals. Business maintenance and productivity cannot follow without these.
How do you do that? The human brain is a complex thing. But it helps to think about the things that matter to us. The things that help us to feel healthy and happy. So here are some tips, aimed at promoting different aspects of employee wellbeing.
1. Be social As someone who has worked remotely for two years, let me tell you what I miss most: random office interactions. Chatting at the coffee machine. Morning catch ups with my team. Yes, even those awkward moments in the elevator making small talk about the weather with the guy who sits on the third floor and you can’t remember his name. Recreate those moments. I encourage you to turn on video for work talk and meetings, but make some rules about times when there must be “no work talk”. Schedule regular catch ups to check in on how everyone is doing and talk about what you’ve been streaming, any anxieties people have, good things that have happened, strange things that have happened, and – yes – even the weather.
2. Encourage physical health OK, OK, it’s not your place as an employer to mandate an exercise schedule. But there is a direct link between physical activity and mental health. And right now some of us aren’t sure what to do when our favorite workout class shuts down (I miss you, Orangetheory!), or you can’t go to the gym or play in your regular sports league. What can you do as a community of employees? Coming together to take on a running challenge, taking part in a video yoga class, or checking in on everyone’s Fitbit steps are all ways you can unite your people while giving them a healthy outlet. Camaraderie and team-building should follow. Have your people post their workouts or results on a social or internal channel. Build a community that gives people a meaningful and healthy resource.
3. It’s an emotional time There’s no point in ignoring the very large and scary elephant in the room. We’re all feeling new kinds of stress right now. I’m currently wondering how my work schedule now includes the care of my 9-month-old baby. I know I can make it work and Havas will support me to do so, but I’m definitely feeling more emotional than usual. As an employer, you must acknowledge these emotions. Help your colleagues to work through their feelings, because productivity and wellbeing can be real struggles otherwise. Managers should regularly check in one-on-one with their people. Remind employees of any additional support that is available. Allow people to be vulnerable and honest by creating a culture where they feel they can be. That can start with simply asking people, “How are you feeling today?”
4. Over-communicate In times of uncertainty, give people more information than they need. Reduce anxiety by not letting them wonder or worry about anything they don’t need to. Be honest, be clear, and be informative. I recently read a paper about the 1918 Flu Pandemic (yes, it’s been a time of unusual reading choices) which showed that cities in the US where social distancing was best observed were those where communication was constant, clear and above all honest. At times that might mean telling employees that you simply don’t know the answer. But don’t be afraid to say so – anxiety creeps out of the cracks in communication.
5. Celebrate the good times COVID-19 might feel all-encompassing right now. But, good things still happen. Work projects continue and get completed, new business can still be won, people successfully navigate new work styles and learn new things, acts of kindness are everywhere. Call out your employees who have done a great job, shared a success, or just done something nice for a colleague. Right now would probably be a good time to thank your HR, internal communications and operations teams. If you don’t already have an internal recognition and reward initiative in place, start one today. Give your people a platform to thank and congratulate one another.
While times are strange, there are so many simple things we can do to make them less so. And remember – nobody is single-handedly responsible for their organization’s culture. It’s a living thing. Turn some of these ideas over to people or groups within your business and let them get involved setting exercise challenges or virtual Friday night office drinks.
Most importantly – stay home, stay safe, and wash your hands.
Director of Creative and Strategy - Havas People North America