In a matter of weeks, the Coronavirus pandemic has transformed remote working from a rarity into the norm. Before the pandemic, only 3.6 percent of American workers worked from home. Today, it is nearly half.
Now that millions of Americans are working from home, however, it is turning out to not be quite as glamorous as many had envisioned it. Spending day after day between the same four walls, from morning to evening, has its challenges. Remote working for long stretches of time can lead to loneliness, weariness, and reduced productivity.
Unfortunately, though, remote working is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Even if some businesses begin to re-open in a limited capacity over the next several months, it will likely be a while before things can return to normal. As an employer or manager, that means that you need to make sure you are doing everything in your power to make your company’s remote working environment as sustainable as possible.
This post will discuss the challenges that employees face in a remote working environment, the solutions your company should implement, and the tools you need to make those solutions possible.
Before addressing the steps you can take, it is important to understand the challenges that employees face when they work from home. Empathy is the key to a successful remote working environment. Every employee has their own unique experience, but several challenges are nearly ubiquitous.
Working from home for a day or two is one thing. This pandemic, though, has necessitated a different kind of remote working environment, though—one that stretches on for weeks and possibly months. On top of that, there is little opportunity for human interaction, either during work hours or outside of them. This all adds up to an experience that can be incredibly isolating. Especially for people who live alone, social distancing can quickly feel like social isolation.
Studies show how incredibly destructive loneliness can be. The loneliness caused by social distancing has been shown to trigger a neurological craving akin to hunger. A famous study conducted in 2010 found that social isolation increases one’s odds of dying prematurely by 50%—on par with smoking.
This is the first and most important challenge your employees are facing. If not addressed, feelings of social isolation will quickly set in for many people working alone from home.
Lack of Face-to-Face Supervision
Both employees and employers worry about the lack of face-to-face supervision that comes with a remote working environment. Managers worry that employees will not work as productively without the accountability of in-person supervision. Employees are often left with less direction and managerial support.
On the one hand, research suggests that some of these concerns may be overblown—especially in regard to employee productivity. But there is no disputing the reality that the supervisor-employee relationship is strained by the lack of face-to-face communication.
It is important to identify ways to overcome this challenge on both fronts. This means giving managers ways to monitor the progress of those under their supervision and giving employees access to managerial support when they need it.
Distracting Work Environment
Eliminating distractions is one of the biggest challenges employers face in the physical workplace. Working from home increases this challenge tenfold. Many people have additional caretaking responsibilities. Even those who don’t are often surrounded by family members whose first concern is not creating a distraction-free work environment.
Empathy is more important than ever when facing this challenge. Employees need to know that you know there will be distractions, and that is okay. But there are also ways that you can help employees limit the impact that distractions have on their work day.
Lack of Structure
On a related note, employees suffer from a lack of structure when working from home. The in-person work day carries with it a certain flow—when people arrive, when they eat lunch, when they get back to work, when they leave for the day. This pattern becomes self-reinforcing, and even if unenforced, cements itself in employee behavior.
This pattern can easily break down, though, when it comes to remote work. Your employees’ normal morning routines—coffee, breakfast, getting the kids ready for school, commuting—are likely out the window. Their typical working hours may easily follow.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it may even be a necessary consequence of other changes in their lives (e.g. kids being home from school). But there are also benefits of structure and routine. It can be difficult to separate work from home life when working from home, but it is not good for you or your employees for working hours to stretch into the late evening as the line is blurred. It is important to strike the right balance in encouraging structured work days while also giving employees the flexibility they need.
Now that we have discussed the biggest challenges your employees are facing while working remotely, it’s time to turn to the big question—what to do about it?
These four steps will help your company address these challenges and create a productive remote working environment:
Offer Emotional Support
As mentioned above, the first step in helping your employees be productive during this pandemic is empathy. Listen to employees’ anxieties and concerns, before you step in and try to fix them.
However, there are also steps you can take to offer emotional support:
- Encourage employees to take mental health days if they are feeling overwhelmed
- Host virtual office hours or happy hours
- Send employees small gifts or care packages
- Tell employees about options for virtual care for mental health
- Provide opportunities for employees to share their pandemic experiences with each other
Research shows that many employees look to supervisors for cues about how to respond to stressful or unforeseen situations. If managers show empathy and offer emotional support, that can have a trickle down effect on your entire organization.
Establish Regular Check-Ins
Wellness checks are a critical piece of the puzzle. Managers need to know how their employees are doing, so that they can make any necessary accommodations, and employees need to know that their companies care. Your organization should implement two types of check-ins, to operate in parallel.
First, managers should implement regular (daily, if possible) check-ins with those on their teams. This gives employees a chance to align with their managers on any questions they have, and gives managers a chance to check in with their employees and ask how they are doing. These check-ins should be face-to-face, if at all possible. Human interaction is unfortunately a rarity during quarantine, and one-on-one, face-to-face meetings help mitigate that.
Second, your organization should implement organization-wide wellness checks. Sending out a simple survey over SMS every week or two, asking how employees are doing, accomplishes several things. Companies can identify who needs help, and ensure that no one slips through the cracks. This also lets employees know: We care about you, and we want to know if you are okay. This is a critical message for employees to receive—not just from their managers, but from the very top.
Help Employees Limit Distractions
When it comes to distractions, it is important to strike the right balance. On the one hand, employees need to know that you will accommodate any disturbances that arise from the unconventional working environment. The last thing you want is your employees terrified at the prospect of their kid running in during a video conference.
But it is also important to encourage employees to take smart steps to keep distractions at a minimum. This includes setting up a consistent workspace, ideally in a room alone. Many companies have stepped up to help employees purchase items they need to set up a distraction-free home workplace (like computer monitors, desk lamps, and noise-cancelling headphones).
Striking this balance is difficult but worthwhile. Distractions are inevitable to a certain point, but they should not be disastrous.
Encourage a Structured Workday
Finally, it is important to encourage employees to have a structured workday—even if that structure looks different than it did before. Although there are benefits to your team following a similar schedule as each other, this may not be possible for every team member. New obligations like taking care of kids may necessitate a somewhat different routine.
But you should encourage employees to set up a routine to the extent that they can. If their normal hours still work, then by all means, they should continue to follow those hours. That will keep your team working at the same time and lower lag time in intra-team communication. But if someone needs to feed their kids lunch every day at 11:00 am, or check in with an elderly relative, or some other non-negotiable obligation—encourage them to build that into their routine.
Even if your employees’ daily schedules are somewhat different than they used to be, there is value in simply having a routine. It will help employees stay productive and also give them a sense of normalcy in very abnormal times.
These solutions will go a long way to helping your business run smoothly during the remote working stage of the pandemic. But you also need the software tools to make these solutions possible.
Here are the must-haves when it comes to remote working software:
Productivity tools come in all shapes and sizes. Messaging tools like Slack can provide a helpful alternative to email—especially for smaller companies or teams within a larger company. Even without remote work, email inboxes are liable to get flooded quickly. Having an alternative tool for quick communication eases the load on your employees’ inboxes.
Likewise, task management tools like Trello can help your team stay organized and on the same page. While it may be easy to keep track of what is assigned to who and how far along everyone is when the entire team is in the office together, it becomes much harder when everyone is working separately and there is no face-to-face supervision. Task management tools fix this problem.
Another necessary tool for remote work is a videoconferencing system, like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Standard phone conference calls are not an adequate substitute for in-person meetings. Face-to-face interaction is a crucial part of preventing feelings of social isolation.
Don’t succumb to the temptation to replace meetings with calls. Tools like these make it easy to set up meetings and also provide valuable functionality like screen-sharing. Rely on video for your meetings and check-ins as much as possible.
Finally, it is crucial to have a mass communication system at your disposal during the pandemic. Company-wide communication is much harder with a dispersed workforce—but is perhaps even more necessary. Here are just a few reasons you need an emergency communication system when your workforce is remote:
Wellness Checks: A mass communication system like AlertMedia allows you to easily send surveys to all your employees, checking in on their well-being. Even when your employees are remote, you need to know if and how they are impacted by the pandemic. If they or a family member tests positive, you need to act quickly to accommodate them and maintain business continuity. These check-ins should not replace one-on-one check-ins from managers, but they will send the message to every employee that your organization cares for them—in addition to their manager.
Multi-Channel Communication: When everyone is in a physical office, company-wide announcements can sometimes be as simple as calling everyone into a room—or sending out an email and allowing word-of-mouth to fill in anyone who misses it. When everyone is working from their homes, though, it’s physically impossible to call everyone to a meeting together. Plus, emails are far more likely to be overlooked—now that all your employees’ inboxes are flooded. If you want to make sure that everyone gets the message, you need to send it out over multiple channels—SMS, email, and voice. You can even utilize AlertMedia’s conference call feature to replicate the effect of calling people into an impromptu meeting in the conference room. Multi-channel communication will streamline your communication and ensure that no one slips through the cracks.
Two-Way Communication: Emails have their place. Routine announcements, quick exchanges, and back-and-forth discussions between small groups are all well-served by email. But when your company needs to communicate critical information—to everyone—email will simply not suffice. A mass email is just a broadcast message, with no invitation to open a dialogue or ask questions. You might as well be using an office-wide loudspeaker. Sending individual emails to every employee is not a realistic alternative either, unless your organization is incredibly small. An emergency notification system, however, does this for you—sending individual messages to every employee and consolidating every response thread into an easily accessible dashboard for your administrators to manage. This is why nearly 70% of AlertMedia customers use their system to provide direction around business operations. For sensitive topics like your organization’s COVID-19 response, two-way communication is essential.
Threat Monitoring: Advanced systems like AlertMedia also include threat monitoring capabilities, so that you can keep track of emerging and ongoing critical events around the world. As we approach hurricane season, this will become invaluable for tracking which areas are at-risk and which employees are currently working in those areas. But these threat monitoring capabilities also help you follow the pandemic, letting you easily see what the current COVID-19 case counts and government restrictions are in different areas. This is especially helpful for large organizations with multiple offices.
Location-Based Alerts: With a dispersed workforce, regional threats can quickly become a nightmare to communicate. If a hurricane threatens everyone in a particular city, how are you going to determine which of your employees are at risk? Many people are staying with family far away from their physical workspace—you need a way to keep those people safe too (and not barrage them with irrelevant messages). AlertMedia solves this problem with location-based alerts. You can simply specify a certain area on the interactive map and immediately send a notification to all your employees currently located in that area, using GPS location. This will ensure that your message gets to all the people who need to receive it—and none of those who don’t.
Your remote working plan is only as good as the tools you have to support it. An emergency communication system with threat monitoring capabilities, like AlertMedia, ties the rest of your remote working plan together. It helps you monitor employee well-being, track the course of the pandemic, and stay in line with ever-changing government regulations—helping you keep your employees safe and connected during a time when your organization is physically disconnected from one another.