Businesses around the globe have initiated extreme measures in an effort to safeguard their employees’ welfare and contain the spread of COVID-19. For many this means a mandated move to remote working – typically from the employee’s home. Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Facebook have tens of thousands of staff working from home (and, let’s face it, if they’re not set up for remote working then what hope have the rest of us?) but many non-tech organisations are also working hard to equip their teams to work from home.
For some people remote working presents a welcome novelty; a chance to forgo the daily commute, ditch the suit, keep on top of the household chores and still get a full day’s work done. For others, however, it’s proving more difficult. It hasn’t been a gradual, planned transition; for many, it’s been an overnight switch. Logistical challenges such as poor wifi, inadequate equipment and inappropriate workspace can make for a very frustrating workday that feels mostly unproductive. Children in the house because of school closures are typically bored, demanding and noisy!
Childcare challenges mean that many people are trying to juggle their paid job and their parenting job, and feeling that they are doing neither well. For some, the lack of separation between work and home can make it difficult to ‘clock off’ and may mean that they feel as if they are working longer hours than usual. Any of these factors can hugely exacerbate the stress that many of us are feeling given the constant, scary media coverage coming at us daily.
In general, difficulty with change is associated with fear and loss, which can fall into several categories. Some people are experiencing all of these at once, which means that some of our employees may be feeling very stressed in the coming days and weeks. So what kinds of loss are we talking about?
Loss of competence
Working from home is completely new to many people. Trying to get to grips with remote meeting apps, collaboration tools, headsets and even laptops may leave people feeling completely inadequate and, in the case of one person I spoke with last week, too embarrassed to admit to his (mainly younger) colleagues that he couldn’t figure out how to work the technology. “I don’t want to fit the old-guy stereotype”, he said.
Some of us feel really uncomfortable left to our own devices, preferring more structure and direction than working at home alone can provide. Some people aren’t great at self-motivating and need that sense of deadline or an impending check-in with their manager to spur them into action. Talking to people in my network I know that some feel they’re not doing their jobs as well as usual; they may feel that they’re less productive or that they’re less effective. It’s probably far from true but nonetheless I sense from them a slight flatness, a self-doubt that can chip away at confidence over time.
A friend of mine has recently started with a new company. She says that working from home is proving really stressful. She doesn’t know the systems or processes well enough yet to feel competent on her own and she says that trying to get a colleague to talk her through a process via a Skype call is frustratingly slow – she reckons they both lost a couple of hours the other day.
Loss of connection
Out for a walk yesterday I overheard a woman telling her friend “I’m all over the place, I can’t seem to get anything finished and yet I’m bored. I’d rather be bored in the office. I need my colleagues around me”. Lack of routine coupled with the loss of colleagues and the social interaction that comes with them can leave people feeling disoriented, unfocused and isolated. We are social animals and we need to feel connected with others. The positive interactions we have with others in any normal work day give us energy, ideas, confidence, a sense of belonging and help us solve problems. A quick chat over a coffee or a shared joke across the office has a much more positive impact on the soul than (yet another) meme on WhatsApp. Quarantine measures have curtailed our ability to connect with others in person, both in- and outside work, and feeling isolated can greatly add to any stress we’re already feeling.
Loss of choice
Many workers have always had an option to work from home some of the time and they are used to using that flexibility to suit their lives. The removal of any element of choice around home working can suddenly make what felt like a perk seem like a burden.
Many people may also be feeling excluded from decisions being made about the business. We may be wondering whether we will ever go back to working as we used to – will remote working become the new normal? Will I have any say in that? What if I don’t want to stay working remotely forever? These questions and others can stress us out because we feel our choices may be taken away from us.
Loss of control
Feeling out of control is a source of huge stress for many of us and COVID-19 has brought with it a level of disruption that most of us have not previously experienced. People are fearful for the present: fear of contracting the virus, fear for others close to us who are vulnerable, fear of how long the pandemic may last and the implications for health, jobs and finances. School closures and full lockdowns are completely out of our control and people are scrambling to organise their lives to deal with them.
Many of us are also fearful about the future: Where is this headed? Will my organisation get through this? Is my job safe? What about others in my organisation? If we all work from home our catering, cleaning and other support staff may not be needed; will they lose their jobs?
Even though we know that this situation will come to an end it can be very stressful to feel so little control over it right now.
How you can help to reduce the stress of remote working
Enable people to do their work competently
- Provide the equipment – laptops, headsets, etc. – that people need or allow them to shop online and equip themselves; for example, they might just need a wifi extender to improve their home network. Just be clear about the parameters and what people can claim on expenses; you may have to be flexible with your policies.
- Ensure they have the software they need to work online, access the network and collaborate with others. You may need to pay for temporary licences to enable online meetings and other collaboration tools. Some providers are offering temporary free upgrades to their pro versions – UCToday provides a guide here.
- Skill people up, and quickly. Most software and equipment providers will offer some level of online training and of course YouTube is full of tutorials. You could also assign people a Buddy – someone who can coach colleagues who are inexperienced with the equipment or tools and help them get up to speed.
Keep people connected – to the organisation and to each other
- Provide clear, regular updates and show strong, visible leadership. Keep people informed of new developments and the organisation’s response to them. Explain why the business is making certain decisions and how people will be impacted. People who are unused to working remotely need to feel part of the business and not become isolated. Rethink your internal communications. In-person briefings, huddles, town halls and other updates that may no longer be possible may be doable in a virtual format. Otherwise you may have to rely on written communications like internal ezines. These are generally more difficult and time-consuming to put together so make sure you allocate sufficient time and thought to them.
- Find ways to conduct daily check-ins or virtual team meetings. Think about how best to use these: what do you need to tell/hear from your team? Keep virtual meetings focused and short – they’re harder to manage than in-person meetings so stick to the pertinent material. Harvard Business Review presents some good tips for virtual meetings here.
- Consider the instant messaging apps available – some ideas here – and how you will use them. Be clear about your protocols: what they may/may not be used for – avoid ending up with something that is full of inane chatter and eventually discarded because it’s more distracting than useful.
- Don’t forget that people are missing their colleagues on a social level too. Organise some social team time; for example, set up a coffee-break where everyone gets online with their own refreshments and simply have a chat, no work talk! We have already heard of some quick-off-the-mark teams having ‘quarantini hour’ on Friday afternoons so you can make it as social as you wish!
Give choices and options where possible
- Define clear policies to address concerns. Make it clear whether working from home is mandated or simply encouraged. Is it mandatory to dial in to business briefings in person or could they be recorded so that people could view/listen when it suits them? Consider where you can offer choice; for example, it may suit people with children to work early in the morning or late in the evening and to spend the day with their children. If you can offer options people will feel they have more choice in their own destiny.
- Ask individual team members how often they would like to check in with you. For some the answer may be ‘several times a day’, for others it may be ‘every couple of days’; try to facilitate each one if you can.
- Trust your team. They may be working differently and yes, it may feel like wading through mud but most people are doing their best. Don’t question their every moment and movement. Focus on delivery, output, results, not how they are spending their time. The last thing anyone needs at this time is to feel they’re being micromanaged from afar.
Help people feel in control
- Be calm. None of us is in control of the COVID-19 situation or how long it will impact how we work, so there is no point in panicking. Help your team to stay in the here and now. Help them to make decisions based on the information they have right now. Encourage calm and considered actions. A stressed-out leader will mean a stressed-out team.
- Make it easy for people to talk about their concerns and address them head-on. Perhaps you can put their mind at ease, perhaps you can’t. Either way, talking about them will probably help. Be supportive of individual circumstances and needs. Ask people to think about what is within their power to control and to focus on addressing those.
- Encourage people to take some physical exercise at some point every day. Working from home can mean that people do not leave the house, especially if the weather is bad. Fresh air and physical exercise are known to significantly reduce stress. Suggest that your team members at least take a short walk at lunchtime or some other point in their day.
- Help people feel in control of their working time and their work-life balance. Make sure they log off for an appropriate time and that they are not checking emails 24/7. Do not contact them out of hours if it is not your normal practice when working in the office.
- Reassure people that this will get easier. It is like any other change; it requires some getting used to and they should try to get comfortable with the discomfort. Help them to ease into it and don’t create unnecessary pressure.
There is much commentary online and elsewhere about remote working becoming ‘the new normal’. Whilst this phase will undoubtably change our ways of working in the future we appear to have a long way to go to make it easy and stress-free before we get to ‘normal’. COVID-19 moves quickly; people don’t.