How to help employees struggling to adjust to remote working

Written on 
June 1, 2020

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Remote working has a ton of benefits. No frustrating commute, no open-plan office distractions, no colleagues interrupting your flow. Studies show remote workers are happier, more productive, and more engaged – but for all its benefits, remote working isn’t for everyone. A UN report found remote workers are more susceptible to working longer hours at a more severe pace, experiencing work/life imbalance, and encountering stress. But with the new norm of mandatory home working, how can you help those employees who are struggling to adjust?

The challenges of working remotely

Despite its rosy appearance, remote work can pose serious new challenges for employees. One of biggest is isolation – a problem that may only be exacerbated by lockdown rules. Remote employees can quickly miss the camaraderie of working in an office, having fewer opportunities to chat casually throughout the day. This deficit in daily human interaction can quickly breed disconnection from the company, affecting employees’ engagement and happiness at work.

Virtual communication poses another challenge. When you’re used to being able to wander over to someone's desk to ask something, or get instant clarification in meetings, working remotely can present all kinds of issues. For many companies, work communication went from face-to-face to virtual overnight, forcing them to adopt complex remote infrastructures without considering how they will work in practice. But remote communication without structure leads to confusion and dissonance. Where exactly should you share updates? Should you send an email or start a Slack thread? What justifies a Zoom call? With such gray areas, feedback and information quickly get lost, and wires become easily crossed.

Then there’s the sudden lack of supervision and defined work boundaries. While many managers worry that remote workers won’t work as hard, the opposite is generally true: remote workers are more prone to overworking and burnout. Of course, some people thrive off the office environment, feeling more motivated and connected when working alongside their boss and coworkers. Without ready access to either, employees may feel unsupported and unanchored, and their work may suffer as a result of the limited access to managerial feedback and guideance.

How to support new remote employees

While your management will need to flex to the individual needs of your employees, here are the four most important things you can do to support those struggling with remote working.

1. Establish a clear communication structure

When you’re working remotely, you need to be more intentional with the ways you communicate. Email and Slack updates by themselves aren’t enough, so you should supplement these with regular video conferences. Don’t go overboard with these (you don’t want employees to suffer from ‘Zoom fatigue’) but do thread them through the working week so employees are able to see each others’ faces and chat in real-time. A lack of ‘mutual knowledge’ among remote workers can cause communication problems, but video chat allows employees to receive visual clues, which can aid collaboration and help alleviate feelings of isolation.

Make sure all employees are clear about the communication structure and understand expectations for how to use your virtual communication tools. Remote workers need to share information successfully, without updates getting lost or files being misplaced. Take time to lay out the purpose of each communication platform and set expectations around the regularity, methods, and timing of communication. Be sure to ask for feedback, too: is it working for people? Are there any problems with the current structure? How can communication be improved to better support your team?

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2. Check-in frequently

One of the best ways to support remote employees is by checking in regularly. Not in an overbearing way, but in an empathic way – maybe a daily call, or a quick Zoom chat or phone call at the start of each week. Not only does this help employees feel supported, but it also gives them the chance to ask questions if anything is unclear, or raise any issues they might be facing. If an employee is struggling with an inadequate or noisy workplace, you might not be able to solve the problem – but you can provide reassurance that you understand their situation to alleviate worry. Importantly, checking-in like this also provides some much-needed human interaction.

Rather than asking employees to get in touch when they need to, be proactive and create a dedicated space for ongoing communication. Establish regular, predictable check-ins that employees can expect and rely on. That way, should any problems or blockers arise, there’ll be a chance to talk about them before they escalate. This also allows you to keep your finger on the pulse and help create a stable working environment. Remember that routines provide predictability and structure, which are even more valuable in times of  change and unpredictability.

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3. Offer support and encouragement

Since the shift to remote work was so abrupt for so many workers, it’s key to acknowledge that a lot of people will be struggling – even if they’re not verbalizing it strongly, or at all. Given the uncertainty and fear surrounding the current remote work environment, many employees will be suffering from stress and anxiety – and managers need to be able to connect with their team on an emotional level and empathize with them. Simply asking employees how they’re coping with working remotely gives them a chance to volunteer information that might have otherwise been concealed.

It’s also key to be calm and encouraging when providing support. Studies show that employees look to their managers for prompts on how to react, and when managers display stress or powerlessness, this leads to a “trickle -down effect” that can exacerbate employees’ feelings. So while it’s essential to acknowledge the fact employees might be struggling, and let them know you understand, you also need to provide positive encouragement and affirmation. Let employees know you have faith in them, and make sure they’re aware you’re there to help. Knowing they have a reliable support team helps give remote workers a sense of belonging and security.

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4. Ensure there’s ample social interaction

All remote workers should be able to enjoy some form of social interaction, but this is especially important for those who were hastily moved out of the office – especially for the more extraverted among us. Don’t just assume people will interact socially of their own accord; take the initiative and establish opportunities for non-work chat and social interaction yourself.

It may sound weird, but there are tons of ways to socialize virtually – it can be as simple as using the last ten minutes of team meetings to chat about how you’re all doing and what you’ve been up to. But go beyond work spaces and create a rolling virtual social schedule. That could mean holding virtual breaks each day, a virtual cocktail hour on Friday afternoon, or a virtual pizza party, where pizza is delivered to all employees at the time of a video chat or conference. It might sound artificial or forced, but these small shared experiences help create a sense of togetherness and belonging, and can reduce feelings of isolation.

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