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The ‘remote working challenge’ – are you really seeing the other person on the screen?

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By Jeff Ryan, MD of AWCape, a Sage Business Partner

Now that more businesses are settling into a world where at least some of their people will permanently work from home part or all of the time, the question is how we can maximise the benefits and mitigate the drawbacks.

After the rush to enable remote working, we can now evaluate what is and isn’t working.

Working from home isn’t all about skipping the commute, working in your pyjamas and sitting at your desk with your cat purring happily in your lap. For many people, social isolation, the lack of corporate structure and disruption of their usual support arrangements (such as schools closing for lockdowns) are beginning to bite.

And while most businesses put the spotlight on the mental and physical wellbeing of their employees earlier in the COVID crisis, many of the special steps and support they offered have now fallen by the wayside. In some cases, employees are being left to make their own way through a health and economic emergency that has yet to end.

Happiness at Work – an Oxymoron?

To make remote work sustainable as a long term business model, leading companies will make physical health and mental wellness cornerstones of their business. This is all about creating a culture where colleagues and team leaders make a special effort to really empathise with the people on the other side of the screen. It’s also about embedding wellness support into the company’s business processes.

Here are a few steps that people-centric companies can consider.

1.     Lead by example

As a business leader or owner, when you set the example everyone else will follow. While you’re passionate and engaged in what you do, it’s also important to show that you value your own mental and physical wellbeing and work-life balance. Keep a finger on the pulse of your own stress levels, make time for family and exercise, and take sick leave should you need it. This will show your team that you understand productivity, engagement and motivation are at their highest when everyone has a healthy mind and body.

2.     Track leave and absenteeism

Over the past 18 months, school calendars and holiday plans have been severely disrupted. Many members of your team might be powering through without taking leave because they figure they’ll wait until they can (properly) travel again. Others might think that they can keep working even with COVID or physical ailments because they’re working from home.

An automated HR system will let you track whether your team is taking holidays and sick leave. When people are accumulating leave, you can step in to advise them to take a few days for the sake of their health. Data about sick leave and absenteeism, meanwhile, can offer insight into how your people are doing. High levels of unplanned time off can signal that some of them are struggling. 

3.     Offer genuine flexibility

Many workplaces pay lip-service to the idea of flexibility, yet don’t offer much flexibility in practice. Recognising the new pressures that working parents are facing, the financial stresses of the pandemic, and the reality of the continued health crisis, empathic managers will know when to cut a team member some slack.

It really should be okay to take time out for family responsibilities or to move an internal meeting because of a personal crisis, without penalty. People in remote working environments will generally be at their best when they’re measured on the outcomes they achieve, rather than how many hours they spent at their desk.

4.     Get feedback from your team

Many businesses find it helpful to create regular checkpoints to get feedback on their people are doing. You can conduct employee surveys to find out how people are doing, learn about their perception of the team leaders, and check how engaged and satisfied they are, for instance. The ‘stay’ interview is another useful tactic.

In a stay interview, you can ask employees why they’re choosing to remain with the company, how they are coping, and what they think you could do to create a more engaging work experience. These interviews can help you to nip potential problems in the bud before employees become burnt out or disengaged and eventually leave. It is called the Great Resignation for a reason. Recent research by Microsoft, the 2021 Work Trend Index, showed that 41% of the workforce is considering leaving their employer this year.

5.     Provide mental wellness resources

Many employees in a remote setting may not know where to turn for help if they’re anxious, depressed or emotionally depleted. To help, HR and team leaders can offer access to wellness resources, such as mindfulness apps, a recommended psychologist or courses and webinars on stress management, resilience and self-esteem and assertiveness.

6.     Equip managers and leaders with the right tools

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of mental wellness, yet many managers feel that they’re not equipped to manage this challenge. Specialised training can help them to better understand the mental health issues members of their team are wrestling with, how to spot when someone is struggling, and which accommodations to make.

Creating a wellness-centred workplace

Remote – or hybrid office/remote-work is likely to be a key part of the future. To make the most of its opportunities, businesses will need to focus on ways of keeping the team connected and involved. Rather than assuming all is well, they should check how people are really doing and provide them with the support they need.

In addition to being the right thing to do, it also delivers tangible returns. According to Discovery, studies conducted by Oxford University and the University of Surrey have found that spending as little as R16 on health promotion strategies (like exercise opportunities, mental wellness days off and screen-time management) can save around R800 of absenteeism, presenteeism and temporary staff costs. That’s something to think about!