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How can you support remote workers, now and post-lockdown?

Since the UK was put in lockdown, employees currently working from home are wondering if the workplace will ever be the same again… 

A big question for many employers is whether remote working due to COVID-19 will become more permanent, along with flexible working between the office and home. And, crucially, how this might be successfully managed.

Of course, even without a global pandemic, remote working was a fact of life for many. Roughly 5% of the UK workforce worked remotely before COVID-19. Remote working was also on a lot of businesses’ radars when it came to planning for the future. Millennials and Gen Z show greater interest than past generations in working remotely – so encouraging this is key for businesses to attract top young talent.

It is undeniable, however, that while interest in remote working has been growing over the years, COVID-19 has forced businesses to embrace it much quicker than they otherwise would have. In this article, we’re exploring the pros and cons of remote working and how businesses should adapt to it, both during and post lockdown.

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The benefits of remote working

It’s not always easy, but there are certainly benefits to working remotely – for employers and employees.

For employees, some of the benefits are:

  • Less time spent commuting – many of those working from home for the first time have appreciated having extra time to spend on exercising or being with their loved ones. Of course, there’s a financial benefit for many as well

  • Higher levels of autonomy – working from home has given many an extra degree of autonomy to work and prioritise tasks in the way that suits them best

  • Greater flexibility – as long as the work gets done, more employees have the freedom to work around their home life

There are great benefits for business owners and employers as well. These include:

  • Greater employee productivity

  • Lower costs – long-term remote working could help your business save on office space

  • Widening the pool of potential applicants – as we said previously, remote working is an attractive perk to younger job-hunters, so this could help your business attract them. It could also make your business more appealing to valuable candidates from further afield or with caring commitments that you might have missed out on otherwise.

The difficulties of remote working

Whereas remote working was previously reserved for a minority of employees, and was an aspiration for many, businesses have been forced to change traditional office-based operations and figure out ways to introduce remote working for all. The result has required practical, technological, and emotional considerations.

Remote working comes with its fair share of difficulties, many of which your employees may be facing for the first time in their careers. One such example is virtual fatigue. As social creatures, we crave human interaction. Every day we take in visual messages from those around us, which help us to enhance our communication and support our need for human contact. When we use virtual meetings, many elements of our communication norms are removed, yet our mind still constantly searches for signals. As a result, we become over-stimulated when there are multiple faces on our screen, including our own. If the video quality is poor, any hope of gleaning something from minute facial expressions is lost. No wonder we may feel exhausted after these virtual interactions!

There are also difficulties that have been caused by the combination of remote working with lockdown. For example, many parents are struggling to juggle childcare and home-schooling with 9-5 work. However, under normal circumstances, children would be at school or nursery leaving their parents free to work remotely. Therefore, it’s important to remember that even if remote working was already normal in your business, we are definitely not operating under normal circumstances.

For managers, perhaps the most challenging implication has been the impact on the physical and mental health of employees, with many juggling caring responsibilities, work commitments, illness, loneliness and uncertainty, all within the same four walls, day in, day out.

How are your employees managing their mental wellbeing whilst working remotely or partially from home?

Benenden Health conducted research with 2,455 UK residents, who told us about the challenges they currently face as they try to carry out regular life during the pandemic. Nearly 20% said that work is causing them the most stress during these times, with 11.2% worried about losing their job and 8.31% feeling stressed by their workload.

In the current climate, employees may feel pressure to work harder than before, with burnout becoming a real threat for individuals and businesses. 11.65% of respondents said they had never previously suffered from poor mental wellbeing prior to the pandemic, yet now they do.

Cheryl Lythgoe, Society Matron at Benenden Health, said: “whilst it’s not surprising to see the effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had upon the mental health of the UK public, what is surprising is that businesses are missing the opportunity to take simple steps to help support their workforces and protect positive wellbeing at a time when many people are struggling.

“It’s harder to identify issues when teams are working remotely, on furlough or social distancing, so taking the time to check in with team members, holding regular video calls and company updates, and keeping people informed, will go a long way in promoting positive mental health. We also recommend encouraging staff to take regular screen breaks, exercise and promote a clear work-life balance to help reduce stress.”

Whilst the shift to remote working has been challenging for some, what seems to be clear is that businesses are actively looking for and embracing opportunities to be commercially agile in the face of reduced revenues. As a result, we are likely to see a permanent shift away from the financial shackles of office-based working and the emergence of more creative ways to manage a remote team. It is therefore important that businesses consider how they can support their employees during this period and devise a strategy for the future. In many cases, the answer lies in a combined approach to working from home and in the office  which presents new considerations.

Remote working best practice – during lockdown

As the Benenden Health workforce began working from home, we immediately assessed our existing health and wellbeing plan to establish what was of value. Speaking to employees, it was clear that health anxiety was an increasing concern and we adapted our strategy to consider the impact on working relationships and physical health. New employee resources cover a range of practical activities designed to help staff, including sleep guidance, home working advice, home-schooling top tips, desk stretching and virtual bootcamps.

In addition, we have created new principles of remote working to support all employees during this period and for the foreseeable and for the future. These include things like:

  • Asking each other how and when we prefer to be contacted day-to-day for urgent requests and making individual working hours available for all to see

  • Use email subject lines to tell the recipient what you want them to do as a result of your email. This helps them prioritise better. We’ve been using labels like FYI, Urgent and Action

  • Adopted a results-focused approach to enable our people to do their job in hours that suit their personal circumstances. This has led to a ‘tasks completed’ method of time management, rather than an ‘hours worked’ one

  • Make sure some time is set aside for informal chats and calls to aid social interaction – not everything has to be about work

  • Daily internal communications to help employees understand what is going on in the business and ease anxiety

Remote working best practice – into the ‘new normal’

Your business may decide to embrace remote working on a more permanent basis. This appears to be what many businesses are aiming for. This would be an employee’s preferred approach as well – according to one survey, millions of UK workers want more permanent flexible working after lockdown.

Post-lockdown, this might involve a blended approach rather than all or nothing. For example, one employee could work one week in the office, one week from home. Another might choose to work half the week in the office and half from home.

The best practice tips above can be used to influence long-term change in your business that can facilitate this greater level of flexible working. Some other considerations could include:

  • Refining your internal comms to ensure that home workers and office workers are given the same information

  • How you can make sure that employees who work more from home don’t miss out on training and progression opportunities

  • What expectations should be set of new employees when they begin working from home to make sure targets continue to be met and surpassed

  • When is it important to bring everyone together?

  • How to maintain the wellbeing of home worker and office workers – an office worker may be more likely to reach for the biscuit tin for example, while someone working from home may be getting less exercise

Benenden Health has produced a coronavirus hub, with more tips and information about how to stay healthy as a business and individuals during the COVID-19 outbreak. It also outlines any changes or enhancements to our services in response to the global pandemic.

Visit the COVID-19 hub for more information.

Find out how Benenden Healthcare for Business could support your employees

Got a question and want to know more? Call us FREE on 0800 414 8179.