Research into remote working often paints a rosy picture. We heard people were happier and often more productive if allowed to work a few days a week from home. Some were even willing to accept a pay cut for the privilege. Now we need to treat these findings with a pinch of salt. Before Covid-19, there was little psychological research into fulltime home workers because they were so rare. In 2019, the proportion of UK workers who worked mainly at home was just 5%, according to the Office for National Statistics. Times have changed.
It’s true, flexible remote working has distinct benefits. But that’s not the reality for many in this pandemic. Telecommuting has rapidly become not just part, but all, of their working life. As the second wave crashes down we’ve all had to change mental gears. What was a feature-length disaster movie is now a grindingly-dark soap opera. Only a tiny percentage of us will get coronavirus and become seriously ill. But all of us are being psychologically squeezed. The equation is clear: uncertainty plus time equals anxiety.
It’s always been difficult to see into the minds of co-workers. Now it’s even more challenging. The reality behind a sunny smile on Zoom might mask something darker. A survey of 500 home workers by the Institute for Employment Studies found people were drinking more alcohol, eating less healthily and doing less exercise. Six in ten reported problems sleeping due to anxiety. A third felt lonely.
This poses an unprecedented people management test. To rise to the challenge, you need to be as human at work as you are at home. Here are six practical ways to navigate your team through troubled waters.
After an initial rise in the opening few months, Covid-19 has coincided with a historic drop in workers who report they are enthusiastic and committed to their work. The worst engagement scores since 2000 have also seen the largest decline in employee engagement among those in leadership positions. An effective route to improve the emotional engagement of your team and yourself, is to rebuild the emotional connection with our customers. This means exploring not just what the team is achieving, but why?.
Research and experience show the most effective route to build purpose is to understand how the team helps other people. This needs to be experienced. Organise a virtual or face-to-face meeting with some customers or end users. Dutch Rabobank always begin their leadership programmes by introducing managers to a farming family who use their financial services. Many years after this encounter managers point back to this brief meeting as one of the pivotal moments of their leadership development.
Agree sensible response times
We live in a world that expects Formula One-standard reply times, but does it always deliver value? Work out clear principles for what ‘urgent’ really means. If it’s not an emergency (which it isn’t most of the time) encourage your team to check emails three times a day, at a time of their choosing. More widely, agree when individuals will be available. This might be around core 9 to 5 operational hours or you might have the flexibility to allow people to set their own schedules. As long as productivity is high, it’s important to offer as much freedom as possible. Show empathy for people who are constantly switching between home and work hats.
Model healthy habits
It’s important for leaders not just to support, but demonstrate, balance. The benefits are supported by science. In a fascinating paper called ‘The Healthy Mind Platter’ David Rock and his colleagues at the NeuroLeadership Institute in New York collected together the insights from a large number of studies. Together they reveal how physical health supports mental health.
The recommendations provide a useful tick list for a sustainable work life: 1. Mindful meditation practise 2. Sufficient sleep to refresh the mind and consolidate memory formation 3. Physical exercise 4. Downtime to integrate thoughts and produce creative insights 5. Playtime 6. Connection time to relate to other people. If these ingredients are successfully blended together, people can then achieve work sprints, the foundation stone of high productivity.
Offer positive feedback
When people are lonely constructive feedback has a huge impact. Jacqui Rigby, former Chief Marketing Officer, Appreciate Group PLC said: Offering positive feedback is more important than ever. A simple ‘well done’ message or suitable emoji on a video conference makes a difference. Sending a small, surprise gift in the post, or an old-school handwritten card can lift people’s spirits for weeks. The key is to be authentic and timely.
Understand corona-experiences vary massively
Managers are having to adapt at speed. It’s more difficult to recognise stress when not seeing people face to face, says Poppy Jaman, chief executive of City Mental Health Alliance. For some remote working has opened up new opportunities to get to know their kids better, find time for physical fitness – and bake sourdough bread, among other hobbies.
For others, especially those on lower incomes, or living in city flats with no outside space, Covid-19 has been a living hell. For example, isolation has prompted a rise in domestic violence. Refuge, a UK charity helping those affected, reported a 700 per cent rise in calls to its helpline in one day. It’s vital for managers to put aside time to ask after the wellbeing of their team members on a discrete, one-to-one basis, to actively listen and follow up with support as needed.
Develop a sense of humour
Counterintuitively, humour is a serious business when it comes to responding to a crisis. Make a person smile and their brain releases oxytocin, the neurotransmitter which facilitates social bonding and trust. Individuals with a sense of humor engaged experience less stress than people who are more serious, even when facing the same challenges. As a result, they’re more productive, creative and resilient.
The current circumstances mean stress, anxiety and loneliness are more likely for everyone. Being a good leader in a slow-burning crisis means taking time to truly connect with colleagues. To be a boss and a human being at the same time.