Does remote working change an employer’s role and responsibilities toward employees?

On paper, the changes are generally few, depending upon location. However, as employees continue working from home – many for the foreseeable future – asking ourselves how we can best support our people is an important and complicated question.

Sure, support means ensuring they have the technology to do their jobs, at the minimum. Smart employers are taking the next step, and helping ensure employees have comfortable workspaces and ergonomically-correct equipment at home. Some are even providing allowances for employees to use at their discretion to upgrade their at-home workspaces.

However, there’s another angle to what employees really need from their leaders right now. It’s showing up in the rapidly evolving employee engagement trends and expectations for their work experiences, which have deprioritized career development and are focused on wellbeing, mental health, and maintaining a sense of belonging – even as they continue to work in isolation.

How to re-energize people who are exhausted?

To put a finer point on it – how do we keep people refreshed and energized, even as the forces that have been so exhausting for them continue?

To answer that question, a leader must first put themselves firmly in their employees’ shoes.

“Most leaders have been so focused on mitigating the impacts of the pandemic on their businesses and keeping things going that they have not had a moment to consider what the impact has been on their people,” suggests our CEO and founder, Stefan Wissenbach. “Leaders haven’t had to consider this – engagement levels have been at record highs, inspired by the threat posed by a common enemy – the coronavirus.”

However, the Covid Trap he warned about months ago is in full effect. People are becoming less engaged, and are losing steam. For those in cold climates or in full lockdown, the effects of the pandemic are compounded.

A recent Harvard Business Review article, “How to Lead When Your Team is Exhausted, and You Are, Too,” emphasizes this point: “…the home stretch will be long and perhaps take a greater toll on our professional and personal lives than we expect it to.” 

Many people are at their breaking point. They’re fragile” says Stefan, putting a finer point on the situation for leaders. Case in point – use of drugs, alcohol, and antidepressants are all on the rise – in the US and the UK both.

Keeping these facts in mind, we also need to look at how these issues are showing up in the organization. As people lose their energy, enthusiasm, and engagement, their work quality will suffer. Opportunistic high performers, who were previously attuned to sniffing out innovations and improvements, will become more average, reducing the company’s ability to improve performance through innovation. As motivation declines and employees start simply checking the boxes and are less willing to “go above and beyond,” service levels will slip.

Simply put, reigniting a team’s enthusiasm will take more than a pep talk. To win this struggle, employers will need to defeat the following effects of the pandemic that are dragging people and performance down.

Monotony & boredom: For those working at home, every day is like the movie “Groundhog Day.” They get up, shuffle to the dining room or wherever they’ve carved out a workspace, and flip open their laptop. With few, if any ‘watercooler moments’ or lunches out with colleagues, there’s little variety to the day – and not much to look forward to, either.

Isolation: For those who are either living under restrictive lockdown conditions or are themselves maintaining a more strict self-quarantine, social isolation is wearing, and has an undeniable effect on people, leading to loneliness and for some, depression and other mental health challenges.

Stress and balance: Since the beginning of the pandemic closed offices and drove many employees home, people in the UK have been working an additional 2 hours per day, on average. Their counterparts in the US are logging even more time, averaging 3 more hours per day than they did when in the office. At the same time, many are also handling childcare and homeschooling or working around the people with whom they’re sharing space. As a result, it’s easy to see that any time saved by not commuting is, for the most part, siphoned elsewhere, leaving little for individual pursuits.

Back to the question, then, of how we can better support employees.

  • Bring people together at the start of the day. Have teams connect in a daily “stand up” to greet each other and organize for the day. Even when their jobs don’t generally intersect, employees benefit from the landscape view of the organization these meetings provide, and low-pressure interaction provides a degree of connection, replicating the office rhythms such as gathering in the kitchen at the beginning of the day for a coffee and catching up.
  • Create separation at the end of the day with a signal that tells employees it’s time to shut down. If they leave their laptop booted up and sitting on the counter, it’s too easy for people to hop back online. Relatedly, leaders should set expectations that after-hours responses are neither expected nor required, and should themselves model respecting personal time, and avoid contacting employees after hours.
  • Enable employees the freedom to schedule their days to best suit their needs, and vigorously encourage them to take breaks. It’s fine to require them to be present for some meetings and to collaborate with others, but giving them the freedom to break up their time can be an easy way to support your people.
    • Our CEO has changed up his workout routine – some days he works out first thing, sometimes it happens after work, and sometimes, he takes a long lunch break and exercises then. He’s forced his way out of a monotonous schedule and notes that it’s created real differentiation between the days.

Leaders can also encourage people to pursue interests outside of work without being prescriptive or dictatorial. Lest you wonder what we’re thinking by advocating for these kinds of pursuits, consider the benefits of pursuing a hobby or passion outside of work, which include:

  • Improved job performance
  • Increased self-confidence
  • Improved resilience
  • Potential to make oneself smarter
  • It can be a form of mindfulness (read: stress reduction)

Our own CEO challenged everyone to use lockdown time to hone a new skill or hobby. He shares his own progress on his pandemic project (planting an orchard) on one of our Slack channels, where we’ve also admired work of the various carpenters, chefs, gardeners, and artists among ourselves. Simply creating time and space for the conversation is a great first step.

Give your team more options by creating a culture that’s focused on outcomes 

Some reading this may be thinking, “That’s all well and good, but this is about work, after all!” Indeed, companies that provide employee monitoring software that keeps tabs on employee productivity and records their actions have seen huge increases in usage. However, leaders need to think long and hard about the activities those kinds of digital tethers encourage.

A smarter approach is one that focuses on measurable outcomes and builds in accountability. By setting quarterly goals with clear metrics and employee accountabilities, leaders can start building a framework for measuring employees based upon achieving outcomes, rather than logging how many hours they spent in meetings. Especially at the outset, breaking goals down further into monthly goals and weekly deliverables will give managers confidence and insight into progress.

Creating a culture that’s based upon outcomes and achievement is the foundation of growth and innovation, and affords leaders the chance to invite their team to participate more intimately in the growth of the firm. Additionally, it creates an environment in which there are more options for leaders to engage and motivate their teams.

Using collaboration to beat isolation and boredom 

One fantastic example comes to us from our client, Capital Asset Management.

Feedback from their team last summer indicated that employees were feeling isolated and missing the opportunity to collaborate with each other as they did readily when in the office. The company’s operations director hatched a plan to tackle those issues all at once, giving rise to “Collaboration Days.” Taking steps to create a socially-distanced and safe workspace, the leaders invited the team (who were all working from home at the time) to come in for a daylong workshop focused on resolving one specific issue. In-person attendance was optional – but in this case, all employees opted to attend. At the end of the first Collaboration Day, the team had rebuilt an onerous process, shaving days off the required time.

The company has had a total of five more Collaboration Days since then, and the results have been profound: people are stepping up to suggest and lead the projects, and the results have been fantastic: CEO Alan Smith estimates the savings the various process improvements will deliver at more than six figures.

While many companies are precluded from gathering in person, creating a day-long workshop is entirely feasible using video conferencing. A smart agenda that blends group calls with individual work and small-group breakout sessions will keep things moving and avoid video fatigue. We love ideas like this – employees get a break from the day-to-day, and the company benefits from their focused attention on one issue.

If you’ve not done so already, take a look at our ebook – Keeping Remote Teams Engaged & Productive – for more ideas to support your employees. US Version | UK Version

Also, don’t miss our upcoming webinar – The Looming Culture Crisis – later this month. We’ll be focusing specifically on the unique challenges the pandemic is posing for leaders, and how company cultures are being impacted (hint: it’s not for the better.