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Building a culture of wellbeing in remote teams

March 22, 2022

We always start with letters, so let's switch up and start with numbers.

  1. Of all the employees that worked from home during the pandemic, 27% have stayed fully online. (Owl Labs)
  2. 59% of remote teams work between 2-5 time zones. (Buffer)
  3. Remote job posts on LinkedIn more than doubled between 2020 and 2021— from 6% to 14%.
  4. More than two thirds of workers feel they are as productive or more productive in working from home (WFH) (Chicago University)

We could go on, but we suspect you know as well as we do that remote working is not going anywhere. The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated a trend that was already in motion. Digital infrastructure means WFH is increasingly accessible, so being more present for family, and avoiding the drudgery of the commute, is a clear advantage. Companies being able to hire from a wider pool of talent, not limited by geography, is also a huge competitive advantage (for the more forward-thinking organisations, at least).

The climate science is also clear. A study by the European Commission found thatnon-residential buildings are on average 40% more energy intensive than residential buildings (250 kWh/m2 compared to 180 kWh/m2)”. It is for this reason that working from home is generally held to be more energy efficient than working from the office, though a number of other factors can affect this, such as the energy efficiency of the home versus the office building, and the method and distance of the commute to the office. In general, however, office environments use a lot of energy to run, and most of that energy ain't coming from low-carbon sources, unfortunately.

So that's where we're going, and it's all good....isn't it? But wait. What might we lose by working remotely? What about the isolation, disconnection, and the resulting mental health risks? What about people struggling to balance personal and professional lives in a WFH scenario, and ending up struggling in both?

Wellbeing in remote work

Zooming in on education in particular, it's hard to really work out how things lie. Many of the studies done on how education professionals are coping with remote work, had the backdrop of a global pandemic to contextualise it, and so it will take some time to see the true picture of just how remote workers are coping.

That said, some things are pretty clear. A Yougov survey in 2021 found that the top 5 issues in remote working were:

  1. Not being able to unplug: 27%
  2. Difficulties with communication: 16%
  3. Loneliness: 16%
  4. Distractions at home: 15%
  5. Staying motivated: 12%

While number (3) might be somewhat alleviated by a post-pandemic return to socialising for some, the other issues seem to transcend the lockdown period, and they are oh-so-relatable for so many of us.

How can you unplug when you work and relax in the same physical space, or even in the same room? Where can the mind find a partition between these two phases of the day, and how can you really truly disconnect?

If you've managed to avoid technology beyond emails and WhatsApp (congrats!), communication in remote working can certainly be stressful as a steep learning curve. On the tech side, getting invites to meetings through Teams, automatically added to your Outlook calendar in a different time zone, but your laptop microphone is not great, so you take it on the phone and have to download the app, and then someone calls you halfway through your sales pitch. Not good... And then there is all the etiquette of online meetings, and the total absence of the usual visual cues for turn taking and interrupting.

Distractions, oh yes. How easy it is to find yourself making another cup of tea, or chatting with the delivery driver. Or family who don't quite get that working at home is not the same as "being home" and interrupt you in mid-flow. Motivation is really hard when in the midst of all this, and that leads naturally to anxiety and yet more stress. It is far from easy.

We have already passed on as much insight as we can on how to actually tackle these issues as an employee in our article Working from Home-5 ways to be productive, but what about the responsibilities of the employer? Out of the social circle of the office or teacher's room, and away from the incidental and proximal interactions with colleagues (yep, now you have to schedule those!), how can institutions and organisations actually help to build and sustain a culture of wellbeing among their remote workers? 

Supporting wellbeing in your remote team

Tip 1 - model it from the top

This is critical. Leadership is what really sets a culture, and you can say all you want about wellbeing, but if the person in charge is not walking the talk, it falls flat. Remember that shifting to this way of working is something that a lot of people find difficult, and they need to know that's OK. Talk about it, be flexible, encourage rest, share experiences and insights.

If your employees feel like they are trusted and don't have to be "on" every second of the day, then that feeling will begin to pervade through the team. Don't just say it; model it and give it time for others to feel they can do the same. The tone you set will be the thing that makes it all work.

Tip 2- be flexible

Starting at 9am and finishing at 5? What about the early risers that want to do a burst of work at 6am and take a long midday break before doing some low cognitive-load stuff in the late afternoon? Instead of hard and fast working hours, focus more on a shared expectation of what needs done each week or month, and let people manage their time in a way that suits them. Discuss expectations, times to keep free for possible meetings, but leave things as open as you can. Ultimately, if a goal is achieved, who cares if it was done at 6am or 6pm? Not us, that's for sure.

Micromanaging your team never ends well, and this only amplifies in the WFH scenario. Focus on deliverables, not how many hours people spend at their laptop, because when has the latter ever had a causative relationship with productivity? 

Try to schedule meetings with notice and not just expect someone to be in front of their laptop at all times. The presenteeism culture is just not going to work here- the idea that someone has to be "there" at all times and that they are somehow, magically, proving themselves to be an asset. Your growth hacker is out hacking at the hedgerow in the garden at 2 in the afternoon? Good! They're getting a bit of sun (unless they live in Scotland), and when they do come back to the desk they'll likely be in a better frame of mind.

Tip 3- Support varied and inclusive interactions

The only time you see your colleagues is in the Zoom Mosaic at the weekly meeting? Not cool. Back in the physical space, you may have attended that same weekly meeting, but remember the chat before and after? That was the best bit. The small talk, the jokes, the pulling one person aside for a quick recount of how unspeakably good your weekend was. All of it. Trying that on Zoom reminds us of those fake fires that people put on their TV screens to make the room look cosy.

The social stuff has to be given space, encouraged, ringfenced. A morning chat just because. Virtual coffee meetings might sound a bit of a stretch, but they can really help to create a space where colleagues might actually share how they are feeling, and hear how others are doing. Or just talk about that unspeakably good weekend with someone. It matters.

What about the hybrid teams? When there is a group in the workplace, and others at home, it is easy for the latter to feel left out. Think about the team as a whole, and include them in training, meetings, catch-ups and all the rest of it. Make time for it, even if it's a quick message or just a 5-minute call to ask for feedback on an idea someone put to you today, because isolation is a real issue, and it can build quickly.

You can go further, of course, from the virtual lunch to remote bingo, but the basic foundations of personal and social interaction should first be in place.

Tip 4 - A culture is more than just giving mental health days

Mental health days are a good thing, and if they didn't exist, they would still happen under the guise of "feeling sick". Creating an environment where your team don't feel they can bow out early one day or take a day off because they just can't cope, well that serves nobody.

But read that last sentence again. People ask for a mental health day often as a reaction to what is going on. They may have reached a crisis point, and it may well be a precursor to full burnout or worsening long-term mental health issues. With this in mind, it is important to see mental health days as simply a resource that can be made available, but it is not a cure. This Forbes article puts it very well, but the crux is that the effect of a day off disappears quickly, and if we haven't addressed why the time off was needed in the first place, then we are back to square one.

Access to support, a culture of communication, flexibility, Helping others to feel connected and seen; all of this is the backbone of a culture that prioritises wellbeing, and there is no quick fix here. Be intentional, show you care, share how you are feeling with others (yes the "boss" can be vulnerable-it is a strength) and remember to take time for yourself too. You are equally deserving of that time and space.

What have we missed?

We don't have all the answers, but this is the approach that has worked well for us. NEO Academy is a fully remote team, and we have our ups and downs too. We have also worked with many clients and caught glimpses of their culture and dynamics, so we have a picture of what is out there. We would love to hear more from you about your own experiences and insights to add to this picture, so please do reach out and tell us if you have something we can share with others. That's how we succeed together.

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