Workplace shutdowns at the start of the pandemic happened at a fast and furious pace, thrusting many employees into a new work-from-home scenario for which most were wholly unprepared. Fast-forward one year and remote work isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s estimated that by 2025, 36.2 million Americans will be working remotely, an 87% increase from pre-pandemic levels. While we all know the ropes a bit better now than we did when COVID-19 hit, remote work is still unfamiliar territory for many. To help you lead your virtual teams with grace and efficacy, here are some surprising ways to support remote workers.
1. Provide for Their Physical Workspaces
For many, the hardest part about telecommuting is finding a spot at home to convert into a dedicated workspace that offers both privacy and room to spread out. Unless a worker already has a separate home office with a desk and a door, many employees, especially during the pandemic, found themselves working at their dining tables, on their beds, and even sometimes in their cars.
You can help employees minimize distractions and disruptions by providing financial assistance to team members to help them to create their own remote workspace, including monetary reimbursement for items like desks, technology, and utilities. It’s also wise to ensure that every remote employee has a strong, suitable internet connection and any hardware they may need to dial into meetings or do their job from home. With a growing remote workforce, employers can’t afford to assume all of this is already present and accounted for.
Some states have made these considerations a legal mandate; in California, a labor code requires employers to reimburse their employees for the reasonable and “necessary” expenses they incur in direct consequence of discharging their job duties. Also, remember that employees who don’t have proper, ergonomically sound workspaces are more likely to suffer aches, pains, and even work injuries (such as carpal tunnel syndrome) over time, which can cost the company in insurance claims, and time off from work.
2. Provide for their Emotional Needs
During the pandemic, “self-isolation” and “social distancing” became the norm. It is clear that this separation from others has taken its toll on employees, causing many to feel lonely, anxious, and depressed. This is often the case with any big disruption — the pandemic, political elections, social discourse, civic unrest, and anything else that pushes our emotional buttons as a society.
In times of great change, it’s important that managers reach out regularly to their team to get a sense of how they’re holding up. As a way to get others to open up, managers can set an example by proactively sharing their personal concerns, frustrations, and even anxieties. Studies have found that “leaders are able to build trustful relationships with their followers by being willing to be vulnerable and showing actual vulnerability.”
When presented correctly, offering a level of transparency signals to others that it’s okay and acceptable to share their concerns as well. Managers should ask leading vs. open-ended questions, such as “how are your kids handling the stress of online school?” instead of “how are you doing?”
In addition, organizations can promote emotional well-being by providing employees resources such as on and offsite counselors to address emotional needs on an ongoing basis. This is not only beneficial to the individual, but it also contributes to a more healthy, highly functioning company since “employee mental health impacts workplace productivity.”
3. Provide Social Connection
According to the non-profit A Great Place to Work, research shows that social support—family and friends you can count on, as well as other close relationships—can cushion people from a variety of worries, including workplace stress, that can compromise health. The workplace has long been a source of social support, offering camaraderie, cohesiveness, and fun.
Managers need to keep in mind the true impact of losing that source of support on their remote workforce and make a concentrated effort to devise ways for their teams to interact purely on a social level while working remotely. “This is true for all remote workers, but particularly so for workers who have been abruptly transitioned out of the office,” according to a Harvard Business Review report.
While it might sound challenging to make social encounters happen naturally from afar, there are some easy ways to get started. Start team calls with small talk about what everyone did over the weekend or upcoming plans. Keep it casual and make sure everyone is included in the conversation. Even just a few minutes of this type of chatter fosters connection and starts the meeting on a positive note.
Another idea is to stage a “virtual lunch” or “virtual office gathering” in which everyone has a package delivered to their home in advance so they can share the experience online. While these types of events may sound artificial or forced, experienced managers of remote workers (and the workers themselves) report that virtual events help reduce feelings of isolation, promoting a sense of belonging. It also gives staff members something fun to look forward to, and a way to deepen their connection with coworkers and managers.
Companies can even take things a step further by establishing virtual lounges using tools like Slack where teams can socialize over coffee and mutual interests. According to an INSEAD study of 500 professionals working remotely around the world, the teams that formally scheduled online social gatherings were the ones thriving during the pandemic. Conversely, teams that didn’t engage in some kind of online social gatherings reported feeling less connected.
When it comes down to it, every employee you have is a human being – and every human being must be viewed holistically. Remote team members will be positioned to thrive only when their physical, emotional and social needs are met. Now is the time for business leaders to recognize their part in this and start taking action. Your workforce and your business are worth it.