COVID-19 and the challenges of remote working

The coronavirus pandemic is fundamentally changing the way we work. We’ve all found ourselves in unchartered territory and the situation is in constant flux. Almost overnight, a huge chunk of the population has decamped from the workplace, until further notice. For some, working from home is business as usual, but for many, it’s an unfamiliar routine that’s rife with new challenges.


The top 3 technology challenges when working remotely

In order to be productive from home, first of all it’s vital we have a workstation set up that enables us to get things done. This involves:

  • Equipping people with laptops and other devices
  • Getting up and running with new communication tools, such as instant messaging and video conferencing
  • Ensuring everyone has secure access to the data and files they need to do their job, while remaining compliant


The top 5 psychological challenges for remote workers

Yet for some, it’s not so much a technology challenge we’re facing, but rather a human, psychology challenge.

Cut off from face-to-face contact, many workers are vulnerable to suffer from:

  • Loneliness and social isolation, missing the day-to-day interactions and hustle bustle of the office
  • Anxiety, worrying about sick relatives, finances, job security or childcare issues
  • Reduced motivation, due to distractions, feeling ‘cut adrift’ from the office mothership, lack of clarity or lack of feedback
  • Burnout caused by an always-on mentality and a desire to prove you’re generating tangible results (however it’s worth noting that many people feel less exhausted when remote working, due to factors like not having to commute and increased flexibility)
  • Relationship or family problems caused by the blurring of work and personal time, leading to work encroaching too much on home life


3 ways to boost wellbeing and happiness during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond

Although it’s important to protect our wellbeing while working remotely, rest assured that studies consistently show that remote workers feel more engaged, more productive and less stressed than office workers.

Yet there’s no getting away from the fact that remote work is better suited to some task types – and some personality types – than others.

Here are some top tips for taking care of your wellbeing and happiness during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond:

1. Create a clear boundary between home life and work life

According to organizational psychologist Timothy Golden, remote workers often lack the physical and psychological separation between these two domains. For some, family or personal obligations may get in the way of work, but more commonly it’s the other way around: our professional obligations tend to creep into our personal time. A 2013 Gallup poll, for instance, found that telecommuters work on average 4 extra hours per week compared to their office counterparts.

If you’re responsible for leading a team, reassure them that they don’t need to be ‘always on’. Encourage your co-workers to down tools, take a break and avoid over-work. Remember Microsoft Japan famously saw a 40% increase in productivity when they cut working hours and switched to a 4-day week. More isn’t always better.

At an individual level, try to create new routines that segregate your home and work life. Some remote workers may be all set with a home office, while others will be working from their bedroom, or at the kitchen table. Maybe you live alone in peace and quiet, share an apartment with housemates, or have young kids off school to contend with.

Whatever your unique situation, try to find a ways to signal to yourself that you are leaving the home space and going to work. This could mean taking a short walk around the block before sitting at your desk, then doing the same at the end of the day. Some people might want to change into ‘work’ clothes, to achieve the same feeling. Others may simply have a shower, make a coffee and sit with their notebook planning the day ahead before opening their laptop. Find a routine that works for you, creating a transition and separation between home and work.

Many remote workers report lower work-family conflict as a result of working from home, according to a study by researchers at Pennsylvania State University, so by setting clear boundaries you can not only protect your relationships and home life, but improve them.

2. Take time to maintain social connections with co-workers

According to Jeanne Wilson, a professor of organizational behavior, communication and shared identity within a team can mediate the effects of physical separation. In a study of 733 workers, she found that relationship quality was more closely tied to “perceived proximity” – or relational closeness – than it was to physical proximity.

During online meetings and video conferences, don’t jump straight into work mode. Instead, take time to ask how people are doing and hear their personal stories or concerns. Even chatting about a TV show, hobbies, or your kids, all helps to make people feel connected and build a culture of trust.

Instant messaging tools like Slack also offer a means to socialize and check in with one-another throughout the day.

It’s also important to create relationships in which people feel psychologically safe and able to share any worries or problems they’re experiencing. Without face-to-face contact it’s easy to miss cues that someone is struggling, so checking in to ask how people are and encouraging them to talk openly is more important than ever.

Some teams may even decide to have a drink together on a Friday afternoon, to chat and socialize, albeit from behind a screen!

Those who are accustomed to remote working may be less likely to suffer from feelings of loneliness and isolation; however that won’t always be the case. They may be less able to take the steps they normally take to maintain their wellbeing, for instance nipping out to a coffee shop or for lunch with a friend. That’s why finding ways to spend time together online, beyond formal meetings, can be helpful for everyone.

3. Understand what motivates people (including yourself)

Dan Pink famously wrote about motivation in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. Based largely on self-determination theory and the work of psychology researchers Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan, he describes how autonomy, mastery and purpose motivate humans more so than money.

Autonomy is all about our innate desire to direct our own lives. It’s a key reason why agile working is fast becoming the norm: we perform at our best when we feel like masters of our own destiny. Leaders who set clear, concise goals then leave it up to workers to determine how to achieve them typically achieve better performance than those who micro-manage and dictate the ‘how’.

If you’re leading a team, two vital factors to focus on are clarity and trust. One of the main barriers to organizations embracing an agile, ‘work from anywhere’ approach is lack of trust that people will remain committed and productive, without supervision. But, in the words of Ernest Hemmingway, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

Now is the time to introduce flexible hours, where responsibilities allow. 

As an individual, if you feel you lack clarity on what you should be focusing on, speak up. Likewise, if you’re feeling micro-managed and it’s stifling your creativity or creating anxiety, perhaps your manager is just getting used to the new style of leadership that remote working demands. Provide honest feedback and help to improve the situation by regularly communicating what you’re doing so they don’t feel the need to provide instructions.

As for mastery, with fewer face-to-face interactions and opportunity for information-sharing, it’s vital to keep on learning. Take advantage of online courses and set up online meetings with colleagues from other departments to expand your knowledge and spark ideas. In the absence of water coolers or chance collisions with colleagues, we need to be more strategic about engineering encounters and instigating inspiration.

In terms of purpose, not only is it more vital than ever before to reinforce the purpose, vision and values of your organization, but to create a sense of shared social responsibility, doing what we can to help others during the pandemic.

The importance of taking breaks when working from home

Working at home can completely change how we feel about work, some might think they have to be available all the time for clients or for their team and not switch-off in the evenings. But just being ‘present’ is no use to anyone if your mental health is suffering. This is why it’s so important for workers to manage their time and take breaks to help relieve stress. Give yourself time to concentrate on something else, as this will allow you to feel more focused on return. These breaks don’t have to be one hour long, even five to ten minute breaks can help productivity levels. 


Finally… remember to move, for your wellbeing and happiness

A study of 1.2 million people in the USA found that people who exercise report having 1.5 fewer days of poor mental health a month, compared to people who do not exercise.

When working from home, it’s easy to take fewer breaks and remain in a chair for way too long. Don’t forget to move around, get away from your screen, stretch and maintain your usual exercise routine (or start a new one!).


Let’s keep talking

At Smartway2, we’re dedicated to supporting organizations in any way we can during this time of disruption. If you’d like to talk about ways we can help you think through agile working or social distancing in the office, don’t hesitate to contact us.

We are all in this together.