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Looking after the mental health of remote working teams

In these rapidly changing times, the uncertainty of just how long we’ll need to work from home and stay socially distanced can be just as tough as the physical distancing.  With estimates of pandemic isolation being quoted as anything from 12 weeks to 18 months, adapting to this new way of working means a lot of changes for everyone.

We’re naturally social beings, and whilst open plan offices have their downsides, the social aspect of being able to quickly ask a question, catch up on the latest news and chat with colleagues as you make coffee or eat lunch has real appeal.  While we’ve been told to socially distance ourselves by avoiding close personal interactions, this should be better called physical distance, because the social aspects are now more important than ever.

When we’re suddenly removed from these situations, it can lead to feelings of isolation and have adverse effects on our mental health.  Adapting to new styles of working can mean adjusting to a new method of communication and new social rules that we haven’t previously had to negotiate.  These can be more easily overlooked when we’re not meeting face to face daily and add an extra layer of stress to our teams.  

So how can workplaces adapt to the new normal of remote work and maintain the mental health of our teams when we’re not physically together?

The need to maintain an environment of psychological safety

The term Psychological Safety was first used by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson to describe working environments where people feel safe to take risks, to speak up and to contribute without fearing they’ll be shut down or ridiculed. When working face to face it’s much easier to establish this with the frequent interactions that build trust, such as sharing lunch, having meetings and collaborating on projects.  When those interactions are lost through social distancing, they need to be deliberately and consciously replaced with other opportunities to maintain that same trust and rapport.  

Setting up a separate ‘water cooler’ chat thread within project management tools like Slack is one way to let the team know that chat is important and encouraged, without it getting in the way of work-based interactions. Interactions over text can sometimes become impersonal and can easily be misread, so think about other ways to be social online, such as Friday night drinks, shared virtual lunches and coffee chats where people can meet more informally as well.

One of the biggest struggles with remote teams is the challenge of raising concerns. Research from VitalSmarts suggests that team members who feel they can openly discuss challenges and have effective dialogue to problem solve challenges have higher team morale and team cohesion.  Managers who maintain an open-door policy via multi-channel communications (phone, text, email, video) even when working remotely give their teams reassurance that they’re available and can be counted on to respond to their teams’ concerns.

One way to do this is to schedule regular team catchups so that more casual chat can evolve and managers can maintain that connection with team members.  Checking in regularly through a mixture of 1-1, team and project meetings allows managers to stay in touch with the progress of work. These occasions are also opportunities for managers to maintain personal relationships within teams and glean insights regarding how everyone is coping and if there are any issues.

How to look out for employees who may be struggling

The question is, how can you know if an employee is struggling?  The difficulty with remote working is that there can be unseen effects, such as anxiety, depression and loneliness that can be hard to judge through virtual connections.  Some indications of this may include work performance dropping, lack of participation and contribution to group chats, overreacting to circumstances or showing personality changes.  Sometimes these can be overcome with a simple question to ask how they’re adapting, if you can do anything to support them and to make sure they’re creating a work/life balance when they can.

Being aware of what else is going on in the lives of your team is essential. Are they needing to homeschool children? Take food or medicine to isolated relatives? Have family or friends who are unwell? Being isolated can also trigger or exacerbate preexisting mental health issues including anxiety, depression and other disorders.

Showing empathy and understanding, as well as compassion will give your employees confidence that they have your support and can reduce their stress over trying to balance everything going on in their lives.

Paying attention to the language used when receiving feedback can provide a starting point to open discussions as well.  Behaviours that may indicate an employee is struggling may include:

  • Hesitation to ask questions or give opinions/feedback
  • Projects going off track or without clear ownership and tracking
  • Confusion or disagreement about decision making processes
  • Feelings of lack of recognition and support
  • Comments about being overwhelmed or overloaded
  • Agitation at minor issues
  • Withdrawing from digital interaction

Interpreting feelings, emotions and body language in a remote setup can be challenging, so it is important to check in on the team and be mindful when disconnected behaviours do present, this gives you an opportunity to look for a resolution sooner.

Focus on creating an environment where people feel they can be open about their struggles, however, be aware that not everyone will be comfortable raising their concerns with their employer. It’s important to make everyone aware of internal and external support programs that they can turn to if they need help. 

Mental health checklist

This useful checklist is a great starting point for remote workers to take care of their mental and physical health while working at home.  It can also be used as a discussion starter for raising any areas in which team members feel they need more support.

Communication

  • Do I know how to use the technology? 
  • Do I know where to get help if something goes wrong?
  • Do I know what I need to deliver and when?
  • Do I have a schedule including calls/times to connect, times to relax and focused work times?

Personal care

  • Am I taking time to keep my hygiene routine?
  • Am I maintaining good sleep hygiene –no devices in the bedroom, switching off after 10pm, keeping regular hours?
  • Am I including healthy meal options?

Mental health

  • Am I being mindful in my habits, actions and words?  
  • Am I taking time to switch off and detox from technology?
  • Am I taking regular breaks?
  • Am I making use of relaxation tools and techniques such as mindfulness or meditation (or watching Netflix if that helps)?

Connection

  • Have I had a video or phone chat with someone today?
  • Have I reached out to my team to see how they are?
  • Have I connected to my family and friends who may be isolated?

Physical space and equipment 

  • Do I have a desk, video camera, headphones?
  • Have I created a dedicated workspace that is separate from where I sleep/eat/relax?
  • Have I moved my body, got fresh air and exercise?
  • Am I taking care of my posture and body when I sit and work?

(adapted from Black Dog Institute)

How to mitigate negative effects and have tough conversations remotely

Even with the best laid plans, moving to remote work will mean that things will inevitably go wrong.  Clear, open, timely and honest communication is the first and best step to keeping team members on board and on track.  Managers who clearly express that there will be some time of trial and error as everyone learns and adapts will find that their teams are more willing to be open about their own challenges and raise issues they may be having as well.

Most issues can be prevented by setting clear guidelines around:

  • Communication: when, how, who, what and why
  • Performance expectations: workload, hours, connections, communications, delivery of work, monitoring and review
  • Supports in place and how to access them: (including tech support, HR, EAP, external supports such as the Black Dog Institute and Beyond Blue)
  • Goals and projects: what are we working on, who is responsible for what, how will progress be measured?

By having clear guidelines and open channels of communication, it’s a lot easier to have those difficult conversations when things go wrong.  Best practice would be a face to face meeting, held over video. Consider if you need to invite other people to the meeting, such as HR representatives or perhaps offer the employee to have a support person join the call.

Look out for yourself, look out for your team

Successfully managing remote teams to ensure they work together comes down to preparation and communication.  It goes beyond just setting your team up with the right technology and a laptop – it means setting the tone and expectations for the team from the start and then bringing the team together in genuine collaboration every single day to connect and share and tweak and adapt the process as you all learn together.


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