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Why wellness is even more important for remote teams

21 Feb, 2021 Business management, Mental health support, PR management, Virtual, remote meetings

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit like the biggest earthquake the workplace landscape has ever experienced. Unlike any industrial or digital revolution we’ve known, this pandemic has fundamentally changed the way most businesses work, and it has forced this change almost overnight.

Now stress is no longer the exception, but the norm. The increased freedom and flexibility are great (along with the commute to work no longer required), but loneliness, burnout, and longer hours are real risks to health and productivity. Heightened stress levels can lead to an unhealthy lifestyle, a lack of engagement, and poor work performance.

On the other hand, teams that choose to prioritize a culture of physical and mental wellness are more likely to overcome their challenges. They’re better equipped to weather the pandemic with more confidence and positive outcomes. Plus, they can continue to thrive after the pandemic.

Why are health and wellness so important for remote teams?

Working remotely comes with a unique set of challenges. It requires more discipline and self-monitoring than working in an office setting. The traditional office relies on specific structures and systems to ensure productivity and efficiency. In remote work, each individual is responsible for their own setting.

While there are certainly numerous benefits to the WFH (working from home) model, past experience shows that not everyone can adapt to this kind of setup. Entrepreneurs and freelancers have come to understand this, so they’ve adopted all kinds of different practices we can learn from today (which have inspired a lot of the tips that we’ll discuss in a minute).

From yoga and meditation all the way to biohacking, people who have embraced the wellness-success connection have found the way to thrive – pandemic or not.

Let’s take a look at ways you can empower your remote team’s health and wellness to foster a positive, happy, and productive workplace. If you are not the boss of the remote team, you can use this information to discuss your expectations with your own boss.

Provide sufficient support

There are two distinct ways you can provide efficient and actionable support to your remote team: information and reimbursements, such as the ones below.

Remind staff of the importance of ergonomics. Many people have suffered new or increased pain in their back, neck or shoulder since they began working from home. This may involve long periods of working in awkward positions – propped up in bed or perched at the kitchen counter, for instance – which can heighten problems, leading to pain or even long-term damage. Many people also spend time working in coffee shops, local hubs such as smaller satellite offices or flexible shared office space, or various combinations of remote locations. A mid-2020 survey found 41% of WFH Americans had reported these problems.

Many ailments can be traced to extended laptop use. When the laptop user has to look down at the screen, the weight of the head pulls on the neck and back. Also, using a trackpad rather than a separate mouse can cause wrist pain.

Organize training sessions about ergonomics in the remote workplace, as well as resources like self-assessment checklists or even one-on-one virtual appointments with an ergonomist, to help team members set up proper workstations and learn healthy habits

Also, some team members may not have a readily available WFH setup. You can help out a lot simply by sending someone the computer and monitor/s they would normally use in the office, or get them to pick up the equipment if they call into the workplace at all.

Make it your task to talk about the importance of breaks, healthier meal choices, exercise, and sleep. Encourage behaviors that are good for your employees’ health. For example, you’ll want to encourage them to log off on time, even when there are tasks pending, as opposed to staying in and working late.

Get all team members to know the WFH rules

Start by ensuring all team members are informed and kept up to date on the organizational work-from-home policy. This gives them the security of knowing what they are required to do or not while working. All the rules should be clearly explained to everyone on the team, who should be able to access the rules on the organizational intranet.

Ask for team inputs. Team members need to follow standard guidelines and practices as outlined in the WFH policy. In addition, you should also develop a strategy tailored specifically to the team and under the  organizational umbrella:

  • Evaluate the WFH policy regularly in consultation with team members.
  • Focus on engaging all individuals in the team.
  • Focus on keeping them safe.

Empathize with each employee’s context

Not all employees will be aware of the downsides of remote work, nor may they be able to identify the habits that are harming their health or wellbeing. This especially applies to new team members, so support new arrivals by getting a current team member to mentor them on how to adapt successfully to WFH.

Lynda Grattan, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, said in an MIT Sloan Management Review article in May 2020 that some companies are creating deeper insights into the specific situations their workforces face by surveying home workers. When they do this, they uncover a wide variety of circumstances and stresses. Being a single person living and working under quarantine is a very different experience than being a member of a working family with young children.

Grattan said one global professional company, for instance, found that over 60% of its employees were single and either living on their own or with a parent or partner and feeling the pain of social isolation. An immediate quick win was to create daily virtual coffee breaks at 11:30 a.m.

She also observed that another company found over 60% of employees were caring for children; their issues were exhaustion and the challenge of focusing during normal work hours. “Company leaders signaling that working unorthodox hours is OK could make a real difference to their stress levels, Grattan noted.

A wellness bonus: You can arrange for healthy snack deliveries, online workout classes, etc. Do your best to tailor them to individual employees. Some team members may already have a workout routine cancelled due to lockdown or lack of access since they started working remotely, but they might benefit from speaking to a professional about their stress levels, while others may need to start a bit of a workout routine to help them feel better.

Take account of mental stress

Remote employees may need a little mental TLC as well, due to the global pandemic. With new or enhanced caregiving responsibilities, new issues have risen, like feelings of isolation, concerns about the virus and a tense political climate. People who live alone or with only a partner tend to feel overworked and isolated, and can be inclined toward unhealthy behaviors like drinking too much. Try encouraging team members who may be experiencing these types of problems, to join book clubs and virtual social gatherings, and similar.

Some may also show signs of mental strain. If you are not sure how to approach team members in these situations, you can read some tips in my article “How to help your team members cope better with COVID stress.” If you think they still need professional mental health care, encourage them to seek online mental health counseling. This provides the benefits of being convenient and private for WFH individuals, so many people are following up this opportunity to improve their mental health.

Communicate often

Loneliness has always been a bane of remote work. Therefore, encourage one-to-one contact. Start by providing your team with the tools to socialize online and an unmonitored way to communicate. Also remind them of the importance of distancing themselves from all the noise and social chatter when they need to, as this can get increasingly distracting very fast. They don’t need to respond to every message immediately, and muting all apps can sometimes be very productive.

BAM Account Director Whitney Wells observes that when working in the office, staff were able to have quick meetings and catch-ups with colleagues at their desks about creative thoughts or follow-ups to earlier meetings. You can do similar things remotely by phoning team members – after checking team calendars so you don’t interrupt them unnecessarily. You can even start your conversation with the comment “This is me stopping by your desk for a quick chat. Is now a good time?” She finds most people are very receptive, and so this is a big time-saver.

Move as a team (literally!)

A team workout session could be a great way to motivate them, but it may prove a bit difficult because not everyone will want to participate.

Keep in mind that the goal of this exercise (pun intended) is to inspire your remote team to move. Don’t force an activity on anyone. It can quickly backfire and merely result in cementing a person’s dislike for home workouts even further. Offer the option, and approach the invitation lightheartedly. Those interested will jump on board, and they can spread a positive message among the rest of the team.

You can also opt to work out without seeing each other – everyone can follow the same training video at the same time, but without cameras or microphones from their end. There’s no guarantee that everyone will be doing it, of course, but enforcing exercise is not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is wellness, and that includes having the option of not working out.

Allow for flexible schedules

Michael DesRochers, CEO of PoliteMail, which is an email intelligence platform for Outlook, said in a Ragan article published on 24 December 2020:  “What becomes apparent quickly about working remotely from home is the lack of separation between work and family life. They get intertwined.” And he added:

If you don’t set guidelines and expectations, expect your communication to get out of control, with team members working at all times of the day leading to frustration or burnout. Therefore, HR and communications leaders must provide working guidelines, and define “how we work.”  Don’t leave it up to your team members to figure it out.

Strong company culture defines what is acceptable and clearly lays out expectations, so groups and teams know how and when they can work together and rely on each other.

On the other hand, flexibility is one of the main benefits of working from home, and it’s often emphasized as a perk by those who have done it. The ability to run to the store, pick up your child from school, or go to the dentist in the middle of the workday is truly a lifesaver at times.

So, find consensus with your team members to set agreed working hours. For example, you could all agree on setting 3-4 hours of the day when everyone needs to be in their home office and available for contact. Nevertheless, you can leave the rest of the day flexible.

What most employers, managers, and HR reps fear is that flexible remote working hours mean nothing will get done. Or what does get done will be subpar. This is simply not the case.

A good manager will very quickly notice things are not going according to plan, and they’ll be able to tell when someone is slacking off. Poor results and an entire day spent watching TV can’t be hidden. You’ll know when someone is putting the work in and someone is not. What’s more, their fellow team members will start noticing a slacker, which will start to reduce everyone’s effectiveness and motivation.

Set communication boundaries

Set communication expectations between manager and team members. Start with ensuring there are clear digital communication boundaries in place. For instance, consider starting the work day with a 15-minute call between manager and team. Part of this is to discuss and agree on the hours within which a team member needs to be available and is expected to reply to messages. Define the timeframes that are available for replying to different kinds of messages. That will include emails, chat messages, and project management app messages.

PoliteMail analyzed the data from half a billion internal emails to understand how best to engage internal audiences. Michael DesRochers says these are the key tips drawn from the project:

  1. Keep your subject line to about five words and 42 characters or less. Use a full sentence and make it interesting
  2. Aim to keep your email to 250 words. Messages over 500 words perform worse.
  3. Include relevant, high-quality images when appropriate, but text only works when you use short paragraphs, plenty of white space and bullet points.
  4. The fewer links you include, the more likely you are to get a click. The ideal number for the highest click-through rate is sending one link.
  5. Send (or schedule to send) in the morning.

Use the right channel for the task

When everyone is remote, you can expect your digital communications to increase significantly. Having email, phone, chat/messenger and online meeting tools available for the whole team is vital. Here is what PoliteMail found to work best when communicating with their teams:

  • If you’re sending information that doesn’t require a rapid response or any response, like a daily or weekly publication, send email.
  • If you’re sending information that needs a response within a few hours, use chat or messaging. If the audience is not using chat or messaging, or isn’t online at the time, email still works.
  • If you’re sending information that needs a response within minutes, text or call.
  • If you’re sending important reference or long-form information, put the documents or articles on an intranet page, and share a brief summary via email and your messenger platform.

In order to help your remote team, encourage regular video calls. Do company- or team-level meetings as often as you can without making them disruptive. This could be a Friday afternoon happy hour where everyone catches up and is more relaxed, a daily 15-minute catchup in the mornings, or whatever works best for your team.

Don’t encourage employees to be available at all hours. Quite the contrary – encourage them to be unavailable after a certain time and to not even check their messages.

Ask them not to sync their phones with the project management app and their work email, at least not while they’re working from home. They can access their computer if they need to, and their phone should be there for their private use only.

Final thoughts

Embracing some of these strategies can help a remote team to be healthy, happy, and effective.

However, bear in mind that all change, even when it’s entirely positive, usually brushes up against a certain level of resistance. Don’t spring all of these methods on your team at once, and allow them to gradually get used to a more wholesome and mindful WFH routine.

Be clear at all times what the end goal is – helping every individual feel better.

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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