In times of the current Covid-19 pandemic, “Working from Home”, otherwise abbreviated to “WFH”, has become a term so synonymous with our new working lifestyle that it has recently been included in the expanded list for Oxford Word of the Year, as 2020 comes to an end.
This switch in the working arrangement, from being physically present at the workplace to carry out tasks from one’s home has been brought forth by the pandemic, as precautionary measures to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.
However, prior to the pandemic, remote working as a working arrangement has already existed. It has only been because of the recent pandemic that this has become normalised and more popular and that the majority of people are now aware that carrying out work from the comfort of one’s home is actually possible. However, the situation has also shed light on the detrimental effects remote working has on one’s wellbeing.
What Really is Remote Working?
Remote working may be described as a working arrangement where employees are not physically present at the workplace, or as one where employees work flexibly such that they do so both from the home and the workplace. This flexible work arrangement is considered desirable and is even encouraged by the Ministry of Manpower to be adopted by companies. Although it might seem that having a flexible working arrangement is a recent practice evolving from the current pandemic, it has existed since 1967, where German employees were the first in some companies to choose their starting and knock-off timings to work. Not long after, the Swiss adopted this practice to appeal to women with family responsibilities. Flexible working arrangements were therefore introduced for the purpose of accommodating to the needs of the employees while still maintaining productivity, which today has become more of a necessity in these times of a pandemic.
Working from home is an approach to organising work that aims to drive greater efficiency and effectiveness in achieving job outcomes through a combination of flexibility, autonomy and collaboration, in parallel with optimizing tools and working environments for employees (CIPD, 2017). For many of us, this may seem to be the perfect way to work – we allow ourselves maximum flexibility, convenience, autonomy, trust, and empowerment. However, to others, especially the many who cannot get used to it and were forced into this arrangement, they experience feelings of isolation, loneliness and abandonment.
Humans, by nature, are social creatures, and even if working from home can provide enhanced levels of performance and productivity, it also may create feelings of demoralisation. Working from home is not so straightforwardly beneficial at all.
Working from Home has its Challenges
There are apparent challenges for managers to lead a virtual workforce, but there are less obvious challenges too. What is for certain is that there has not been any meaningful synthesis of the role of managing a flexible workforce, and it appears that managers need to become better skilled at this relatively new role that they may find themselves thrust into. The role of the manager changes from person to the task. This means that the manager often concentrates their efforts and attention to the outcomes and results, rather than the employees themselves. This is difficult to do in an office environment, where personality plays its part significantly. This is why we often see people with huge personalities getting away with doing less work, and the resultant productivity or outcome may be questionable. Other managerial challenges involve assessing workload, performance, and ensuring some socialisation with the business, giving them a sense of a working identity. Managers who have a remote or virtual workforce need to adopt different approaches in terms of communicating, assessing the varying needs of their direct subordinates, and looking into how productivity or performance will be measured or assessed.
How Managers May Help
As we work through this conundrum, it is easy to see why wellbeing plays such an important part, especially when it comes to finding meaning and purpose. What managers could do, which should form part of the wellbeing strategy for remote workers, is to foster a sense of belonging, even though they are not present physically. This includes holding constant meaningful communication with the remote workforce, whether that be in-person, phone texts, or over web meetings.
The use of technology is ever so important, and Zoom calls carried out regularly provide a good example. Having Zoom “social time” allows for a virtual social community, so that web meetings are not always associated with work, and this mirrors an office environment to some degree. Managers may ensure employees are kept updated with organisational events, policies, and direction, so feelings of isolation that gradually arise may be reduced.
Hot-desking facilities are common among organisations these days, which accommodate short-stay visits, meetings, and gatherings unrelated to work. The use of these facilities for these non-work-related events is important for employee wellbeing because these increase loyalty and feelings of belonging. Therefore, managers may look at innovative ways of bringing the office to the home, recreating a virtual office environment as much as possible, such as birthday and anniversary celebrations, coffee breaks and water cooler talks. By doing so, the traditional office environment is replicated to empower employees in feeling part of a bigger team. This allows them to mitigate feelings of social isolation and loneliness.
Nevertheless, remote working provides opportunities for flexibility. The working day could be distributed – it may begin early in the morning, start later in the afternoon and last into the evening. The appeal is in the flexibility and in giving permission for this flexibility to work. Research suggests that remote workers are far more productive and in fact, end up working longer hours than doing the same in the office. Managers should pay careful attention to this, ensuring employees have workplace wellness i.e. adequate rest and that breaks are taken; more importantly, that they enjoy downtime. Employees ultimately need to feel a sense of empowerment, and only then the detrimental effects of remote working on an employee’s wellbeing may be minimised.
Singaporeans spend most of their time at their workplaces, and in some sense, their workplace is their second home, and now, their workplace could be their home. How do we consider our colleagues? Are they like family to us? Are we working in a supportive environment?
Many a time, the workplace health and mental well-being of employees are compromised as business organisations focus on driving revenues and profits with little attention to safety, health and wellness of the staff. The impact of these is the negative effect on job-related attitude and job performance. In some instances, some workers may develop mental health issues such as anxiety or depression over time if they are too overwhelmed. As such, there is an increasing need for employers to acknowledge the positive correlation between having good mental health in their workers and the productivity and success of the business.
Across all workplaces, we need to step up and start considering ‘wrap-around strategies’ to counter the negative effects of excessive work on employees’ mental health, one of which includes unhealthy stress levels especially when it’s so easy to blur the boundaries of work and personal time while we work from home. Organisations usually conduct one-off mental health awareness programmes as an attempt to spread awareness among employees in the hope of reducing the occurrence of mental health issues. However, by making these awareness programmes an annual occurrence, employees tend to find it a dread, and the messages no longer get through to them as effectively. On the other hand, how many employees would attend the programme if it were to be on a voluntary basis? Many companies are aware of this but are still trying to find the right balance between promoting mental wellbeing and business sustainability.
Employers and HR practitioners have to accept that mental health issues are more often than not deep-rooted, and cannot be solved easily with such band-aid solutions (as most people would expect). This calls for wrap-around strategies, which would mean tackling mental health issues at the fundamental level and preventing problems from cropping up in the first place. It is in no one’s interests to try tackling the situation only when things get out of hand.
Having the right mindset and attitude is pivotal. We need to start thinking of our employees as our very own family members. If so, what can we do to make them happy? Do we have a framework for a healthy workplace? Are there plans in place to provide employees with the necessary support? For one, organisations can take the first step to introduce more flexibility into the workplace, with working from home being a mandatory option these days, it is the most opportune moment to reframe workflow processes for the longer term. This includes creating a flatter hierarchy, where there are fewer layers of management and less formal divisions between the higher-ups and the rest of the staff. Employees will thus be more involved in decision-making processes, creating a greater sense of ownership and accountability. The greater involvement of staff in the organisation will allow them to develop into more confident and capable workers, as well as enhance employee satisfaction. With greater employee satisfaction comes a greater sense of empowerment and motivation – factors that are crucial towards the productivity of the organisation.
Do we need to start thinking of what are the overlooked essentials of employee wellbeing? In your organisation, what is the decision-making process (in terms of policies and other forms of red tape) like? At present, most workplaces have a ‘top-down’ approach, where decisions are made by the senior management of the organisation and information is then cascaded downwards to the lower levels. In such cases, the staff are not given a voice and have no contribution to any of the decision-making processes. In contrast, when employees are given a chance to contribute their ideas, this encourages employee engagement and motivates them to put in greater efforts to overcome challenges. In turn, employees will certainly gain a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Hence, while it is true that not all work-related decisions can be made by the middle or lower tier of the corporate hierarchy, organisations should allow employees some level of discretion and autonomy to provide feedback or inputs to the decision-making process where possible. Organisations that succeed at providing the autonomy, social connections and support to their employees are better able to foster physical and mental well-being.
Needless to say, a flatter organisation would be counter-productive if the supervisors or senior management are unwilling to let go of micro-management and to show care for their employees. Managers and supervisors should start making an effort to check in with their subordinates and to ensure that they are coping well with their workload. Moreover, this should occur frequently, rather than being a one-off occurrence. Perhaps the head of each department could act as a “Welfare Ambassador”, and check-in with the employees within the same department. Getting to know the people in the same team better will allow them to identify any mental health symptoms, no matter how small. One way to get it started would be to allocate mini bonding sessions daily, each lasting approximately 15 minutes (even if it is just a short video call check-in). During this time, take turns to talk about your day, or about any difficulties that you may be encountering. relationships and social support with co-workers can improve emotional connections and ease any mental stress and burden. Such baby steps will help develop the camaraderie among teams and improve everyone’s overall well-being in the long-run. However, Managers do need to take note that they are not professional counsellors and would need to draw healthy boundaries for themselves so as to not be overwhelmed by the transference of emotional issues. Learn to, for your own safety of boundaries, to openly and healthily bring up the subject of steering an emotionally and/or mentally troubled employee to seek professional help. Remember, there is no shame in seeking help.
Organisational structure aside, it is also important to ensure that the workplace has a conducive environment – one that fosters overall well-being of the staff. All work and no play will eventually take a toll on the employees’ health, both mentally and physically. If space constraint is not a problem, try allocating a room for staff to take short mental breaks. In other words, have a “chill” room! Do take note that this should be a separate space from the staff pantry, where employees usually have their meals or to grab a quick drink. Mental-break rooms, on the other hand, can be used for socialising or for employees to take a short rest. Such a room can be decorated in an informal style, with more comfortable furniture. There is absolutely no harm in placing a few beanbags or some sort for employees to relax on whenever they feel overwhelmed by their hectic schedules. For those working at home, perhaps remind them to take mental health breaks. HR could schedule it into company calendars as a reminder and these small steps could foster greater trust between employees and the company. Trust that their welfare is being considered in decisions and that they are not just a tool or a means to the company’s bottom line, but a life that they now also have a responsibility to steward.
In short, mental well-being is important for a productive workforce and a healthy workplace.We need to create an environment where employees feel welcomed and safe. Workplace mental health is not – and should not be – an issue that we sweep under the rug. We need to acknowledge that providing support to the colleagues around us holds great importance and that we cannot simply cast them aside, leaving them to deal with their troubles alone. Ultimately, assisting your employees and ensuring they have the best mental health support will go a long way.
The coronavirus is known to be extremely contagious, with its ability to transmit from person to person through tiny respiratory droplets. At work, it is inevitable that we come into close contact with our co-workers, especially if we are working in tight, enclosed workspaces. This unfortunately increases the likelihood of infection for everyone. For the betterment of everyone’s health and safety, many firms have thus implemented a ‘work-from-home’ scheme in an effort to limit the COVID-19 spread through proper social distancing. In fact, the Singapore government has made it mandatory for employers to allow their staff to work from home as far as possible, or else they would risk bearing fines or stop-work orders. In fact, just recently, the Singapore government has made it mandatory for most workplaces to shut down, except for essential services and key economic sectors. This will help limit the physical interaction between people as much as possible.
With such measures implemented, we would have to start relying more on telecommunication methods. Working from home may hence mean that face-to-face social interactions are limited as we are no longer able to meet others physically. Communication between colleagues may also be delayed, since more time is required for information or messages to be sent across. Over time, this may cause us to feel increasingly frustrated and anxious, and unless we know the right methods of keeping ourselves mentally and emotionally healthy, this will be greatly detrimental to our wellbeing. And for this, we will need to identify potential sources of distress in order to counter them effectively.
Unwanted feelings of stress and loneliness can indeed be an issue of concern if an individual works alone at home – after all, humans are social animals. This is especially so if he/she is extroverted in nature, and is highly dependent on social interactions on a day-to-day basis. Coupled with the unprecedented demands of meeting deadlines, these individuals may feel a sense of detachment and isolation if they are unable to socialise with colleagues which they had already bonded closely with. Thankfully, with an increasing number of social platforms such as Zoom or Skype, employees can make the most of them and easily arrange video calls with their colleagues to catch up with one another over lunch. Make sure you reach out to others and seek support as well whenever you are feeling too overwhelmed.
On the other hand, some of you may face a whole new set of problems. Some individuals may have siblings or other family members working alongside them at home, and it may simply create an unfavourable working environment. Having your family members around you, be it young or old, could be distracting at times, and employees could be more easily affected by their moods or habits. The stress of having to manage those around you may kick in, thus heightening the level of anxiety and irritation. In order to tackle this, employees must make sure to set clear boundaries between themselves and their family members during working hours at home. This could mean allocating specific rooms for respective family members to work in, and ensuring that they stick to their allocated rooms. In addition, perhaps there could be an agreement made between members of the household, where no one is permitted to enter others’ rooms when the doors are kept closed. This would help to protect the working space of everyone at home, and to minimise any disruptions or distractions. With this, it would undoubtedly be easier to remain focused and productive. However, it is also necessary to designate enough space for yourself to work in. Cramming yourself into a tiny room and working in it for long hours can make you feel claustrophobic and restrained. This will certainly not be beneficial to your mental wellbeing.
Some may question: “I’ve ensured that my family members are aware of my work-from-home schedule. Why do they still keep barging in?” If you are one of these individuals, you may want to consider if you are creating a “work” atmosphere. Are you lying in bed with your laptop, with your PJs on? Or are you sitting upright at your desk, and dressed the part? If you find yourself doing the former, then perhaps it is sending a false signal to other household members that you are available, or that you are working “casually”. Establish a proper routine and follow through with it. Always ensure that you have the right working attitude whenever appropriate, and this will surely help your family members understand. Nonetheless, remember to set strict limits to your working hours as well. Working from home can, understandably, cause the boundaries between work and your personal life to be blurred. Learn to detach for the day once working hours are over to spend time with your family and loved ones.
We also cannot exclude the possibility of experiencing technical difficulties when communicating with our colleagues through online platforms – this creates a need for better understanding and exercising patience with one another. Expecting an instant reply from your co-workers may be more challenging, due to possible time lags from network servers or devices. Others may also be busy handling other tasks at hand, and settling down amidst the new work arrangements. One way to prevent yourself from getting distressed or anxious is to plan ahead. Try creating a plan of action by listing all the tasks you need to complete. Ensure that you have prioritised your tasks wisely, that deadlines are set clearly, and that you have sufficient time to complete them. Allow for buffer time if you are working on certain assignments with other colleagues, so that any delays will not cause you to overshoot your deadlines.
Last but not least, work aside, always remember to take movement breaks! Such breaks act as a form of self-care, allowing you to recuperate and to free yourself of your burdens momentarily. This may sound trivial, but taking a short walk at the neighbourhood park (alone, and keeping a safe distance from others) or doing some stretching exercises in your room will surely benefit your mental health in the long run. Doing so will also help you to return to work refocused and to regain productivity. Likewise, get plenty of sleep and don’t stay up too late! Ensure that you are well-rested and rejuvenated before your work day starts. In light of the current situation, we should still remain positive and not let our worries take over us. Let’s all do our part to support each other in this period!