From staying connected with co-workers to staying sane while working alongside a partner, the new work-from-home reality has created many challenges for employees and leaders. In this series, we examine top challenges and solutions, drawing on insights from Qualtrics Remote Work Pulse — a tool that helps organizations determine pain points for their remote workforce.
Organizations across the world have been grappling with “adjusting pains” in the new normal. A Thrive Global original survey of over 5,000 people found that the overwhelming majority of employees are looking to managers for guidance and support right now: More than 80% of respondents say that they wish their employer did more to help them manage stress and anxiety. And a survey of U.S. workers by Qualtrics found that 52% of people feel more anxious working from home. It isn’t change that’s the most difficult to deal with — it’s all the uncertainty.
Those statistics are hardly surprising, says Alan Felstead, a research professor at the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University in Wales and co-author of Changing Places of Work. “At a moment’s notice people have been almost thrown out of offices, and told to work at home, often with little support because of the emergency we’re in — it’s a shock to the system,” says Felstead, who has conducted extensive research in the field of remote work and emphasizes the need for clear guidance and communication.
He estimates that before the coronavirus, around 14% of workers in developed economies already spent at least half of their working time at home. “Now that figure has probably tripled,” he says. “What’s changed,” Felstead tells Thrive, is that before the lockdowns, “people voluntarily did some or all of their work at home. Now it’s enforced.“ One of the downsides that Falstead points out is that people are experiencing “a spillover of work into life, and that causes difficulties. So it’s no surprise that in the lockdown, anxiety levels have been much more pronounced.”
How are organizations managing to adjust amidst these difficult times in order to support their employees? Even in pre-COVID times, Didier Moutia had a formidably challenging job running a 130-strong team of emergency medical service volunteers at Sydney-based St. John Ambulance (SJA), a nonprofit organization that delivers first aid support and services. But with the onset of the coronavirus crisis and the dramatic disruption that followed, Moutia and his dedicated ambulance drivers and other volunteers began facing a whole new set of challenges.
Moutia’s team plays a key role in the community, and given the urgency of the pandemic, adapting to the new normal had to be done with speed and efficiency. The biggest obstacle, Moutia tells Thrive: “Our organization is focused on activities which by their very nature require teamwork and being together,” all of which became impossible under social distancing mandates and remote work orders.
It was essential, says Moutia, to have consistent communication with every volunteer, especially considering that many were experiencing profound anxiety themselves even as they were committing to helping others. There was a myriad of challenges among his diverse team, he says: “Some are healthcare workers on the front lines of COVID-19, others have had their businesses threatened or closed, or been laid off from their jobs. Some are lonely, others have had family members pass away due to the coronavirus.” Moutia had to figure out: “How do we maintain our esprit de corps, or morale, in an environment where people are physically distant?”
Moutia’s team has been able to pivot with greater ease because of Qualtrics Remote Work Pulse. The tool makes it easy for employees to quickly and honestly share their “pain points” and give feedback, and allows organizations to quickly understand how COVID-19 is impacting their workforce. Through the tool, Moutia says he’s been able to “identify those needing greater support or feeling isolated. We send out a weekly pulse which asks: How are you feeling? What is making you feel this way? And what can we do to help?”, says Moutia, adding that “the Qualtrics tool provides a personal level of comfort for our volunteers to candidly describe what they are experiencing.”
Using these insights, Moutia has made sure his staff remains engaged and maintains important social contact — albeit virtually — during the pandemic. “This is a time when people are looking to their leaders to give them some hope,” says Moutia.
And that all begins with effective and clear communication. Here are some tactics to try:
Communicate consistently and clearly
Workers who don’t receive clear expectations from managers are more likely to become anxious. “There’s never been a more critical need for clarity,” says Felstead. So when assigning a project, make sure you have a timetable, he says, and that everyone’s clear about the tasks they’re expected to accomplish.
Challenge your assumptions
There’s still a common misconception that people work less at home, when in fact the opposite is true, says Felstead. His research has found that remote work can result in working harder and putting in longer hours. “There’s a negative effect to this, because overworking can lead to burnout,” he adds. So redrawing boundaries is vital, he says. If you’re an employee, “remember that there is an off switch to laptops and phones for you to take back control.” And if you’re a manager, be mindful of everything on your team’s plate.
Create informal opportunities to connect
Casual interactions are vital in a remote environment, as they can help prevent potential isolation and keep morale strong. “Virtual coffee breaks, for example, can improve camaraderie and allow managers to hear from colleagues about any concerns,” says Felstead.
And… prepare for the next normal
Things won’t go back to normal, because people are learning and adapting to new behaviors, says Felstead: “The notion of business travel is going to change, meetings will change for good, and specific task-orientated activities will continue to be done remotely.” But instead of mourning the “good old days,” it can be helpful to be optimistic about the future. Moutia, for one, feels his team will emerge from the pandemic stronger than before. “We are more connected to each other than ever,” he says. “Just not physically right now.”
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The experts cited in this story were not paid for their participation, nor does their participation imply an endorsement of the products and/or services mentioned above.