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Supporting the Wellbeing of Remote Workers

Posted by Ann Caluori | Tue, 07/01/2020 - 12:23


Guest blog by Jackie Barber, Business Psychologist, The Wellbeing Project


Working from home was once the perquisite of the fortunate few, but new studies suggest that this work arrangement is slowly but steadily rising. A CIPD report (1) into flexible working shows that as many as 33% of employees surveyed last year have worked from home, with a further 7% having this option available but not using it. These figures are up from 16% and 6%, respectively, in 2011. 


Furthermore, the number of remote working roles has doubled in the last four years, according to an analysis of over 175,000 vacancies advertised on a popular jobs board (2). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of these positions are in IT and technology. Yet, the ever-evolving role of telecommunications means that working off-site – either part or full time – is becoming more viable across a variety of jobs and industries (albeit primarily in service-orientated roles).


As well as boosting the ability to fit work around commitments like childcare, enabling employees to work from home can offer rich benefits like higher productivity, enhanced motivation and better retention. While some employers may be concerned that workers are ‘shirking rather than working from home’,  research from Stanford University (3) found that letting employees work remotely led to a 13% increase in productivity, improved work satisfaction and attrition rates dropping by half.


These findings may be due, in part, to off-site workers typically having more control in scheduling and organising their work. This can foster higher intrinsic motivation, which in turn positively impacts on work effort (4). They may also work more productively due to fewer distractions or interruptions from colleagues – particularly in open-plan offices – or to protect their remote working arrangement as a form of reciprocity.


Maintaining healthy boundaries
While providing flexibility in working patterns can have positive effects on motivation and productivity, how does it affect employee wellbeing? A United Nations report (5) suggests that, although remote working can offer greater work-life balance – by avoiding or minimising commuting time, for example – 30 percent of employees who regularly work from home reported high stress levels, compared to 25 percent of office workers.


Research by Dr Almuth McDowell and Professor Gail Kinman (6) explores the concept of the ‘always on culture’ and how technology, whilst enabling flexibility, can also make work omnipresent, blurring boundaries between work and other aspects of people’s lives. Without a more formal structure of set working hours or a need to leave the office to catch a certain train, for example, work can more easily leak into personal life, potentially compromising activities such as physical exercise, time with family and friends, or downtime to simply rest and digest. Making sure that employees take regular breaks is broadly recognised in the physical workplace, but those working offsite are frequently left to themselves to manage the dynamics of their day.


Although being on-site does not offer immunity against these effects – since many employees continue to work through breaks or ‘after hours’ on smart phones and laptops – remote workers may need to be stricter about how they set their boundaries to reduce the risk of work intensification.


Organisations can assist by encouraging employees who work remotely to communicate their availability to their teams, to help manage expectations and reduce the risk of boundaries becoming blurred. Care needs to be taken to ensure that the benefits of providing flexibility to do the school run or make health appointments, for example, are not outweighed by employees feeling a need to be constantly available.


Technology, including apps such as Time Out or Break Timer, can provide employees with regular reminders to step away from their desks, as well as to be mindful not too tense up or sit in a poor position.


Helping remote workers feel socially connected

A 2015 Eurofound report (7) suggests that “one of the most problematic aspects of mobile work seems to be isolation and lack of access to the informal information sharing that takes place in a fixed place of work.” From a wellbeing perspective, this is important since having a network of strong relationships can protect against the impact of setbacks, challenges and adversities (8).


Managers can promote stronger working relationships by encouraging projects that enable team members to collaborate and progress towards shared goals and objectives. Rather than over-relying on email or phone calls, web meetings can help to build connectivity by enabling employees who work remotely to see each other’s faces and body language, as well as making it easier to talk through shared documents.


Regular communication, such as weekly or bi-weekly calls, can also help remote workers to feel more connected and provide an opportunity for status updates on projects and organisational developments. It is also important to provide remote workers with the same opportunities for training and development as other employees, and give praise and recognition where due. 


Two-pronged approach

McDowell and Kinman suggest that current organisational practices do not sufficiently address the need for guidance on how to manage the complex changes to working lives, “leaving it to individuals to craft their own solutions, with varying degrees of success and failure.” Arguably, there is a joint responsibility between employees and employers to make adjustments in order to gain the greatest benefits from flexible arrangements.


Employees who work remotely can support themselves by gaining insights into the drivers of their own wellbeing, learning how to set and communicate their boundaries to maintain a healthy balance between work and other aspects of their lives, and making efforts to remain connected to their colleagues.


Meanwhile, employers can support remote workers by encouraging and role-modelling healthy behaviours (including communicating expectations) and providing context-specific guidance around the use of technology. Promoting team work, collaboration and regular communication will also help to build strong working relationships, which in turn is likely to increase engagement and morale.


Taking this two-pronged approach to supporting remote workers is likely to ensure both employers and employees enjoy the benefits of flexible working and encourage healthy, sustainable high performance.