We have learnt a lot about how we approach remote working. Prior to the pandemic, around one-third of our team worked out of our Zurich office, with two-thirds already working remotely. Now we are almost fully remote. This transition, over the last 2 years has taught us a lot about what we were doing well, and how we can improve. Here are some of our learnings, and how we try to battle some of the inherent risks remote working can bring to our mental health.
1. Switch off – create your own cues
Working remotely doesn’t have the same cues of 'finishing the day' as office work does. You don’t close an office door behind you and know that your work day is over. You are most often working from your living space, so it becomes difficult to separate the two, and also difficult to know when to stop working.
We have found that it’s important to be proactive in making sure the team get the space they need for themselves and don’t just work and work because they lack the cues to stop. If possible, we would always recommend that you create your own cues to help ‘end’ your day - i.e put your laptop away, clear your desk etc.
2. Don’t ignore the signs
Spotting signs of burnout or a team member working too much is trickier when working remotely, but it is possible if you are attuned to the signs. Some may be obvious like an increase in errors or ineffective time management of tasks, but some are more subtle like changes in attitude or motivation.
Our team are always very invested in their work, and their teammates, so we have learned to be a bit more forward-thinking in our approach.
3. Watch that overtime
We monitor overtime carefully and reach out to the employee if they appear to be accumulating a lot and not taking time off, allowing us to be proactive in asking what we can do to help to lessen the load and ensure self-care.
Very importantly, our culture is such that lots of overtime is not a badge to wear with pride, but instead, it is something that needs addressing to ensure a good work-life balance.
4. Honest and open communication
Talk about mental health! As a topic, it shouldn’t be taboo and by keeping the conversation out in the open provides a space for people to come forward with fears or concerns.
Remote working inevitably comes with a potential risk of feelings of isolation and increased anxiety amongst team members. 'Office-type' channels of feedback; positive body language from management, and the ability to just turn around and have a face-to-face chat with a human, aren’t possible. Processes can be put in place to help manage this, but fundamentally, it is important to acknowledge that in-person interaction is difficult to replicate and this can increase the risk of loneliness and overall stress.
In order to create a psychologically safe environment for everyone, it helps if this honest conversation starts from the top, in management. This messaging around taking time away, not trying to push through when you are struggling, and openness to the mental challenges of remote work are things we like to frequently reiterate. We want to normalise conversations about mental health and remove all stigma. Only then, we have found, are we as a company really in a position to meaningfully support people.
It is vital to remember that mental health is no different to physical health, in the sense of the importance of addressing concerns.
5. Set boundaries
One of the cool things about remote work is that it often goes hand in hand with an autonomous environment, which is the case with us. There is a balancing act though between an environment being autonomous, and one lacking enough guidance and 'permission' to switch off. Without setting some boundaries, it can be difficult for colleagues to know what is expected of them, or to feel they have the psychological safety to manage their own time. This can very easily lead to someone not maintaining a healthy work-life balance by feeling the need to be constantly switched on, especially if they are receiving messages from colleagues in other time zones.
We’ve learnt to be clear, from onboarding documents for new hires to frequent mentions in meetings and messaging, what the expectations are within our remote work environment, setting these expectations early and frequently throughout someone's career with us. We explicitly tell the team they have permission to manage their own work time, and we remind them that rest time is equally as important. By frequently reinforcing this, we can create an atmosphere of 'it's ok to not be around', and help to remove the stress associated with taking time for themselves.
6. Clearly defined working hours
Remote workforces can be spread across several time zones and it helps to define your working hours.
We encourage preferred work hours to be set in calendars so we know when to not book meetings or expect people to be contactable. Creating an environment of managing one's own time is one thing, but it becomes much easier when we have the structures in place to really live this. It’s hard to switch off when a colleague keeps pinging you on Slack because they aren’t aware of your work hours.
7. Do I need to answer immediately?
Following on directly from the last point, we encourage our employees to ask themselves, ‘do I need to answer immediately?’ Like many remote, and hybrid teams, we take advantage of instant messaging systems like Slack. However, just because the system is ‘instant’, it doesn’t mean that your response always has to be!
This is particularly an issue with remote work, as other colleagues can’t see you in the middle of a task, so they don’t know when not to disturb you on Slack. There may also be a part of each of us which thinks 'I should respond immediately so they know I’m working.' But, we’ve learnt to emphasise a culture of 'instant message doesn't mean instant answer', and where everyone understands that, so they learn not to expect an instant response either.
8. Use the tools available
Tools such as OfficeVibe can act as a barometer of the team's feelings while at the same time maintaining anonymity. This can really help the team manage their own stress levels and health by giving them a channel to express their opinions in a safe arena.
We also use project management tools as a place for work updates and context. It sounds obvious I know, but I mean we reeeealllly use them. It’s common in an office space to give context to updates verbally, and when we think about it, that's how many of us operate remotely too in Zoom meetings. However, it is important not to neglect our project management tools by providing simply a change to task status, or saying 'ongoing' so updates aren’t lost. Any update discussed in a Zoom meeting is then reiterated clearly in the relevant project management tool. By providing full context to updates in our tools, we help to reduce feelings of isolation that can come with remote work, as well as have the framework in place to really live self-time management, and work across multiple timezones and working hours, without everyone needing to be at a meeting at a set time.
Not every meeting needs to be work-related, socialising with colleagues is just as important.
We have in place daily Zoom stand-ups to start the day, during which we avoid work talk, and instead, just say hi and have a casual conversation and socialise.
We also utilise Donut as a tool. It has many different functionalities for engagement, but we love how it randomly pairs team members for a 30 min virtual coffee. This promotes chats with colleagues that you may not interact with on a daily basis, and really helps to make the people feel connected across all departments.
10. Be inclusive
Like many companies that have a remote workforce, we use Slack as a communication tool. This is where we communicate everything. Every update, every announcement, everything. By getting into the habit of frequently communicating through Slack channels and company-wide messaging, we help to ensure everyone feels they have the same information, at the same time, aren’t left out, or ignored through working remotely.
This approach helps colleagues who may be taking a day off or working in a different timezone, or even getting some fresh scenery to clear their head.
We also make the project management tools the reliable go-to places for information. This can mitigate stressing out colleagues by pinging them for information in the middle of a task, or when they may be taking some time away from the laptop.
In summary, everyone’s approach to self-care and looking after their mental health is unique. Different approaches work for different personalities. Hopefully, with a combination of human compassion, open communication and utilising the available resources everyone can achieve a healthy work-life balance.