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Prolonged Remote Work (in a Coronavirus World): 3 Major Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

In times of crisis, such as the current Coronavirus pandemic, large workforces have been relegated to full-time remote work. In this blog, we'll explore three pitfalls that can take a toll on employee productivity, collaboration and engagement - and how to avoid them.

Remote work, telecommuting, work-from-home (or whatever you want to call it) isn’t a new phenomenon or trend. It’s a way of life in a world where digital/mobile devices and technologies rule our lives 24/7. Think I’m exaggerating? Think again. A study by Global Workplace Analytics revealed that the number of remote workers has grown by 140 percent since 2005. 

When you consider the many benefits – increased flexibility, productivity, autonomy, trust and work-life balance – it makes sense that remote work plays such an important role in shaping employee satisfaction, engagement and retention. The data supports this, with 80 percent of employees reporting they’d be more loyal if they had more flexible work options, such as working from home. Is it any wonder remote work is one of the most lucrative (and effective) benefits used by HR’s talent recruitment and retention strategies?

But for all its rose-colored benefits, remote work has some pitfalls that can take a toll on employee satisfaction, productivity, collaboration and engagement. Look at where we’re at right now. In the face of the current Coronavirus pandemic, which has wreaked havoc near and far (in over 118 countries, and counting), businesses in the US, Europe and Asia are erring on the side of caution by asking employees to work remotely as a safety precaution (in some cases, this is a suggestion, but for many, it’s now being enforced as a mandatory policy for anywhere from two weeks to one month). And rightfully so, in my opinion. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

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Remember those pitfalls I described earlier? Well, they’ll now be amplified 10-fold, to say the least. As part of your organization’s HR and C-suite teams, you have the opportunity to inform, communicate and nurture your newly remote workers through this new landscape – and give them the resources and tools to be as productive, engaged and collaborative as possible.

Pitfall #1: Social isolation can breed loneliness.

Employees crave human contact and interactions. One of the great benefits of going into an office everyday is the relationships formed with colleagues. Office workers sit together for lunch (or go out to restaurants together); they share personal stories about their social experiences, families and friends; they tell each other jokes; and they even share photos and videos from holidays, social outings and more. 

So what happens when you take those regular and meaningful human interactions away for a prolonged period of time? In light of the Coronavirus pandemic, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, among other business executives around the world, have been asking employees to embrace the practice of ‘social distancing’ right now for the sake of keeping employees safe and healthy. And rightfully so. 

But that’s going to inevitably lead to feelings of loneliness. This is supported by the findings of Buffer’s 2019 State of Work report, which found that 19 percent of the surveyed remote workers struggled with loneliness. This can, in turn, take a toll on employees’ mental health and wellbeing. Now consider this: According to a meta-analysis co-authored by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity

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How to Avoid It: 

  • Take several breaks throughout the day so you can be refreshed and re-energized to do great work.  
  • Disconnect (both mentally and digitally) when the workday has ended. That means enabling the ‘Do Not Disturb’ feature on your mobile devices and apps you regularly use like Slack. 
  • Don’t be afraid to set up online meetings with colleagues just to catch up (without a specific business purpose). And keep the camera turned on when using video conferencing tools for those video chats. This can help combat feelings of loneliness and also reinforce employees’ craving for human interactions.   
  • In a candid chat with one of our employees, Ricardo Brito, I learned that one of his teammates is based remotely in another country. So during their regular 1:1 meetings, they make a concerted effort to spend the first 10 minutes just catching up personally and talking about current events and what’s new in their lives. This is such a wonderful way to curb feelings of loneliness that will inevitably pop up when employees work remotely for prolonged periods of time. 

Pitfall #2: It can be tough to stay focused and productive when distractions are everywhere.

You’ve heard the popular saying: “When the mouse is away, the cat will play.” This can be especially true for remote work. 

In a home setting, the types and amounts of distractions multiply drastically from those that you might find in office environments. At home, the television is just a few steps away (depending on the size of an employee’s home and designated area for working). 

No one is sitting nearby to hold employees accountable. It can be so tempting to watch online videos, scroll through Facebook and Instagram to see what friends are up to and hop on personal phone calls with friends and family. 

Your employees are human and a big part of hiring smart people is to instill trust in them to do great work and be responsible for meeting their goals. So instead of curbing remote work altogether (or taking on a ‘Big Brother’ mentality/approach to managing them), give them the necessary technology and digital tools to be as productive as possible. Trust me, they’ll thank you for it. 

How to Avoid It:

  • Create a schedule and stick to it. Accept the meetings that are time-critical and impact-related first. Add in additional meetings as they make sense to your projects and deliverables.
  • Encourage your employees to set clear boundaries in their calendars. Don’t send them messages or requests outside of regular working hours (even if they are at home). And make sure managers are cognizant of scheduling meeting times that would be inconvenient and cut into their early mornings/evenings. You’d be surprised by how often this actually happens, according to our recent Work-Life Survey
  • Integrate internal communications tools your employees already use on a daily basis, like Slack, into your scheduling software. For example, your employees can add the Doodle Bot on Slack so they never have to leave Slack to schedule their next meeting. How convenient and efficient is that? Very. Plus, it will keep them accountable and on-time to the meetings they’ve scheduled. 
  • Be strategic with your time management. Implement time blocking within your calendar (to focus on key projects for specified periods of time and avoid wasteful meetings).

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Pitfall #3: Social distancing can cause misunderstandings and breakdowns in communication. 

There’s an art to effective, engaging communication. It’s hard enough to do when your employees are standing (or sitting) face-to-face with colleagues, teammates, customers, partners and other stakeholders. So as your entire workforce sets out to work remotely during the Coronavirus pandemic, communication will get even trickier. 

What will likely ensue are misunderstandings, miscommunication about project expectations/deliverables and possibly even performance issues. That can lead to tensions and animosity between coworkers. This will inevitably give employees more reasons to avoid, or even cancel, meetings that could be necessary to complete projects and deliver business results. No business wants these outcomes. 

How to Avoid It:

  • Be mindful of other people’s times and arrive on time (or a few minutes early) to scheduled meetings. 
  • Don’t invite everyone (and their mother) to meetings. Elon Musk has a critical rule for running efficient meetings – if a person isn’t adding value, they should leave. Better yet, don’t invite people who won’t add value/contribute directly. 
  • If you want meetings to run smoothly (and come out with desired input and action items), make sure to ask participants the necessary questions ahead of the meeting. 

 

To learn more about how Doodle’s scheduling software can help your employees (whether they work in an office setting or remotely) stay productive, engaged and collaborative, check out our “Success Stories” white paper

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