When the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus pandemic on March 11, 2020, thousands of companies everywhere took their operations online. The potential for a fully remote workforce had long been on the horizon, even pre-pandemic, but as more than 100 countries around the globe entered full or partial lockdowns, we found ourselves in the middle of a remote work experiment on a global scale.
Almost two years into this global experiment, while there’s no certain end date for the pandemic, we’re confident that remote work, in its varying degrees, is the future of work and will continue long into the post-pandemic world. A Mercer study from May 2021 showed 70% of companies had plans for hybrid work. We have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t work — on individual and collective (i.e. team or company) levels. It’s time to ask: What have we learned from this massive experiment with remote work? How can we make remote work sustainable for the individual employee as well as the organization or company as a whole?
Why remote work matters
Here’s a quick rundown of some of the benefits of remote work:
For hybrid and remote employees:
- Better work-life balance
- Increased productivity
- Greater autonomy for team members
- Talent retention
- Lower costs of renting office space
- Lower carbon footprint due to less commuting
Tips for working from home
Set better boundaries (with yourself and others).
Boundaries are your best friend. Be honest with yourself about how much time you can dedicate to work each day — then stick to it. Be upfront with your bosses, managers, and peers about your boundaries as well: “I don’t check email or messaging platforms past 5 pm,” “I’m not available for Zoom calls on Fridays,” etc.
Have you ever shut your laptop for the day, only to find yourself unconsciously tapping the email icon on your phone? Even before the pandemic, many people found it difficult to disconnect from work outside the office. So, it’s understandable if remote work has made the lines between your personal life and professional life even blurrier. Try giving yourself a cue to mark the end of your workday — like writing down your top priority for the next day, closing all of the tabs on your computer, or shutting the door to your home office.
The pandemic made us more aware of the importance of physical health (for obvious reasons). But more unexpectedly, it also called our attention to the importance of mental health. Burnout continues to rise among employees, disproportionately affecting women. And while this is part of a much larger conversation about work culture, let’s not overlook what can be done on a personal level.
Enter: Mindfulness. Mindfulness is a type of meditation that leverages the power of presence to help people improve their well-being. Mayo Clinic writes that meditation has been shown to improve attention, decrease job burnout, improve sleep, and improve diabetes control. Meditation can also help with stress, anxiety, pain, depression, and high blood pressure.
So, how do we practice mindfulness at work? The great news is that anyone can be mindful, even without picking up a formal meditation practice. A really simple way to begin benefitting from mindfulness is with a mindfulness bell. You can set a bell sound, as you would an alarm, to go off periodically throughout the day, as a reminder to come back to your breath and the present moment. Sometimes, we slip into moments of stress unknowingly, and a bell of mindfulness can help with reigning the stress in.
Don’t overlook soft skills (especially vulnerability).
So often, we’re nervous to share how we’re really doing with the people at work. We’re hesitant to admit that we feel overwhelmed, overworked, or burnt out, because we fear that others will think that we are incompetent, unqualified, or incapable of doing our jobs. But the reality is that even top performers experience moments where they feel like they’re hitting a wall. If we could practice being vulnerable at work, telling the truth of how we feel when we need support, not only do we open the door to receive support from people who can offer it, but we give other people permission to do the same. That’s how we create a culture of teamwork, honesty, and mutual support.
This doesn’t just apply to our relationships at work, but to our relationships at home, too. For example, if you’re a mother who can’t be left alone long enough to respond to an email, then consider asking a partner, relative, or friend for more support.
Be cognizant of co-workers’ bandwidth.
In a piece for The New Yorker entitled “Why Remote Work Is So Hard—And How It Can Be Fixed,” Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University and New York Times bestselling author, calls our attention to the potential for remote employees to overtask each other.
“In person, for instance, the social cost of asking someone to take on a task is amplified; this friction gives colleagues reason to be thoughtful about the number of tasks they pass off to others,” Newport writes. “In a remote workplace, in which co-workers are reduced to abstract e-mail addresses or Slack handles, it’s easier for them to overload each other in an effort to declare victory over their own rapidly filling in-boxes.”
In order to protect the well-being of employees, especially those who work from home, it’s so important to have insight into what’s on everyone’s plates. Luckily, there are tools to help us do that. Include these tools along with your collaboration tools:
- Clockwise is a time orchestration tool that optimizes your schedule to find the best meeting times for everyone and to include more Focus Time for you to perform deep work. Clockwise for Teams gives you insight into team members’ bandwidth, so you can easily see who needs more Focus Time, who spends too much time in meetings, and more. Knowledge is power. When you have a visual breakdown of how team members are spending their time, you can better support them by making adjustments where needed.
- LEON is a “Wellness Intelligence” platform that helps managers build healthier and more fulfilled teams. With LEON, managers can understand their teams better through surveys that “capture team sentiment.” Detect burnout before it happens, know which teams need more support, and which teams need to be challenged. LEON is invaluable during a time when managers can’t rely as much on face-to-face interactions and visual cues to inform their management.
How companies can better support their employees
When it comes to navigating our new normal, the Internet is brimming with articles, videos, and social media posts that place emphasis on individual action. Popular media advises remote workers to deal with their stressors through better self-care, better sleep habits, better time management, and so on. Every person should feel empowered to take charge of their own well-being — but a crucial piece of the conversation that we need to be having is what companies can do to better support their employees. Cal Newport explores exactly that in another piece for The New Yorker, called “How to Achieve Sustainable Remote Work.”
“If you want to radically change when and where work happens in your organization while still achieving results,” Newport writes, “you also have to change the very definition of ‘work’ itself, moving it away from surveillance and visible busyness, and toward defined outcomes and trust.”
Cal Newport takes a closer look at ROWE, a management strategy that stands for ‘results-only work environment.’ ROWE was developed by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, who sought to create a program that gave employees what they really wanted: not flexibility, but autonomy. Creating a results-only work environment is all about measuring performance based on output and results, and letting employees have the autonomy to accomplish their work in whatever way works best for them.
ROWE’s official website makes it very clear that ROWE is not the same thing as remote or hybrid work. However, there’s still a lot we can garner from Ressler’s and Thompson’s framework as one that’s reimagining the way employees work. For one, it’s essential to build trust among remote teams. Instead of monitoring how employees are spending their time, managers should instead focus on whether or not employees are delivering results. Second, Newport proposes the significance of implementing ongoing training programs in order to boost the sustainability of remote work initiatives. It’s not enough to train employees once or simply introduce the remote work policy during the employee onboarding process. After all, making a massive organizational shift is something that requires intensive frequent training.
If we are successful in taking remote work from experimental to enduring, there’s no telling the radical positive transformation this can have on well-being, culture, and business. Greater employee engagement isn’t only better for a business’ bottom line, but a renewed sense of purpose can improve the overall employee experience.
On an organizational level, we must pay close attention to company culture, managerial styles, and our systems to get work done efficiently. These elements make for a sturdy foundation to support remote work.
On the individual level, personal initiatives like taking up a mindfulness practice, being more in-tune with our needs, and being more vulnerable in our communications with others — all of these things can help to make remote work more fulfilling in the long-run.