These are unprecedented times.
At Zeitspace, we are all working from home for at least the next three weeks. We work remotely with clients all the time, but now we’re working apart from each other too.
We’re not the only ones.
Which raises the question: How can workplaces maintain employee morale and mental health in a remote work environment?
The answer, according to one expert who researches leadership and employee mental health and well being? Communicate.
“People tend to create their own narrative when they’re not provided with information, so communication is critical to easing people’s fears when it comes to job security and income,” says Jennifer Dimoff, assistant professor at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa, who specializes in industrial organizational psychology.
Anxiety levels are higher than normal as people with and without mental health issues and fear for their loved ones and job security, she says.
Front line managers should check in with employees more often because they may not know what to do or they may need tools or software to help them do their work remotely. Talk to employees about what job security looks like. If people are laid off, is it temporary? If you’re working from home, what does that look like?
And if you’re having meetings?
Use video conferencing software rather than phone calls as much as possible, says Dimoff. And try not to run an efficient meeting: save time for the social side of work at the beginning and end of those meetings, she adds. Social distancing can lead to feelings of social isolation, which can have negative consequences on employee mental health. Make sure to take time to talk about positive things happening in the world and with the business, says Dimoff.
Employers should also remind employees that there are still resources available to them, such as an employee assistance program, which can offer virtual help for anxiety and stress. Encourage employees to use those programs, she says.
The World Health Organization (WHO) also released 31 guidelines for mental health during COVID-19, some which include only seeking information updates from credible sources at set times, once or twice a day; checking in by phone or online with neighbours, family, and friends; and, amplifying positive and hopeful stories.
“This is not going to be perfectly business as usual,” says Dimoff. “Employees who have kids at home … are now in a situation where they’re working and caregiving.”
For those employees, Dimoff suggests creating a schedule for themselves and the kids. If two people are at home caregiving, set a schedule where one works in the morning and the other in the afternoon and communicate that schedule with your manager.
“Being human is really critical and organizations can be human too, even though they are entities,” she says.
Some jobs may translate well to a telework environment, while others won’t, says Dimoff. And that will require creativity, so employers should remember that people doing a job are the experts on that job. They’re in the best position to job craft in a way that leads to the same outcomes. That’s why Dimoff says employees and employers should focus on being productive over time and recognize that this quarter may look very different from others.
But most importantly, expect that it’s going to take time and effort to figure out what the new normal is, says Dimoff. That means giving employees autonomy in how they complete their work. Do they need to work 40 hours a week? If so, she says employers should be flexible around timing, for example, consider whether an employee can work Saturday and Sunday and have Monday and Tuesday off.
“If employers do that and do it well, then employees are more likely to be loyal to the organization in the short term and long term,” she says. “By having patience and understanding and an adjustment of expectations temporarily, employers are likely to reap the long term benefits.”
Those benefits, she says, include employees who are engaged, satisfied with their job, loyal, and who participate in organizational citizenship — going above and beyond.
“Prioritize the human side of all of this,” says Dimoff. “We need to treat employees as people first.”