Taking care of the emotional wellbeing of virtual workers

Agata Nowakowska, Area Vice President at Skillsoft

happy woman working from home, flexible working, emotional wellbeingHere in the UK, Mental Health Awareness Week has helped to highlight how concern for everybody’s mental health is currently at an all-time high.

The ongoing coronavirus crisis, and its attendant social distancing measures, have touched everyone’s lives. Suddenly, the world we used to know changed overnight.

Having been confined to our homes for weeks on end, public debate is now shifting to the long term emotional health ramifications of lockdown for individuals of all ages and backgrounds. With so many of us dealing with financial pressures, health concerns, and feelings of isolation, everyone now has their own unique perspective on the importance of getting to get to grips with our mental health during these uncertain times.

That’s especially true for employers, many of whom still have large sections of the workforce working virtually from home.

Dealing with the here and now

The tumultuous events of the past months have had a massive impact on how and where we work. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), prior to the recent coronavirus epidemic less than 30 per cent of the UK workforce worked occasionally from home – with just 5% mainly doing so.

Fast forward to today and UK companies are now grappling with the remote workforce models they’ve had to initiate at scale in response to government COVID-19 lockdown measures.

One thing is for sure, taking care of the virtual workforce requires a very different set of approaches and protocols. As many organisations have found, keeping a decentralised workforce motivated, productive and feeling supported during the current crisis has been a top priority. But with workplace behaviours looking set to change for the long term, prioritising the wellbeing of remote employees will remain essential.

Working from home is not right for everyone – and may not be the preference for many. That’s especially true for those living in shared accommodation or those who have to balance home responsibilities while focusing on the job in hand.

Out of sight should not mean out of mind

The recent public health crisis has helped focus the minds of business leaders on the wellbeing of their workers. With normal routines disrupted, many have upped their communication and engagement with remote workers – implementing regular virtual huddles and ‘coffee mornings’ to banish feelings of isolation and nurture team bonds.

The ‘be kind’ to one another mantra that has been part and parcel of the public’s community response to coronavirus has also helped empower a greater sensitivity and awareness of colleagues and co-workers, spurring people to regularly ‘check in’ on one another on their practical and emotional support needs.

Some companies have issued helpful guidelines to remote workers on everything, from the work protocols that are in place to encouraging them to take regular breaks from monitors and go for walks. Others, like Salesforce, have offered employees free counselling sessions and webinars on how to nurture their emotional and mental health.

But nurturing the mental outlook and wellbeing of the remote workforce in the long term will require an appropriately structured approach that features new tools and processes that take into account both personal and organisational development needs.

Building connections that support healthy working practices

Establishing effective daily communication will be vital for teams who rarely come into the office. Tools like work chat platforms and video conferencing that encourage greater connection between employees and support ‘social mentoring’ initiatives will be invaluable.

Respecting the boundaries between work and leisure time is also critical. With employees no longer limited by 9-5 office commute routines, it’s easy for the boundaries to blur between work and personal time. To avoid burn-out, organisations will need to adhere to appropriate working hour protocols; don’t schedule conference calls out of hours or expect late night responses unless someone is rostered for shift cover.

Building a community where isolated workers feel engaged and included will become increasingly important as digital working becomes embedded into company and national culture. With annual get togethers and social celebrations no longer on the table, companies will need to find new ways to call out individual staff successes and recognise the special occasions and life events that matter to their people. Consider initiating options like virtual birthday cards, or online shopping vouchers, or plan to host ‘company-wide’ virtual conferences or ‘parties’.

Don’t lose sight of personal development needs

Today’s digital HR and learning platforms make it easy for employees, no matter where they are based, to access the learning and development resources they need to extend their capabilities and know-how.

Many people will be anxious that being based from home means their career aspirations will be on hold. So, employers will need to deploy tools that make it easy for workers to share what roles or skills they’d like to transition to in the future, identify competency gaps and acquire the new qualifications they’ll need.

Many of today’s learning platforms offer a wealth of modalities that make remote learning an enjoyable experience for people with a range of different learning styles. From bite sized learning that can be consumed during personal breaks, to video resources, and signposting to additional reading and learning they can tackle if they’re keen to further broaden their knowledge and expertise in a particular area.

Adopting a more holistic approach

The COVID-19 crisis has fast-tracked new workplace models that are set to change the world of work as we know it today. For many business leaders, the experience has highlighted the importance of adopting an holistic approach to managing the remote workforce that’s not just focused on the practical tools they need to do their jobs. Keeping people happy, productive and engaged will depend more than ever on nurturing every aspect of their professional and personal lives. Paramount to this will be nurturing their mental health and wellbeing.

Agata Nowakowska About the author

Agata Nowakowska is Area Vice President at Skillsoft, where she leads a team of field based, enterprise-sales Regional Vice Presidents for UK, Benelux and DACH regions.  Before embarking on her 17 year career at Skillsoft, Nowakowska held leadership roles at SmartForce and Tulip Computers.

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