For working professionals, the greatest legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic is a universal acceptance of working remotely or from home. This acceptance was however forced upon organizations and their employees and thus has taken a toll.
Remote working has traditionally been alienating for employees even before the pandemic struck. A pioneering two-year study by Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom, published in 2015, found that more than half of remote working volunteers of a large company - those who took the option to work from home -- changed their minds about permanently working from home, as they felt significant isolation. Several other studies since have corroborated this finding. We are social animals as a race!
If loneliness and isolation are such powerful triggers, what did organizations do to mitigate these, especially in the wake of the pandemic that forced all of us to work from home? On the surface, it appears that many organizations were not even aware of the magnitude of the problem. A global study by IBM last year – during the peak of the pandemic – found that there was a huge disconnect between what executives thought about how their employees were coping while working remotely, and how employees felt. While 80% of employers thought that their organization supports the physical and emotional health of their workforce, only 46% of employees thought so. 74% employers said they believed that the organization is helping staff learn the skills needed to work in a new way (remotely), whereas only 38% employees believed so.
Still, many organizations recognized early on that mandatory working from home for a prolonged period is problematic. For instance, providing mental health counselling and wellness sessions with qualified experts is an important aspect to prevent people from feeling loneliness and isolation. Employees should be encouraged to take small breaks during working hours to avoid feeling fatigued and also to refresh their minds. The leadership team further proactively suggested availing 'from anywhere option' or to plan short vacations.
A steady check on the health and wellness of employees through anonymous surveys were done and the results were gratifying - in a recent survey, over 80% of our people said that they are fully motivated to start work every day, while more than half said that their work arrangements are flexible and helpful to manage their other priorities in life. Importantly, only one in five respondents said they felt stressed.
There are many organizations who have taken similar proactive measures - Gitlab adopted “virtual coffee break” sessions on video calls where employees can connect virtually to take breaks and socialize- like water cooler breaks in an office setting. Basecamp has dedicated social media channels where no work-related discussions are allowed; topics are focused on food, sports, pets and humor. The channels are also free from talk about the pandemic.
Other companies have hosted virtual book clubs, team-bonding movie nights, virtual pizza parties or remote happy hours where employees dial in and share a cocktail over Zoom or Skype. Importantly, all these activities take care to avoid any work-related discussions, sometimes even going as far as avoiding any pandemic-related discussions.
In general, several experts agree that any action plan for managers to beat loneliness and isolation must include regular check-ins by team leaders via group or 1:1 video calls to get a sense of how they are doing. Other best practices include prioritizing relationships and personal bonds, being better at communications and setting clear and explicit expectations for remote workers.
Finally, now that the pandemic is on a decline in India and the vaccine roll-out has also begun, the question is moot if we will see employees returning to offices in full strength in the near future. A majority of businesses are likely to allow remote working for at least some of their employees for few days every week - and the likes of Siemens, TCS and Infosys have announced this publicly. In other words, the pandemic may go away soon, but remote working or work-from-home is going to stay. Leaders of knowledge-based industries like IT in particular have to be careful to manage the imminent mix of onsite and remote workers as transparently and fairly as possible, without losing overall sight of productivity and results.
More pertinently, a 2017 study by Harvard Business Review revealed that lack of close contact with people inhibits the formation of trust, connection, and mutual purpose — three ingredients of a healthy social system. And herein lies a key test for businesses as they transition from 100% remote working to 60% or even 40%, can they ensure that those choosing to continue working from home are included in the mainstream?