The Complete Guide To Remote Work Wellbeing For Businesses & Managers

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Photo of a laptop with a large Zoom meeting in progress on-screen

You’d be forgiven for thinking remote work wasn’t a ‘thing’ before 2020. Most employers who had heard of it weren’t keen to give it a try and employees who were doing it were, well… rarely seen.

GIF of cat peering out from underneath blankets
Rare footage of a the lesser-spotted home-worker

But, far from being a ‘niche’ arrangement, figures suggest as much as 5% of the UK workforce (1.7 million people) were engaged in remote work in 2019.1

In fact, the number of remote workers in the UK has been steadily rising for two decades.2 And despite the tropes, most aren’t quitting the office to sip coconut water at a resort in French Polynesia.

According to the research 3 most people work remotely for the flexibility it offers. As Graeme Codrington of TomorrowToday Global puts it, “The work from home phenomenon started long before Covid. Many people have wanted to be more flexible in their work arrangements, but never received permission before now. For many people, skipping the commute is the biggest factor in preferring working from home”.

But is skipping the commute really that great? Well, unlike most things in life, the data suggest remote work is all it’s cracked up to be!

According to the pre-COVID 2019 State of Remote Work report, 99% of those already in remote work wanted to continue for the rest of their career and 95% encouraged others to make the switch.4

Chart showing the division of remote work in 2019.
Data: Buffer, State of Remote Report / 2019

Sounds pretty good, right? So why aren’t we all doing it?

Remote work does come with its own unique set of challenges, most of which can be overcome with the right knowledge and planning. And that’s what we’re here to explore.

In this article, we’re going to discuss everything you need to know to smooth your team’s transition to remote work and keeping stress in check in your remote workforce.

Over the next 20 minutes, we’ll cover:

  • The definition of remote work
  • The wellbeing benefits of remote work 
  • The stresses and wellbeing challenges of remote work 
  • Signs of stress in remote workers 
  • 7 ways you can build resilience in your remote workforce:
    • Invest in management training
    • Promote psychological safety
    • Commit to positive communication habits
    • Build your team’s transactive memory system
    • Invest in virtual team building
    • Recognise and address inequalities
    • Promote the wellbeing of managers

Not sure you need such a juicy stack of knowledge just yet? Take the ‘Are your remote workers stressed’ quiz to find out where your workplace stands.

Can you spot the signs of stress in your team?

Take our quick quiz to instantly assess stress-levels in your remote workforce. Find out where you stand in just a few minutes! 

Table of Contents

What is remote work?

Much to my disappointment, remote work doesn’t involve hiking your laptop up a hill and working in front of a breathtaking vista. But the reality is almost as good.

Photo of woman working on laptop sitting outside on a large log on a hillside

A person is a remote worker when they undertake work tasks somewhere other than their employer’s premises. A remote worker might work from a cafe, their home or on the road. The important feature that unites all remote workers is that they don’t have to travel to employer-run, shared workspaces to do their jobs. 

You might have heard remote work called different things, like:

  • Telecommuting
  • Telework
  • Virtual work
  • Working from home
  • Home working
  • Mobile work
  • Work from anywhere
  • Flexi-work
  • Flexible working
  • Agile working

And while each of the above describe slightly different working arrangements, all remote work fits somewhere on a scale between fully remote and fully in person. Businesses often combine traditional working arrangements with some level of remote work, e.g. three days in the office and two days at home.

Graphic showing the spectrum of remote work ranging from fully office-based to fully remote teams
So remote work is not quite the ‘black and white’ issue it seems – and it’s about to get less so…  because the above aren’t the only nuances to understand about remote work.

The difference between voluntary and non-voluntary remote work

Until April 2020, remote working was one of those things many employees wanted to try but few employers were keen to experiment with. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, that choice was taken out of everyone’s hands.

Managers who hadn’t previously entertained the idea of allowing staff to work from home suddenly found themselves coordinating a 100% virtual workforce. And employees were thrown into a bewildering mix of concurrent roles including teacher, carer and remote worker – all without the time to prep a desk.

As CIPD’s Developing Effective Virtual Teams report puts it… “Remote work looks different when everyone is doing it.” 5 When whole families attempt to coexist in the same household during working hours, ‘balance’ is not easy to find.

Which means there’s a big difference – in wellbeing terms – between voluntarily working from home and being required to by circumstance.

According to leading remote work wellbeing expert Rowena Hennigan, “personal choice is vital to harnessing an individual’s positive attitude toward remote work. If you want to do something you’ll apply yourself and show more autonomy in your approach to work – if you don’t want to or you just ‘have to’, you won’t.”

Quote from Rowena Hennigan, remote work expert -“During the pandemic, most of those working from home did so without choice and under many restrictions, restraints and external stressors. Pre-covid, individuals often had a choice to move to remote work, but not always. Some made the switch after a change of personal circumstances, like a family member suffering illness. What we need to understand is that personal choice is vital to harnessing an individual’s attitude toward and motivation for remote work. If you want to do something, you will apply yourself and show more autonomy in your approach to work – if you don’t want to or you just ‘have to’, you won’t.”

And since much of the benefit of remote work for employees stems from the ability to exert control – e.g. setting one’s own schedule – it’s easy to see how a gap in wellbeing might appear between voluntary and non-voluntary remote workers.6

In cases where companies have experienced success when switching to remote work, employees self-selected for the opportunity.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the benefits and challenges of remote work.

What are the wellbeing benefits of remote work?

Even before 2020 and the rapid increase in remote working, going remote was becoming increasingly popular and stakeholders were locked in an impassioned debate about the pros and cons of offering remote work opportunities.

But, whether you believe we’re inevitably hurtling towards a fully remote future or that ‘remote’ is a passing trend, you’ll want to understand the research. So here’s what it says about the benefits of remote work.

Higher productivity

Pre-2020, you might have thought all remote workers were 20-somethings stretched out on a sofa with a laptop. Or millennials mixing paycheques with managing their #VanLife Instagram accounts.

But, according to the data, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Not only are most remote workers over 30, they also consistently outperform their in-office counterparts on measures of productivity. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at a real-life example.

Take Ctrip, an online travel company that, for some time, had considered offering remote work opportunities but faced opposition from skeptical managers.

Ctrip’s senior staff assumed remote workers would be less motivated and productive – we guess, because no one would be peering over their desks every hour to check they weren’t scrolling Facebook.7.

But the board members were willing to weather a small productivity hit to claw back the spend on office overheads. So, they gave it a shot.

After a lengthy nine month trial they discovered that people working from home completed 13.5% more calls than their in-office staff.

And this wasn’t just some fleeting effect caused by an initial burst of sofa-based enthusiasm. It lasted across the entire 9 month programme. In total, Ctrip gained an entire workday per week in added productivity from their home-working staff.

Plus, home workers quit at half the rate of their office-tied peers and consistently reported higher job satisfaction. So what’s going on?

According to Nicholas Bloom (the study’s author) “one-third of the productivity increase… was due to having a quieter environment, which makes it easier to process calls… The other two-thirds can be attributed to… people at home [working] more hours.”

Though not necessarily conducive to wellbeing, Bloom suggests remote workers started earlier, took fewer breaks, ran fewer errands during work hours, were sick less often and were never late from their commute. Which all added up to more time with bums on chairs in front of desks.

“But call centres can easily measure productivity… what about the rest of us?” I hear you say. And yes, it’s harder to measure productivity in other sectors. But whichever way you cut it, the outcome is always the same.

The hard truth is, offices aren’t great places to work.

GIF of Lesley Knope bugging Ron Swanson while he tries to ignore her

A review of 300 organisations suggests that even collaborative work – the one thing people assume offices are good for – doesn’t happen easily in an office setting. In most cases, 20-35% of in-office ‘collaborations’ are driven by just 3-5% of employees.8

These super-collaborators face an avalanche of demands for input during working hours, which sideline their job-specific tasks. To keep up, they take their work home – a habit that quickly leads to burnout.9

Outside the office, these same employees find it much easier to get their work done. Meaning they can excel at their role and feed the physiological reward system of chemical boosts driven by little wins. Ultimately, this saves hyper-productive employees from burning out and helps them feel satisfied with their jobs.10 Which brings us to…

Greater job satisfaction

Research consistently shows that employees who choose to go remote are more satisfied with their jobs than their in-office colleagues. For example, a recent study of 185 employees, found a positive correlation between telecommuting intensity and degree of self-reported job satisfaction.11 

Why? Because when people feel more autonomous and experience lower work-family conflict at work, they are more satisfied with their jobs12 13 14. Unsurprisingly, flexible working arrangements like remote work deliver lots of the above.

Now, we know you’re a good person who cares about the wellbeing of their employees. But you also have to get budget-holders on board with your remote work plans. So, why should they care how satisfied their staff are?

Look at it this way…

Workplace autonomy is, to put it bluntly, one hell of a ‘drug’. Research into the neurology of autonomy, shows that increased perceived autonomy has a positive impact on a person’s mood which, in turn, significantly improves both individual and group productivity.15

Higher productivity leads to higher profitability per employee. Add to that a reduced turnover and you’ve got one very happy HR department and a significant amount of extra coin in the coffers.16 Hurrah!

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Access to a Large Talent Pool

It won’t surprise you to know that when you offer partially or fully-remote positions, you gain access to a much larger pool of talent. But your organisation can benefit in more ways than one. 

In his Ted talk Why Working From Home Is Good For Business, co-founder of WordPress and co-founder and CEO of Automatic, Matt Mullenweg explains… 

“I believe that talent and intelligence are equally distributed throughout the world. But opportunity is not. In Silicon Valley, the big tech companies fish from essentially the same small pond or bay. A distributed company can fish from the entire ocean. Instead of hiring someone who grew up in Japan but lives in California, you can gain someone who lives, works, wakes up and goes to sleep wherever they are in the world. They bring a different understanding of that culture and a different lived experience.”
Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automatic

In other words, remote workers are more diverse in their lifestyles, locations, experience and more. And since diversity is one of the key forces behind workplace innovation, encouraging it by investing in remote teams can only be a good thing.17 

But this is not just academic. It already works in practice for global businesses. For example, the major American airline, JetBlue, allows staff to live up to three hours away from headquarters. This type of semi-remote arrangement means employees can work from home but remain capable of reaching the office should they be needed for meetings or other events.18 

According to JetBlue, being flexible in this way helped them gain access to educated, high-ability mothers who craved flexibility in their roles. Individuals who would not have been able to apply to work for JetBlue had the company only offered office-based roles.

The folks at JetBlue say this policy has improved the quality of its workforce – and it could do the same for yours too.

Increased profitability

We didn’t want to peak too soon but, let’s be honest, this one’s the clincher. What business doesn’t want to be more profitable? And if you can do it simply by encouraging and supporting remote work, well… all the better. 

So, how does it work? 

For one, increasing the proportion of remote working staff reduces overheads. Think fewer desks, computers and related equipment, smaller office spaces, lower budgets for coffee, food and other office perks and much more. 

Plus, if your business offers relocation grants, stipends and other add-ons to encourage talent to take up office-based jobs, think of the savings you’d make by allowing them to ‘commute’ online. 

In it’s 2016 survey of 8,000 employers and employees, Vodafone found that 61% of businesses that offered flexible work arrangements saw company profits increase. 

What’s more, 83% reported increases in productivity and 58% believed that offering flexible work arrangements had a positive impact on their organisation’s reputation. 19

Graphic of the organisational benefits of remote work, including improved profits, productivity and reputation

According to leading remote work expert Laurel Farrer, organisations save an average $11,000 per year per remote working employee and experience a 21% lift in profitability.20 

“Remote work is one of the most underutilized business strategies of the modern business world. Every company leader is hungry for higher output, productivity, and talent retention, but is likely to ignore the fact that virtual jobs can enhance all three of these. Their blindness is based in a belief that workplace flexibility is just a cultural perk, so they can’t see the immense operational value that it can provide to the organization when implemented carefully.” 
Laurel Farrer, Distribute Consulting

Quote from Laurel Farrer of Distribute Consulting on the missed opportunity of remote work in today's workplace

Add that to your ‘why we should trial remote work’ presentation and you’re sure to win hearts and minds.21 

But, as with everything in life, you’ll only feel the benefits of remote work if you’re doing it right. Without effective management strategies, technologies, procedures and a positive culture in place, you’re likely to carry existing issues over to remote work. Which brings us to…

What are the wellbeing challenges of remote work?

According to CIPD’s Developing Effective Virtual Teams report, the challenges of remote work tend to grow as: 

  • People spend more time working apart
  • The degree of physical and temporal separation grows
  • The proportion of staff working remotely increases 22

As we mentioned earlier, remote work isn’t right for everyone. And, odds are, when more of your staff work from home, more of those who aren’t best-suited to it will slip through the net.

So, what are the main challenges you and your organisation may face when switching to remote work? 

Technology Fatigue

Office workers have always been susceptible to technology fatigue. But the issue becomes more relevant as more of your staff work from home.

Technology fatigue describes the disproportionate exhaustion we feel after conducting meetings and other work using electronic communication like video conferencing calls, voice calls, messaging apps and email. It’s not just you, it’s a universal issue that’s supported by sound science.23

The theory goes that we find communicating through electronic media more tiring than the same communication face to face because technology can only ever capture a snippet of the social information we need to understand what’s happening.

When we can’t get all of the information we need from what’s being said, our brains work extra hard to fill in the gaps and guess the rest.24

Over email, messaging apps and even video calls, we can’t spot non-verbal cues like tone of voice, warmth, body language, facial expressions and attentiveness.

Even over video we have problems, like finding it difficult to: 

  • Maintain a consistent gaze 
  • Avoid looking at our own face (we know you do it…)
  • Stop doing other things at the same time 25

In short, the more energy we use trying to decipher communications received via technology, the less energy we have to put into our work. And that causes tensions for remote workers that require some skill to overcome.26

Poor communication

As well as finding the technology a little draining, we’re not good at adapting the rules of face-to-face communication to a virtual setting. We tend to communicate too much or not enough and aren’t sure which type of communication is right for a particular scenario. 

“It’s not just managers who over-react to being in a remote team environment – we all overcompensate. A lot of workplace culture has to do with “looking busy” and “doing stuff”. It’s much easier to do this in an office where just being there is part of the proof that you’re doing your job. In a remote environment, people tend to send more messages and schedule more meetings in a subconscious attempt to prove that they’re working hard.” Graeme Codrington, TomorrowToday Global

Quote from Graeme Codrington of TomorrowToday Global on the lack of productivity in office workers

According to the research, team members share less information with each other through electronic media than they do face-to-face. Plus, they have a harder time interpreting and understanding the information they receive.27  

Virtual teams are better than face-to-face teams at sharing uniquely held information – i.e. information specific to solving the task at hand. However, they share less information than face-to-face teams overall. So what’s going on?

It turns out, when people interact remotely, they prioritise getting to the point to the determinant of sharing information about how to work together and deal with social issues. But it’s this very information that tends to improve the performance of virtual teams28 because this information builds what’s called a transactive memory system (TMS). 

TMS (not to be confused with TMI!) is a neat way of describing the knowledge about one another’s competencies and ways of working that become embedded in a team’s collective memory over time.29 And it’s easier to build TMS face-to-face because a lot more non-specific, non-task-related conversation happens in that context.30 

A combination of physical and time-based distance and the way people communicate through electronic media reduce remote worker’s exposure to information about their team member’s knowledge and expertise. 

So, despite what we’ve been told about the art of effective communication, brief messages that ‘get straight to the point’ actually make the situation worse.

Luckily, this problem has a quick fix, which is for managers to invest more in team-building – something we discuss in our management workshops and in more detail later on. 

Loneliness

The stereotypical image of a remote worker is one of a young hermit, glued to the sofa, flitting between the TV, a slanket and a ‘table for one’ at the coffee shop. But the reality is often quite different…
GIF of toddler interrupting TV news interview being held at home

Many people who ask for and prefer remote work have young families or other caring responsibilities and use the extra time they gain from remote work to spend more time with loved ones. So, the loneliness remote workers feel has less to do with their at-home environment and more to do with exclusion from work-based socialising.  

Contrary to popular belief, most people don’t choose remote work to avoid being face-to-face with co-workers. The most commonly cited benefits of remote work are the ability to have a flexible schedule and the flexibility to work anywhere.31

But, according to the 2020 State of Remote Work report, loneliness ranks top of the list of things remote workers struggle with, alongside collaboration, communication and not being able to unplug.32 Jointly, these issues account for almost 60% of all responses to the question “What’s your biggest struggle with working remotely?”. So what’s the deal?

Working in an office (or other location with a group) supports our psychological needs for motivation, belonging and wellbeing in ways we take for granted or may not be aware of.33 

Which means businesses need a very clear and proactive plan for replicating feelings of team bonding and belonging in a remote context. And this process requires the active involvement of individual employees, their wider team, their managers, and the organisation as a whole.

It’s also worth noting that remote workers are more likely to struggle with professional isolation when they work for a company with a mostly in-office workforce.34 35 Predictably, these organisations are the least effective at including remote workers in team dynamics.

Low Engagement

Ok, so this one’s a bit of a red herring. Because, while some business leaders believe remote workers will be less engaged, research shows this isn’t the case.  

The truth is quite a bit more complicated. Some studies dosuggest that fully remote workers are less engaged and more likely to quit36 but others show the opposite.

For example, in 2020, Gallup found that remote workers consistently show higher rates of engagement than employees working on-site37. Interestingly, the engagement was largest among millennials, with 41% of millennial remote workers feeling engaged vs 31% of their in-office counterparts.

So what’s the theory?

Well… firstly, millennials are more likely to have caring responsibilities in the home and, as we discussed earlier, work-life balance is a key driving force behind job satisfaction and people who like their jobs tend to be more engaged. But overall, the difference between an engaged and a not engaged remote workforce comes down to a few simple things:

  • The degree of remoteness (fully remote or partly in office?)
  • The proportion of their team that is also remote (do most of the team interact in the office, leaving remote workers out of vital conversations?)
  • How experienced their boss is at managing remote teams (do they know how to apply management techniques to a virtual setting?)
  • How committed their employer is to remote work (do they invest in remote worker wellbeing?)

So, organisations that are thinking of going remote should ensure managers, remote workers and in-office employees understand how to do it well. 

Signs of stress in remote workers and remote teams

One of the biggest roadblocks to better workplace wellbeing is identifying when and why something is wrong. It’s only by tracking and comparing specific outcomes that you can be sure you’re making the right improvements in the right places at the right time.  

That said, if you’re just looking to do a quick appraisal of your current situation, check for these common signs of stress in remote workers and remote teams.

Reduced Productivity

Happy workers are productive workers! And that’s not just a catchy saying… it’s backed by research.38 39 

Which means one of the clearest signs of workplace stress is reduced productivity.

This might look like low call volume for call centre staff, remote workers logging extra hours without increasing output, or someone consistently missing individual or group deadlines. 

Summary of common signs of stress at work
Unfortunately, you’ll only notice a drop in productivity if you’re already tracking relevant metrics, which is why it’s important to consider the systems and processes you put in place when switching your workforce to remote.

Poor collaboration

This might manifest as an uptick in arguments, complaints and grievances, emotional outbursts, nervousness or as a failure to contribute toward group goals.40 

When people are stressed at work, they tend to be less engaged.41 And less engaged workers are less likely to collaborate effectively with their team.42 This is particularly true of remote workers, who are in a better position to ‘switch off’ from their colleagues than their in-office counterparts.

In remote workers, poor collaboration might start with missed meetings, team events and team deadlines and gradually lead to conflict with other members of the team.

Increased Absence

Studies show that remote workers often feel indebted to their employers for giving them the opportunity to work from home.43 Something that is especially true of organisations where the majority of the workforce is not remote.  

This feeling of indebtedness can encourage remote workers to overcompensate by producing more work than they’re asked to or by working longer hours.44  

As we know from the causes of stress at work, taking on too much and working too many hours lead to burnout.45 46 So, it’s important to take a preventative approach with newly remote working employees by clearly and consistently communicating expectations.

Need a Hand?

If you’re searching for a partner to help improve wellbeing and happiness in your workplace, get in touch with a friendly member of our team. We’re here to help you reach your goals.

6 ways to build resilience in remote workers and virtual teams

Now you’ve got a complete (if we do say so ourselves) background on stress and resilience in remote workers, it’s time to get proactive.  So next, we’ll cover a few things you can do to start promoting wellbeing in your remote workforce.

1. Invest in Manager Training

Managers make or break employee wellbeing in both in-office and remote contexts – and we don’t say that lightly! Research shows that management style accounts for 70% of the variation in in-office employee engagement47 and is even more important when teams don’t work face-to-face.48 

Data from 2020 suggest that many managers struggle with a sudden transition to remote work and we suspect this is caused by having little time or resources to prepare for the change.49

Being unprepared leaves managers struggling to trust their remote workers and leads them to micromanage their virtual teams.50 

In all workplaces, low trust and micromanaging damage the manager-employee relationship and leave staff feeling frustrated, unmotivated and unengaged.51 But a recent study of 12,615 individuals across 1,850 teams suggests these traits are particularly problematic in managers of remote teams.52 

So what do effective remote team managers look like?

 

  • Are highly trusting
  • Are effective communicators
  • Understand how to delegate and empower staff from a distance
  • Invest in team building

‘Good to know, but hard to put into practice’, you might think – and that’s where training comes in.

Research shows that it pays to invest in management training53– and not just for the managers themselves. Management training also has lasting benefits for businesses, increasing productivity, engagement and ultimately ROI.

The 4 ways managers improve wellbeing for teams - invite, model, care and provide

The bad news? Organisations need to start training at the highest level because managers who struggle to lead remote teams often have excessively controlling and low-trusting bosses of their own54 (apples far from trees anyone?). 

Time to up-skill your people managers?

Explore our research-backed programme and helps managers monitor, cultivate and support the wellbeing of their teams.

2. Promote Psychological Safety

Speaking of trust, nothing says ‘effective virtual team’ like psychological safety – a term which describes a culture of interpersonal trust and mutual respect where people are comfortable being themselves55(what a mouthful!).  

Teams with psychological safety are more trusting of their colleagues, and this trust makes them more comfortable sharing information. We’re talking creative and innovative ideas, constructive feedback, and being open about mistakes.56 

On the flipside, in teams with low psychological safety, people are averse to sharing information for fear of being mocked, misunderstood or criticised. This information-poor environment suppresses creativity and slows down team progress because team issues and ineffective processes don’t get ironed out.

At this point, you might be thinking, ‘that’s very interesting Jodie but what does this have to do with virtual teams.’ So…  

It all comes back to effective managers. According to the research, leaders with a high degree of humility make the most effective managers of virtual teams.57 Such leaders are self-aware, willing to learn and have an appreciation for others and their ideas. Therefore, they’re more likely to make virtual team members feel psychologically safe58 in an environment that can habitually suppress it.59

All of the above means that businesses need to choose virtual team leaders wisely by either selecting managers who already possess these traits or by helping existing managers cultivate them.

3. Set up and stick to positive communication habits

You don’t get far in business (or life) without effective communication. Unfortunately for remote teams, electronic media are a less-than ideal communications vehicle.  

When we speak over electronic communications we miss out on non-verbal cues that help us contextualise what’s being said.60 61 For example, you can’t ‘see’ full body language in a video call or guess tone of voice from an email. 

But there are ways to limit the resulting issues – it just takes a little imagination and a few positive communication habits. Here are four of the most important for remote workers and remote teams…

Choose the right media for the right conversation

You can compensate for the deficiencies of virtual communication by being smart about which media you use for certain types of conversation.

Many virtual team managers believe calls are always best, which leads them to swamp remote employees with video and voice call requests. 

However, this can cause more problems than it solves because:

  1. Voice and video calls take a lot of time and energy that might be better spent elsewhere
  2. Too many voice and video calls looks and feels like micromanaging

It’s much more effective to save video calls for the creative process (e.g. you need to bounce ideas for an ad concept) and use voice calls for quick clarifications. This leaves messaging apps for communicating other, usually transactional, information like the deadlines, project scopes, admin and budgets.

Keep work communication within working hours

Employees who consistently receive work communications outside working hours experience a type of stress called ‘anticipatory stress’ that quickly causes burnout.

Anticipatory stress happens when a person worries about an event or situation that will or might happen in the future.62 It can be triggered by anxiety about social situations, the discussion of certain topics and – of course – out of hours work communications. 

Think of it like this… you’re eating dinner with your kids when your phone buzzes. You take a peak thinking it might be another hilarious cat meme but it’s an email from your boss chasing up your expenses or micromanaging your new project. 

You get angry over the intrusion and spend the rest of your evening feeling stressed about what you should do next or what you want to say to your boss (easy now) during the next work day.

The effects of out of hours work communication are so profound that, in 2017, French legislators enacted the ‘right to disconnect’ law to protect individuals and organisations. The law requires businesses to be explicit about when staff can send and answer emails and stick to the boundaries they set.63

Setting boundaries for remote teams avoids much of the work-to-life and life-to-work conflicts that affect people who work from home.64
And – as we already know – good work-life balance is an essential ingredient of a profitable business environment.

Outline response expectations for communication

That said, effective remote work communication is not all about timing! It’s also about setting clear rules for how to communicate online.

Now, we’re not suggesting you create your own dialect, but a few choice acronyms here and there help cement expectations and aid seamless communication among virtual teams. 

Simple norms like ending messages with NNTR (No Need to Respond) or 4HR (Four Hour Response), can dramatically reduce overcommunication, increase efficiency and lower stress in virtual teams.65

What’s more, virtual teams benefit from co-ordinating communications, e.g. cementing how often people should communicate and how explicit their messages should be.66

Schedule regular 1-to-1 meetings

Managers are the linchpin of successful virtual teams, so they need to schedule regular catch ups with their staff. These catch ups are not just about keeping track of staff member’s task load, but also spending time with them as a person.

Managers should open 1-to-1 sessions by asking the person how they are and whether they are having any issues outside of work or are facing challenges that are affecting their wellbeing.

By going beyond work objectives, managers can build trust and maintain valuable rapport. 

When staff feel like the lines of communication are open, they’ll bring up issues they don’t think warrant an email or call but might still be playing on their mind. 

Regular 1-to-1s also help define communication boundaries. Although managers tend to speak with remote staff every day, communicating too regularly and without focus can leave people feeling like they have little control or autonomy over their work day. 

Because the purpose of a 1-to-1 is clearly defined, managers and their staff can get more out of these conversations in less time. Plus, when staff are left to make decisions on their own, managers gain the space to get other things done.

4. Invest in transactive memory building

Yep, the same ‘transactive memory system’ (TMS) we discussed earlier. TMS is the knowledge employees have about each other’s experience and capabilities. It helps people:

  • Delegate
  • Direct questions
  • Take responsibility for tasks
  • Get help
  • Share information with the right people

But – most crucially – it helps them do all of the above in an efficient way. This efficiency saves time and resources by focusing virtual team members’ energy where it’s needed. Ultimately resulting in a more profitable and productive team.

"An established & effective virtual team is like a theatre group replaying scenes for an upcoming performance. They’re always "in rehearsal", constantly refining & improving their core operations & processes. This supports & feeds into the group’s TMS."

Rowena Hennigan, Remote Work Expert Tweet

There are several ways employers can help build their virtual team’s TMS. Here are two of the best… 

Create a workplace Wiki

This one’s a sneaky shortcut, but sometimes you need a workaround to get speedy results. 

Technically, a Wiki is not ‘information you hold in your head’ like a typical TMS, but it supports the development of a TMS in teams that don’t already have one and also helps newcomers slot seamlessly into a team.67 68

A workplace Wiki is a database of employee profiles that details each person’s position, background, skills and experience and explains what queries should be directed to them. 

This gives virtual team members – who may not have frequently met – the chance to identify who can contribute to a task (who is the specialist among them) without relying on extensive electronic communications with other team members and managers.

A workplace Wiki creates a culture of targeted communication that frees up everyone’s headspace for productive work. A quick glance at a profile is far more efficient than reading and answering endless CCs in email chains.

Hold regular debriefing sessions

Even with a workplace Wiki and a culture of targeted communication, issues with virtual communication will arise. 

Someone might get left out of crucial project info, be inundated with questions they’re not equipped to answer or be given a task that doesn’t match their skill set. Which is why regular debriefs are essential to virtual team success.

Debriefing sessions help teams reflect upon their goals, decision-making processes, communication and collaboration69 and they’re most effective when:

  • They’re scheduled regularly70
  • They’re facilitated by managers or HR professionals71
  • The participants feel psychologically safe72

5. Recognise and address inequalities

Equality is not a new concept in the workplace. But how many HR professionals and managers understand just how variable the impacts of remote work can be on their staff? 

A wide array of circumstances can affect a person’s ability to effectively work from home, including:

  • Caring responsibilities
  • Access to childcare
  • Access to a spare room to use as a home office
  • Access to home office equipment
  • Access to a stable and inexpensive internet connection
  • Relationship conflict
  • Access to natural spaces near the home 

So, to work effectively from home, people need the time and the space plus the equipment necessary to carry out their tasks. 

That means you need to provide staff with the obvious like a comfortable chair, a computer of the right specification, a good WIFI connection and a dedicated desk (especially if they need to use additional equipment like printers). But, more than that, you also need to consider less obvious provisions like ergonomic equipment and tech support.

For staff with challenging home environments, measures like extra check-ins and flexible working hours can make all the difference.

But it’s not all about addressing inequalities at the individual level.

According to CIPD’s Developing Effective Virtual Teams report, teams whose members are geographically and culturally distant need to work harder to understand each other’s contexts73– which is an academic way of describing their cultural setting, domestic life, family commitments and other daily realities that impact their work. 

Building a level of understanding between team members promotes psychological safety and, therefore, determines the effectiveness, creativity and innovation of a team.74

Managers and HR practitioners can help employees understand remote work inequalities by:

  • including this information in employee onboarding and training processes
  • encouraging teams to share appropriate information during team building activities.

6. Look after the mental health of managers

Team building, open door policies, online workshops and everything else that goes hand-in-hand with management, can be a considerable drag on mental resources. And the negative aspects of management can be particularly pronounced in virtual teams.  

Virtual team managers aren’t just the instigators and facilitators of workplace wellbeing – they can be and need to be active participants.75 When managers are less stressed, the stress ‘tap’ is turned off, meaning less of it trickles down to employees.76 

Graphic - It's important to protect yourself and your energy levels when helping others

Resilient managers are better at meeting the needs of their teams and fulfilling their role to invite, provide, model and care.

In our wellbeing training for managers, we discuss how managers can avoid burnout and promote the kind of self-sufficiency their teams need.

Time to up-skill your people managers?

Explore our research-backed programme and helps managers monitor, cultivate and support the wellbeing of their teams.

The takeaway

You made it! In this post we’ve covered what remote work is, what’s good and bad about it and how you can tip the balance in favour of positive outcomes.

What to do with your new-found expertise? Use it to reduce stress and encourage wellbeing in your remote teams!

Keen to keep building that knowledge? Speak to us about Haptivate’s management and remote work workshops.

Jodie Manners

Jodie Manners

Content Specialist

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