Working from home has enabled thousands of people to keep doing their job well during the pandemic. But is this new world of work, tied to a single laptop, killing employee engagement, and creating ‘screen burn-out’? Martin Belton thinks so and gives you eight ideas to help keep employees healthy, happy and engaged.
According to the research organization Gallup, from mid-March to mid-May 2020, the number of U.S. employees working from home more than doubled, from 31% to 65%. That accounts for more than 100 million American workers. That is an amazing statistic, but it is compounded because we are working from home during a pandemic. Workers have made dramatic changes to their home lifestyle. Taking Zoom calls in the bedroom, dealing with serious health issues an,d changing their lifestyles. For the homeworker, home is not just where the heart is. It’s where the PC is – the day-care center and the restaurant. Challenges aside, our Gallup poll also revealed that more than half of at-home workers would prefer to continue working remotely when restrictions lift.
For this reason, organizations need a clear plan for transitioning from the early-crisis makeshift solutions to a remote work strategy that makes sense for their own business circumstances. Crucially, it must also embrace employees’ ongoing wellbeing.
It is up to organizations therefore to create environments where home workers can be both effective and properly supported in material and mental terms. Gallup offered a set of criteria to help us understand the challenges home workers face:
Readiness and comfort: Is the person comfortable with the solutions the organization is implementing? What are the individual’s health and safety concerns both for themselves and their family?
Life circumstances: What demands does the homeworker face for the care of others – either childcare, elder care, or tending to sick family members? Can they get to work easily if needed? Does the person have a good area at home to use as a workspace?
Performance: How has this person performed before and after working from home? Tracking and supporting low performers may be more challenging remotely.
Strengths: Even if a role is suitable for homeworking, people are different and have different talents. They sometimes have unusual ways of achieving the same outcome. Some people work very well remotely with only minimal interventions. Others in the same role may need far more interactions and structure of on-site work.
At Talent Transformation, we recently contacted our members, together with other business leaders and senior HR practitioners, and asked them what their biggest challenge was during the pandemic. Unsurprisingly many suggested it was just keeping the business afloat and making sales in such a tough environment. HR personnel was primarily concerned with how they can get people back to work safely. The challenge of creating an environment where people felt comfortable and that worked as a socially distanced yet effective space.
But our question also revealed a few potentially private comments, even cries for help.
“It feels like I'm living Groundhog Day in a prison” was one reaction.
“I’ve got computer screen fatigue!”, cried someone else.
“I can't stare at the screen any longer, especially for Zoom and I’m sitting way too much!”, was another dismayed response.
“Please release me from this 16x9 tyrant!” one employee pleaded
For these and many others, if they are to continue to work from home effectively, merely checking on their ‘readiness and comfort’ and ‘life circumstances’ is nowhere near enough. Organizations must adapt new support strategies which will properly engage their key workers and provide broader rewards and lifestyle opportunities.
The challenge is how do we create an environment which engages and rewards our employees. Dedicated social media platforms such as ‘Slack’ help in a small way. Supporting and encouraging their use can certainly build better engagement. But they do not resolve perhaps the biggest underlying problem of all. That is work still depends almost exclusively on screen-time. It is this ‘nothing but screen’ that is the underlying problem. Annoying though a difficult commute is, it is still a change and probably exercise away from the rest of the day. Interacting with colleagues face to face, randomly is both social and supportive. Meeting by the water cooler gives opportunities for introductions which would otherwise be unlikely. These interactions create engagement with different employees and therefore greater organizational engagement. In short, they help to prevent ‘screen burn-out’. A syndrome where employees just want to escape from their work world, now confirmed to a 13-inch un-blinking, often unfriendly panel
To deal with screen burn-out and other work isolating issues, it’s clear that organizations need to look at new ‘corporate-wellness’ strategies. These kinds of strategies are kind of consistent with the corporate social responsibility strategies typically now used to demonstrate commitment to the community and customers. They show that the organization is reputable and upstanding and therefore worth trusting with your valuable time and business.
Instead, a new HR corporate-wellness strategy might include some or all of the following eight ideas:
1. Employee involving charitable works. This really is a triple-edged sword. Encouraging your workers to do something for a shared charity can engage them in ways that create a sense of purpose. It helps the beleaguered charities at a time when they are needing it most. Mental health support work (for groups such as the Samaritans) may also help homeworkers take stock of their own situations and in turn support them.
2. Delivering medicines (or other key support programmes): Doing this just one morning per month will work for everyone. This may seem an extra burden on employees rather than a relief. But it can be rewarding. And, in the long term, helping employees get away from the screen and do something equally constructive can create a real sense of wellbeing
3. Keep fit sessions: Engage a personal trainer to present an online session once a week. Although it still involves employees engaging on screen it does encourage healthy activity and a shared discussion on the challenges. Alternatively, organizations can create a company running club or other sporting league (with rewards!). We all benefit from more physical fitness!
4. Engage an ergonomics consultant: According to a recent survey commissioned by insurance company Chubb, 41% of Americans have had new or increased back, neck, or shoulder pain since they began working from home, a symptom, it is claimed, of being extended use, hunched over small laptops. We suggest you give frequent reminders of the importance of good ergonomics and make sure you have this as part of your work from home policies. But more pro-actively, pay for an ergonomics consultant
5. Free subscriptions to Mindfulness apps: There is any number of these available on your cell (such as Calm, Headspace, Buddhify, and others). They cost very little but can be surprisingly effective for many.
6. Start a Book club: Call them book clubs, reading clubs, reading discussion groups or whatever, the key aim is to build engagement between the company and employees. Larger companies may find a way of gaining discounts from suppliers or sponsoring the whole endeavor. As a side benefit, your employees will also become more literate!
7. Printed newsletters: not a retrograde step, unlikely though it may seem, the physically printed word still trumps screen time when it comes to real credence for many. An old-fashioned company newsletter about employees’ endeavors and company successes dropping through the letterbox each month will be a useful and welcome diversion from the screen.
8. Small caring presents: a large tech-solutions company recently sent its working-from-home employees a package which included a tea towel, a mug, a bag of popcorn and a puzzle. Its message was clear – take a break on us. A simple way to get a really important message over.
There are of course other implementable solutions and strategies. Like external corporate social responsibility policies, the benefits may not be at once obvious. But also like them, they may become essential as we venture further into this new world of work.