When Covid -19 first appeared on the scene, many thought that lockdowns and the accompanying working from home would be short term. However, almost 18 months later, the virus still poses a significant threat. As a result, the way we work and interact has significantly changed. Although there are definite pros to being able to work remotely, mental health has come into the spotlight. Here are some insights to help individuals and leaders ensure mental-wellbeing for returning and remote employees.
While working from home has been seen to increase productivity and has resulted in a better work-life balance, there is no doubt that for some, increased isolation and decreased physical contact means increased mental health concerns. In a previous article we explored the generational differences in these trends. You can read more about that here.
When South Africa went into the first lockdown people experienced a mix of emotions. Amongst the uncertainty and accompanying anxiety over future income, job security, health, and domestic-related concerns, there was a novelty to being able to be home, connect to spouses and children, and not rushing in traffic. Reality then set in as many lost their source of income, the future of education became concerning, and mental health issues rose. We all breathed a sigh of relief as the Covid cases decreased and the country began to open up and we adjusted to a new normal way of life. Schools were back, many businesses were operating, and with caution, following protocols, we could attend to our social needs.
The second wave and its lockdown then dashed our hopes again. This time, there was no novelty. Only greater longing for “normality”, job and income security, and social interaction. How long can we lock away for? Although we are now in level one, the threat of a third wave with more lockdown still looms ahead. Moreover, the way we work and interact has most certainly changed in response to life in lockdown: Now more people spend at least part of their week working remotely; Customers have embraced online consumerism; and social interactions to a large extent remain contrived.
Ex and CX
Not only are we not seeing family and friends but we have limited in-person contact with colleagues or clients. How does working online impact the employee experience (EX) and the customer experience (CX)? There is no human touch. We only “see our colleagues and clients” on a screen. Even if we are returning to the office, our masks very much conceal our facial expressions making reading social cues almost impossible. Do we really know what another is feeling and can we build true relationships without the valuable information from social cues and non-verbal communication? How do we ensure mental well-being for returning and remote employees?
Remote Workforce And Employee Experience
In terms of employee experience, although we may be working efficiently online, benefiting from a flexible schedule and better work-life balance, we are missing out on non-work interactions with people we used to see and interact with every day. These interactions are essential for building relationships and feeling a sense of common purpose and belonging.
Furthermore, people are energized and motivated by being around others especially when engaged together on tasks and ideation.Moreover, people have begun to experience zoom and webinar fatigue or burnout. Zoom meetings involve very little non-work chatter. It’s just not the same talking to a screen. Anyway, often people have their cameras off.Working from home means that we don’t always wear work attire and look our best. How does working in your pj’s impact on your sense of self, professionalism and your overall state of well-being?
Satisfying Relationships Are Key
Loneliness and mental well-being are closely related. Feelings of loneliness and isolation can lead to depression, anxiety, obesity, burnout, and impact mortality. According to Dr. Cacioppo, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, loneliness is not necessarily caused by being physically alone but rather from having relationships that do not meet our expectations. This highlights that the social and support structures we experience in traditional office structures are not available in the same way to people now working from home.
What You Can Do
To combat feelings of isolation, the first thing to remember is that you are not the only one feeling lonely and isolated. It has been found that the majority of individuals don’t feel comfortable sharing their feelings and experiences around loneliness. While talking about how we feel isn’t always easy, opening up about our work from home experiences is a great way to begin dealing with them. Importantly, starting a conversation with others may help others as well as yourself.
Because office-bound relationships and support structures have changed, it is important to make a daily concerted effort to have positive meaningful interactions on both a professional and personal level. In this way, we build relationships in a different way to meet our expectations and relieve feelings of loneliness. Be aware that working from home can also disrupt relationships with those you live with. Give attention to these relationships as they form your primary support system.
Consider community support structures as well. These may include hobbies, volunteer work, joining various clubs or groups of interest.
Create A Designated Workspace
Don’t convert your entire home into your office. You’ll end up working from your bed and isolating yourself in a cubicle where you eat, sleep and work. This is not great for your psyche. Better to sleep in the bedroom, and have a separate space where you work, and dine.
Schedule Personal Time
Employees working from home often work extended hours and take on extra work. This often results in exhaustion and burnout which in turn leads to negative feelings. It is important to be realistic about your work hours to ensure sustainability. Schedule time for your personal wellbeing and vary your day with activities including exercise, healthy eating and enough quality sleep.
Be Aware That Professional Isolation Exists In Various Forms
Remote working may cause resource isolation. This means a lack of information or resources and access to key people. Work with your co-workers to establish alternative access points and digital resources. Having the right digital tools can facilitate this.
Opportunity isolation. As a remote worker, ensure that you are not overlooked for opportunities. Schedule frequent engagements with employers and co-workers so your productivity and achievements are recognized.
Development isolation working alone results in a myopic view of your skills and outputs. Working as a team ensures that your skills and productivity doesn’t stagnate.
The Role Of Company Leads
In general, the impact of remote working and covid lockdown has been widely varied. It is largely dependent on a person’s experience, perspective, outcome and material effects.
One thing is for certain, employee needs have changed and employees in 2021 seek a tailor-made experience that respects individual differences. Whether you remain working from home or are beginning to venture back to a physical office, of primary importance, is the need for safety, security, and stability in the workplace. These are just the basics now, and employees want to work in an environment that fosters trusting relationships, social cohesion and where they feel they fulfill a unique purpose.
The role of leadership in this regard is to build social capital through affiliation. This means connecting employees to each other and to the company as a whole. Your corporate culture needs to promote a sense of inclusion and social harmony while encouraging individuality. This will allow your employees to have a sense of purpose. Your corporate culture is an essential tool for leading your employee experience (EX) and in turn, driving your customer experience (CX). More about that here.
Furthermore, company leads need to offer support related to the current times. Give meaning and perspective to the crisis through communication channels. Working from home has seen an increase in feelings of isolation and anxiety. Similarly, employees returning to the office may also be experiencing future-based fears about the threat of a third wave, their health and safety, and how their changed needs will be met. Support is aimed at ensuring mental well-being for returning and remote employees.
Leaders need to aim at creating mentally healthy workplaces and invest in employee wellbeing. This can be achieved through a culture that promotes healthy open communication about well-being.
Encourage Safe Regular In-Person Interactions
The more digitally connected we become, the further apart physically, emotionally, and socially we become. The rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980’s. Creating human interaction whether in-person or remotely promotes a sense of well-being. Leaders should encourage regular non-work-related interactions either in person or online as a means to check in with their employees.
In the same way that employees needs have changed, our customers have too. Your customers have also experienced pandemic-induced isolations, fears and anxieties. In order to meet their needs we have to be empathetic towards their mental well-being, new needs, and what they have experienced at this time. Read more about mindful CX here.
As we ease into level 1, customers emerge anew. The media fuels their concerns and guides their behaviours. Many now have a shattered financial security. Customers subconsciously gravitate towards companies they sense they can trust in terms of safety of employees and customers.
Companies need to adapt to various types of customers that are returning in some way to a “normal” way of life. Many people still prefer to be mostly at home and therefore require a high quality digital experience and easy access to online content, products and information.
Some will be anxious only doing the bare essentials. They require reassurance about their safety when interacting with your company. These customers want as little physical interaction as possible when engaging with you.
Still others will be feeling optimistic about the promise of an effective vaccine and are happier to start getting back to normality albeit with precautions in place. They want to know that your offerings have remained as normal as they remember them.
CX Is About Relationships
Overall, contactless and self-service remain high ranking customer needs. However, it is important to infuse all virtual experiences with a human touch. Afterall, CX is about relationships. Customers consider how empathetic your company is. You are being evaluated on the human scale more than ever before. According to salesforce research, 71% of customers believe that companies that have shown more care and empathy since the start of the pandemic have seen greater customer loyalty.
Your CX strategy needs to consider the mental well-being of your customers and offer solutions that are empathetic and real. Remember that taking care of mental well-being in your organization leads to a positive employee experience. This will translate into care towards your customers’ well-being and in turn drive a positive customer experience.
We Are Social Beings
In essence, we must remember that we are social beings. No matter how efficient digital and online processes are or become, the inherent human need for physical connection will always be there. In-person contact contributes to mental well-being while continual isolation can leads to mental and other health concerns. Do what you can online and behind the lens of your camera but select certain personal and professional in-person engagements with Covid safety in place, to feed your human need.
Author: Yael Benjamin from Interact RDT