The COVID Contradiction: The Remote Worker Is Happier, More Productive... and Still Stressed Out
2020 was a year of monumental shifts, some of which we’ve learned are for the better. Among them, the learning that remote work is a viable alternative to office life. The sooner we embrace this new reality, the sooner we’ll be able to engage honestly with the modern workforce.
But the shift to a remote-first life hasn’t come without bumps and creative solutions. It has so discombobulated some workers, that they are literally walking around their neighborhoods in order to mimic their old commute, clinging to pre-pandemic behaviors to create an artificial, yet potent, sense of separation between their professional and personal lives.
And while a June survey by McKinsey found that employees working remotely see more positive effects on their daily work, are more engaged, and have a stronger sense of well-being than those who are in non-remote jobs with little flexibility, the data also shows a growing concern for mental health as work-life balance continues to be illusive in the world of kitchen-as-office and pet-as-coworker. According to a new Forrester Consulting study commissioned by LogMeIn, Inc 44 % of employees thought their organization was effective at supporting the mental health needs of remote workers, suggesting that over half of the remote employee base is being left to struggle with these needs alone.
As employers we are not only faced with the standard challenges of shifting infrastructure and process to a remote work model, but we’re also tasked with molding a new work culture that prioritizes flexibility, mental well-being, and healthy, equitable collaboration. And the clock is ticking for employers to accept this new reality. While many employees may allow for a grace period to adjust to a new way of working, it’s important to recognize that organizations should prepare now for a less forgiving remote workforce in the future and create policies that will set themselves up for success in the new normal.
Organizations that prioritize employee well-being set the stage for a healthy culture, even for a remote-centric workforce. It’s critical that we develop new habits and a new “operating system” that is designed for the way you work now, in the virtual environment. In addition to providing self-care days, access to mental health resources, and a variety of ways to communicate and collaborate, leaders must also lead by example in instilling curiosity and a growth mindset about, what for many, is a brand-new way of working. Why did we do it this way? Is there a better way? What can we improve for next time?
Shifting a France-Sized Population to Remote
Nearly every conversation in 2020 was dominated by talks of life before and after COVID. The astounding shifts in how, where, and who we work with have changed for many at a pace once thought impossible.
In fact, before 2020, the Department of Labor found only 2% of Americans worked from home full-time, and 85% of those respondents had never worked a paid day from home. Once the pandemic hit, that shifted to more than 40% working from home as of June 2020, which is roughly 66 million people. That is equivalent to the population of France shifting from full-time office work to entirely remote!
Some corporate leaders are holding out for the possibility that we will all return to something closely resembling the pre-COVID status quo. No doubt their wishes are driven by an antiquated view of remote work: a staggering 77% believe that in-person office workers are more productive than remote employees. Almost three-quarters (70%) of those respondents also believe in-person workers are more trustworthy than a remote workforce, according to Forrester Consulting.
These are dangerous statistics and for those companies that don’t adjust to what is clearly a new priority for the global workforce, they will lose key talent and struggle to attract new skills into their workplace. Even for those companies who understand the benefits, believe in a remote option and want the competitive advantage in the talent market that a flexible approach will provide them, they will need to continuously improve and adapt.
The Intensified Spotlight on Well-Being
Despite dissenting opinions there are signs of progress. Gartner has uncovered a growing trend of organizations offering at least one new wellness benefit, such as flexible work schedules and mental health support. These new benefits are all part of a reevaluation process surrounding corporate recruitment, compensation, performance management, and workforce planning strategies jumpstarted by the pandemic.
At LogMeIn, as well as improving ways to support mental and emotional health, providing more benefits and leaves for care givers, including elder care, child support and pet adoption, we also instituted a policy of monthly self-care days, No meetings, no emails, no work; everyone is encouraged to spend time with family, on hobbies, getting outside or relaxing inside. The leadership team participate and lead form the front, to ensure there is no hidden pressure to be working that day. We can not underestimate the challenges faced while moving to a fully remote work environment, dealing with a global pandemic and, the loss of child and elder care, all without the essential human connections that provide us relief. So many of us are dealing with anxiety, feel overworked, and are simply fatigued. Even as widespread vaccination appears to be a reality, we have a responsibility to lead with empathy and make our people’s well-being a priority.
Understanding the Human Element of the Future Workforce
The benefits and value of remote work are undeniable at this point. It’s true that productivity and satisfaction are up, but at what cost? We shouldn’t sugarcoat it: employees are simultaneously raking in the benefits of remote work while missing out on certain core components of the office lifestyle that provide reassurances of value and camaraderie.
Leaders must remain aware of the challenges and risks associated with remote work while demonstrating a sense of awareness, vulnerability, accessibility, and empathy for their employees. It’s time for leaders to embrace the new shift of a post-pandemic world and continue making strides towards a supportive and empathy-based work culture. It is no easy task and many of these challenges are new to the leaders, CEOs and CHROs trying to solve them. What’s more, when offices reopen and some employees return part time, it will be even harder to ensure an equitable and thriving organizational culture. But solving this is not optional. As with any shift in the talent market, those who lead from the front and put their most important asset first will build a solid foundation of employee engagement and business success that will endure for years to come.
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