Keeping people safe is part and parcel of an employer’s obligations. Ensuring a sense of wellbeing is important too. More than a year into the pandemic, the challenges of remote working are starting to show.

“Among employees generally across the country, in the beginning, everyone was ‘great, remote working’. Over time we have seen it give rise to a sense of isolation, burnout, lack of morale, and people feeling they are not part of something,” says Niamh O’Brien, director of talent management of BDO Eaton Square.

For employers, managing culture is a challenge when employees are working remotely. “Companies have to realign their culture in terms of what it is now and what it will be in the future. Unfortunately, it has become more apparent, the longer this goes on, that a lot of companies don’t have a fluid culture. Now they are finding that out they really need to have one,” she says.

Companies that have depended on amazing office amenities to attract talent are now having to find less tangible attractions.

A strong and positive corporate culture is an important aid to employee retention and engagement, but fostering one in a remote environment is tough.

“You have to work harder to communicate your culture. It has to be done informally and consistently. For example, it could mean scheduling in a full team call each day at 9am, to help replace the workplace coffee or the unscheduled chats you used to have in the lift. It’s simple, but it’s important to provide time to talk not just about work. The difference now is that you have to schedule it and, because of Zoom fatigue, it still feels like work.”

She has seen many organisations opt for online get-togethers, from baking to cocktail-making classes. At BDO, the thrust has been to do bonding exercises that allow people to be social but also get away from their screens, such as a team-based walking challenge.

“You can see how the other teams are doing with their steps, it gets you out and gets you healthy,” says O’Brien.

The post-pandemic world will leave its mark on the world of work in the form of a hybrid workplace, a mix of home, office, and other places where people feel most comfortable such as remote hubs.

All companies now need to take a slow and steady approach to what works best for them, she says, running pilot schemes and starting small, “rather than building and retrenching, after all this is a learning curve for everyone with no rule book to follow,” she says.

“That’s why companies need to keep checking in with their staff, to see that their needs are being met, as well as the company’s.”

Once the pandemic recedes, the demand for old school, away day team-building exercises will soar, she reckons. “There is going to be a real appetite for it and huge pent-up demand. We are together, we are working away, but that social interaction is what we’ve all missed.”

A survey by Dublin-based Eurofound, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, suggests women and young people are bearing the greatest burden of the crisis.

Shockingly, it found that two-thirds of 18-34 year-olds are at risk of depression. For women, work-life balance has suffered disproportionately throughout the pandemic, especially for women with young children.

What it calls “high investment, high involvement” workplaces have the best outcomes for workers and employers according to a recent large-scale survey of company practices it carried out across Europe. But just 20 percent of EU organisations were found to fall into this category; bundling practices that increase employee autonomy, facilitate employee voice and promote training and learning.

Wellbeing practices

International food and facilities service group Aramark, which employs more than 200,000 people worldwide, including in Ireland, has been adapting its wellbeing practices throughout the pandemic.

“Our managers have stayed in regular contact with our teams and we have surveyed people from every part of our business to define their needs,” explains Jim O’Brien, HR director for Aramark Northern Europe.

“Our wellbeing team, working with human resources, learning and development, safety and a cross-departmental mental health committee have then adapted tools to help support both the mental and physical wellbeing of our employees during this challenging and often overwhelming time.”

Aramark’s wellbeing and dietetics team support a strong people-first ethos, he says. “Each year, we run a very successful mental health campaign called Take 15 that culminate in marking World Mental Health Day. This is an ongoing initiative that raises awareness and prompts our staff, clients, and customers, across all sites in the UK and Ireland, to take 15 minutes away from their work, study, or home environment to unwind and alleviate stress, whenever they need to do so.”

It also has developed a range of employee wellbeing guides. These are digital toolkits that provide details on mental and physical wellbeing strategies, simple steps, and tips. It includes information on mental health support, resilience webinars, and the importance of nutrition and activity for mental wellbeing.

Its wellbeing team also partners with external accreditors to train mental health champions to provide peer-to-peer support to colleagues.

“When your employees feel valued and supported, they are more engaged and work well with each other. The higher a team’s morale, the easier it is to weather difficult challenges and situations that every business or team will inevitably face,” he points out.