“When movie mogul Sam Goldwyn uttered the immortal line “include me out” he could have been referring to the plight of reluctant home workers. The rapid switch to remote working in recent months has brought many benefits but it hasn’t been without its drawbacks. Many workers, while appreciating the absence of the daily commute, complain about a sense of isolation and exclusion from their workplace and colleagues.

With remote working set to become a permanent feature in many workplaces overcoming those feelings will be a priority for employers in the future.

“Back in April we did a global Covid client survey,” says Sarah McDonough, talent and reward country lead at Willis Towers Watson in Ireland. “Employers had moved very quickly to get people up and running for working at home with laptops, chairs, equipment, connectivity and so on. Lots of organisations had over 75 per cent of their people working remotely. In the general scheme of things they had done incredibly well.”

Distractions

But things changed over time. “We could see from the data as the months went on that some things were starting to bubble up. By August, employees were starting to talk about the distractions encountered while working at home. Reports of financial worries and heightened anxiety levels also increased. It has become more challenging for employees to retain engagement as a result.”

“The more time staff spend remote, the harder it becomes for senior staff to train, mentor and support junior staff,” notes Rachael Kelly, marketing manager with flexible workplace provider Glandore. “A strong office culture will engage your team and encourage them to increase productivity which lends itself to a sense of fulfilment. Office culture can be kept alive online by taking time to understand your employees’ feelings and by being approachable at any time.”

We need to think creatively about what social engagement might look like. You can have virtual breakfasts, you might have a virtual coffee to check chat about non-work stuff.

Employee engagement is critically important, she adds. “In the current climate, this can feel challenging to sustain, as remote working has become a requirement as opposed to a choice. If possible, we encourage employers to gather small groups of employees in a safe environment when and where possible, even if it is once a month in a protected space. While working from home can be ideal in some situations, meeting with your team in person is extremely beneficial for sharing ideas and maintaining a balanced workflow.”

Energised

According to Sarah McDonough, the key to engagement is ensuring employees feel energised. This combines physical, mental, social and financial wellbeing.

“We take a holistic view of wellbeing,” she says. “It starts with physical wellbeing. Different organisations have different tools and supports for that. They should provide opportunities for online classes or encourage people to get out for a walk. Work is not just about the hours spent sitting at a desk. What can you do to incorporate physical wellbeing? You can have walking meetings, for example, where people take a walk while phoning in to the meeting. It’s about being creative about the management of physical wellbeing.”

Mental wellbeing is also high on the list. “In Ireland we often start every communication with ‘how are you?’ We should change that to ‘how are you feeling?’ That completely changes the dialogue. People should check in with each other. It’s really important to get people talking to their friends, colleagues, and family and keep an eye out for each other.”

Social wellbeing

And then there is social wellbeing. “We’ve probably all gone through Zoom fatigue with the online quizzes and so on,” she says. “We need to think creatively about what social engagement might look like. You can have virtual breakfasts, you might have a virtual coffee to check in and chat about non-work stuff. Financial wellbeing is very important as well. Anxiety levels are creeping up and employers should encourage people to talk about what is worrying them and put the resources in place to help them.”

Kelly also emphasises the importance of social wellbeing. “From developing your business connections online, to just having a quick online coffee with someone – keeping motivated and connected is one way to control feelings of isolation. Make sure that you are doing everything you would have ordinarily done in the office, such as taking a lunch break and getting away from the desk every hour.””