The pandemic has fundamentally altered the way companies conceptualise work – remote work used to be the exception but now it has become part of the new normal. Nevertheless, many leaders and employees continue to struggle in finding a balance between in-person and remote work. “We are all outside of our comfort zones, one way or another. It is about the connection, having an open ear, and being in this together; not about being perfect,” says Sharesz T Wilkinson, a Forbes and Harvard Business Review Advisory Council member, strategic advisor, and executive communication expert.
In this interview, Sharesz shares strategies that can help leaders and managers navigate remote work in the new normal. This includes advice on communicating with employees that are working from home and helping team members who are struggling with their mental health.
What does the ‘new workplace’ – i.e., the workplace fitting into the ‘new normal’ look like? What are some of its defining traits?
Sharesz T Wilkinson: I believe remote work is here to stay. When I started working from home over 20 years ago, it was perceived as exotic and weird, but certainly not as having a ‘real job’. Digital nomads just 10 years ago were seen as dreamers and the unrealistic ‘lucky’ few, escaping the rat race.
Times have drastically changed. We have all experienced that work can be done differently and a lot more sustainably.
Working from home is a viable option not just from a lifestyle or environmental point of view, but from a health perspective. We save time and money working from home, as so many things are falling away – commuting back and forth to work, keeping up with the Joneses, materialistic thinking, big wardrobes, unnecessary spending, and travelling.
What will certainly be a great necessity is to help find relief for parents working from home when children cannot attend school or daycare. Next to household tasks, workload, and raising a family, this 24h burden is unsustainable. There is only so much that parents can take – I see this as a great challenge that asks for creative solutions.
The next groups who are disadvantaged by remote work and social distancing are the elderly and single people, who often get pushed into unbearable isolation.
Time will tell with regards to what kind of new approaches societies can come up with to ease distress and the rising mental health challenges.
Not all work can be done remotely, such as jobs in healthcare, construction, logistics, and certain types of office work, etc.
We will develop a mixed form of working, where boundaries have to become much more fluid and employers more flexible. In general, I believe that the focus will shift more and more to the quality of the work output instead of the time attended. This allows for greater flexibility and new approaches.
As remote work becomes part of the new normal, what should leaders and managers do to prevent miscommunication between their on-site and off-site working teams?
Sharesz T Wilkinson: It is of great importance to recognize our human need for connection and trust. Here are some strategies that managers can use to help with this:
- Train your key people in how to improve communication. Hire a professional to do this job effectively.
- Create a clear visual organizational diagram, detailing the necessary contact details, work, and communication flow in real-time. Make this available to everyone in the company for reference purposes.
- Do not micromanage your employees! Result-driven work is far more engaging and satisfying than attendance-driven work on endless zoom calls.
- Trust your employees to do the work right without steady supervision. If this is not possible, then you hired the wrong people. Be available for questions and feedback, but set clear rules about the engagement and platforms to be used.
- Establish specific channels of communication where everyone involved has a clear understanding of what they are supposed to be used for. WhatsApp groups quickly get out of hand when people start posting the latest videos or events that do not relate to work.
- Stay in touch with your remote workers and involve them through a dedicated team in daily updates and short briefings so they can stay on top of things. Name and refer to them in your communications. Nothing breeds resentment and misunderstandings more than being invisible, ignored, overlooked, or excluded.
If you want good communication, you have to set the rules and be crystal clear about the flow chart of actions to be taken with whom, when, and in which case.
There has to be a visible and real-time flow chart of communication with the names and details available for reference, and accessible to all in each department. This requires teamwork and involvement. It creates a framework in which people can operate with certainty and a certain level of stability, despite the current challenging circumstances.
Recognize that we live in troubled times and that many are struggling mightily to cope and get everything done on time. People are concerned about the current uncertainty, family members, and the future. For many, the workload has tripled as schools shut down, and restaurants, school lunches, and work canteens are closed. Be an employer who understands that people are not robots.
We need to be realistic and kinder in our expectations towards ourselves and others and provide or seek support where needed.
What advice do you have for leaders struggling to connect and engage with employees that are working remotely? How can they better communicate with them?
Sharesz T Wilkinson: It is crucial to stay at the pulse of what is happening in your company and with your employees. I would recommend a weekly Q+A session for feedback both ways.
Establish a culture of safe, clear, honest, and transparent communication, leading by example. It is about connection and having an open ear, being in this together, not about being perfect. Being accessible and showing you care makes all the difference.
For meetings, I would advise you to set the purpose, desired outcome, time frame, the platform, the number and names of participants, the topic, detailed content, and the format in a way you can handle. Have a moderator monitoring the time, and set a time limit for each speaker and contribution – and stick to it.
Communicate the rules and details in advance to all participants so they can come prepared.
We are currently all outside of our comfort zones, one way or another. Clarity creates certainty and avoids wasting time for everyone involved. It increases efficiency and brings results.
One of the main issues of remote working is that it can have negative effects on people’s mental health. How should companies address this when it comes to their employees, what challenges can you identify, and what do you think could be some of the solutions?
Sharesz T Wilkinson: Mental health in the workplace is finally receiving the attention it deserves. We are not machines just trained to function, that can endlessly increase their performance and outputs. It is good to have come to the insight that many people crumble under the relentless pressure and often inhumane amounts of hours they are expected to put in for work – in the office and at home during this pandemic.
To maximise work output is very much an industrial mindset, that frankly has outlived itself. We can nowadays get more work done in less time given all the technology that is available to us. The key is not filling the gained free time with even more work!
Less is more. Healthier and more rested people create better quality work. Leaders are not the only ones who need to have a mindset shift regarding this issue – many employees need to realise this as well. Being overworked should not be a badge of honour. We need to learn how to take better care of ourselves and our health.
Many companies are starting to recognize the need for mental and personal support and offer self-development either through courses or professional coaches. This is certainly a welcome development, as we transition into a time where technical skills become more and more obsolete and are replaced by technology.
What needs to be developed are intrapersonal and interpersonal skills such as awareness, creativity, problem-solving skills, resilience, and grit.
Hopefully, gone are the times when humans were held like hamsters in their cubicles, working until late at night – neglecting their own needs, relationships, families, and personal health. The toxic environment of more, bigger, faster, was not sustainable in the first place.
A great solution would be to invest in essential services such as mental healthcare, provided by qualified professionals. Additional to performance reviews, a ‘happiness manager’ can help employees address their challenges with expertise, guidance, and knowledge. It would also help to provide certain funding to set up a proper office infrastructure for people working from home.
With the pandemic, companies have saved a lot of expenses on travels, company lunches, business dinners, marketing, and more. It would be great to reallocate some of these funds for the above-mentioned purposes.
It is generally becoming more and more acceptable for people to discuss their mental health needs at work. Nevertheless, that is still not always the case and some employees might struggle to talk about their challenges, especially if they are doing remote work. How can employees working remotely clearly communicate their needs to their employers?
Sharesz T Wilkinson: To be able to clearly communicate their needs, they have to first be aware of their limits and boundaries. Most are not and just try to push through their challenges, which often leads to burnout.
I see it as the responsibility of the employer to provide awareness training and education about these topics within the company culture. It can only be in a company’s best interest to recognize these issues early on and be able to take action where needed.
At the end of the day, someone with mental health issues needs professional therapy and not just ‘happy-clappy’ seminars, training, or advice. The choice to seek help lies always with the individual. Unfortunately, we live in a time where mental health issues are still stigmatized and someone continues to suffer in silence rather than look for appropriate and qualified professional help and effective therapy. Trying to keep up in a mental crisis is comparable to a runner with two broken legs, trying to finish a marathon – impossible.
It would be helpful if an employer would provide guidelines and incentives such as a certain coverage for qualified professional therapy treatments, to encourage people seeking help. After all, the employee and their employer both benefit greatly if things get better and improve.
Sharesz is a multiple award-winning international speaker, author, entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist. She works with leaders, organisations, Fortune 100 companies, and ambitious individuals in business, entertainment, sports, and politics around the world on how to maintain top-level performance and get results during challenging times. Sharesz’ contributions were published on various platforms such as Forbes and the BBC among others. She received the ‘Visionary Leader Award 2021’ and is a senator in the Grand Assembly of the World Business Angels Investment Forum (WBAF). Sharesz T Wilkinson has represented The Speech Improvement Company (TSIC) in Boston for over 50 years, worked with the White House, and taught at Harvard, and MIT. For more information contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her linktr.ee address at https://linktr.ee/stwilkinson.