Remote Work and Culture — 7 min
April is Stress Awareness Month, but for most people, the last 12 months have all been stress awareness month.
The ongoing pandemic, in addition to political and social unrest around the world, has put workers on edge. While working remotely should lead to better well-being, pandemic-forced remote work strips away benefits remote workers normally receive. When you can’t see your friends and loved ones, grab lunch at a restaurant, travel to new places, or even send your kids to school, you’re not working from home — you’re living at work, often with your whole family.
Few people can thrive in such a tense environment. Anyone who has struggled with stress over the last year deserves to recognize that working remotely is not usually like this. In better times, remote work empowers people to live life on their own terms.
Those times will come again, but for now, what should companies do to help their remote employees mitigate and manage stress? We spoke to some of the top experts in the industry to learn how they help their employees get through tough times.
“Great leaders see themselves less as directors and more as unblockers,” says Darren Murph, head of remote at GitLab. “Stress reduction begins by clearing paths proactively and fostering an atmosphere of psychological trust where a direct report can bring feedback whenever they need assistance.”
No matter how many mental health perks your insurance covers, you cannot therapy away a bad job. Leaders must focus on identifying ways to make work easier to ensure their teams don’t feel unnecessarily swamped. One of the best ways to do this is to focus on outcomes over hours spent working.
“The time spent working is not the important part,” says Remote CEO Job van der Voort. “It’s more about what that person does with the time. Think of it like driving a car: Would you rather drive toward your destination for one hour or spend eight hours idling in the driveway?”
See also: Remote Talks with Zapier CEO Wade Foster
For remote organizations, focus on outcomes over hours is especially critical. Set clear goals and give employees the freedom they need to reach those goals using the skills you hired them to use.
Even as parts of the world relax pandemic restrictions, many people will continue to struggle with the lifestyles they have grown accustomed to over the last year. Leaders should not try to be counselors, but they should listen to their workers and lend a hand to people who are struggling.
“Leaders can detect and reduce stress for remote employees by simply asking one question on a weekly basis to each of their direct reports: ‘What obstacles are getting in the way of you doing your best work?’ says Sarah Aviram, author of Remotivation. “The answers may range from personal distractions at home to a lack of decision-making authority in meetings that slows down progress.”
GitLab’s Darren Murph agrees.
“Detection can be handled with boring solutions — red/yellow/green check-ins and safe-space 1:1s where thorny issues can be surfaced without fear of judgment.”
No one can last for long while juggling hardships at home and at the office, especially when those two places are one and the same. Proactively check in with employees to help them manage the challenges in their lives.
Working remotely does not mean working constantly. Just because employees are always near their computers does not mean they should be expected to answer messages outside office hours.
“Remote workers often feel like they have to be ultra-responsive and work more hours to demonstrate that they are, in fact, working,” says Tammy Bjelland, CEO of Workplaceless. “This feeling of being always ‘on’ can lead to stress and burnout.”
The best remote-first organizations limit the concept of “work hours” to shared meeting times. What does it matter if a night owl wants to start and end later? Not everyone lives the same life or operates at peak levels during the same times of the day. Working asynchronously allows companies to be more inclusive of different lifestyles.
“Async work isn’t just about productivity,” says Remote CTO Marcelo Lebre. “It’s also about respect. Build processes that allow people to work independently. That way, no one has to wait on someone else to continue a project. Asynchronous work processes will be essential as more companies have people working in different time zones.”
Unlimited PTO is a great perk, but if no one actually takes time off, unlimited PTO may as well be no PTO.
“We offer unlimited PTO, but we know people tend to feel uneasy about taking the time they need,” says Nadia Vatalidis, Remote’s head of people. “To combat that, Remote enforces a minimum PTO rule. All our employees must take at least the minimum number of days off, and managers are responsible for making sure their team members meet that threshold.”
See also: How to manage an unlimited PTO policy
Days off are not as effective if employees return to a ton of extra work, though. Who can relax on vacation knowing the requests are piling up? To avoid this problem, leaders should find and eliminate bottlenecks within their organizations.
“If everything goes wrong when you take a day off, that’s a problem the organization needs to solve,” says Job van der Voort. “Single points of failure indicate that the company has a structural problem to address. Maybe you need to adjust the processes or hire a new person. This is an area where documenting processes and keeping work in public channels is helpful.”
A minimum PTO policy doesn’t work if leaders don’t follow it too. People don’t feel empowered to be transparent about their struggles if leaders never acknowledge their own challenges. For organizations with remote workers to keep stress levels low, leaders must follow the guidelines just as they create them.
“It’s not just about setting expectations verbally or in writing,” says Rhiannon Payne, author of The Remote Work Era. “Some employees might feel uncomfortable taking time off when they’re sick or dealing with personal issues, but seeing their managers take time off and prioritize their own self-care will show them that the organization actually cares and values those things.”
Not only should leaders take time off and be transparent about the stresses they face, but they should also build their teams without making themselves the bottleneck at the top. Organizations cannot scale or perform when everything has to go through the same channel for approval. Eventually, the leader becomes overwhelmed, bogs down progress, and creates stress for employees who can’t continue working until they get what they need.
“Delegation is about empowering people to make decisions and then trusting them to make good ones,” says Elisa Rossi, Remote’s vice president of growth. “Don’t hire people and then second-guess them. Give them what they need to do their jobs well, then allow them to showcase their skills and experience.”
After the last year, we should all be a little more understanding when it comes to stress at work. Everyone who has seen the lines blur between the office and the home knows the unique anxiety that can arise in that environment. Rather than suppress those feelings, organizations should use this opportunity to evaluate their remote work strategies and create systems that provide the psychological safety their teams need.
If you’re just getting started with remote work, check out our short and helpful guide for transitioning companies. We hope these resources will help you and your team feel lighter and more confident as you navigate the future of work.
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