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Virtual team expert Pilar Orti talks to workingmums.co.uk about the mental health issues associated with remote working.
On 17th September, Minds@Work LAB are holding an open space event in London and online on mentally healthy remote working. Panelists include Pilar Orti, founder of Virtual not Distant, a company that helps teams adapt to virtual working arrangements through webinars, workshops and coaching. Pilar also produces the podcast 21st Century Work Life. Here she talks to workingmums.co.uk about the issues around mental health and remote working.
Workingmums.co.uk: Is mental health something that crops up a lot in your podcasts as a growing workplace concern?
Pilar Orti: Not specifically, but it’s something that is very much in the collective subconscious of people thinking of and implementing remote work. However, the words “isolation” and “loneliness” do come up often in conversations in online communities. Last year we dedicated one whole episode to loneliness and the remote worker.
WMs: What do you think the main mental health issues are for remote workers?
PO: People work remotely in different kinds of set-ups: as freelancers/contractors, as full-time employees working from home, for distributed organisations, where everyone is remote…
In organisations if being able to work remotely is seen as a perk, workers might feel like they have to constantly prove themselves, or even just prove that they are doing the work.
If you are the one of the few people who are remote in a team, you might experience a sense of disconnection, even inequality. For those remote workers who are working autonomously on tasks and who work from home, they might start to feel a sense of isolation if there is no one around to bounce ideas off. Even when you work in a team, unless the culture encourages it, you might feel like you don’t want to disturb someone unless you need something from them work-related.
In global teams particularly, where most of the work is done asynchronously (not in real time), it might take a long time to get help or feedback from others and this can increase our sense of insecurity and even of competence.
So there is also a danger of overworking and therefore becoming tired and stressed. The lack of visible cues from other people who go and take breaks or go for a stretch or decide that that’s it for the day can make it more difficult for us to realise that it’s time to stop working.
WMs: Is working in local hubs one way around isolation?
PO: Yes, although sometimes being with people you have nothing in common with can lead to more of a sense of isolation than being on your own! But many people who want to work remotely don’t want to be working at home. Co-working spaces and other kind of local office spaces are more conducive to getting the work done than cafés, for example, although for some, going to a café and just being around other people is all the social connection they need. Co-working spaces and hubs are places where spontaneous interactions are expected and even encouraged so for those for whom ad-hoc conversation is important, they are great places. Plus, there are also opportunities to learn from those around you.
For those who need to be physically close to others to feel a sense of connection and even belonging they are important spaces.
WMs: What can employers do in terms of providing technology and keeping in regular contact?
PO: This is becoming less and less relevant, but ensuring that people have brilliant Internet connections is really important. Not just for video and audio calls, but also to be able to work with online tools that keep us connected to our team members and the work. At a team level, it’s about deliberately setting up processes that keep workers connected to each other and to the work.
There’s also something about checking in regularly with each other, so that other team members and managers can spot when something has changed about a colleague. For example, if we all commit to checking in with each other every morning and I usually write long sentences during that check-in when I suddenly start greeting everyone with one word you know that something is wrong. So regular communication is not just about exchange of information, it also establishes a rhythm that often gets broken when something is wrong, alerting those who work with you.
There is also something that can be done at the organisational level, which is finding ways for employers to find support networks within the organisation beyond their direct co-workers and managers. By keeping enterprise social networks alive and organising online meetings for learning across departments, people can make connections across the organisation, broadening the network through which they can get support.
WMs: Are occasional meet-ups a good idea?
PO: Being able to spend time together in the same space if possible, is always a good idea. There is a certain “buzz” that is generated when you haven’t shared the space for some time. Social conversation might help find points of connection with others that you might not discover through the work, and this again, might help to build that sense of belonging which is so important to humans, as well as the opportunity to laugh together. But this is not always possible – meeting online usually is. Virtual coffees and making time for social conversation in regular meetings is common practice in distributed companies.
WMs: Is it also about employers making remote workers feel equal to office-based workers, given many still feel they are being done a favour by being allowed to work from home?
PO: Yes, feelings of inequality, disconnection and isolation because you’re being treated differently to your colleagues can impact your health. It’s also about people working in teams being mindful of the fact that some of their colleagues are not in the office and moving some of their communication online or keeping them up to date, even about the informal conversations or those that might seem less important.
The fact that you think you might be missing out on promotions or interesting work because you’re not visible in the office can also become a source of worry.
WMs: Could employers do more generally to support remote workers rather than leaving them to make it work, eg, through technology support and ensuring mental health networks/ support is available to all?
PO: I think the best thing that can be done is spending time understanding people’s contexts. For example, a person who has all the support they need at home, or in their local community, will need less from employers. However, somebody living in a very isolated area, or those who tend to make their strongest friendships at work, will need more constant contact with colleagues and more access to formal networks.
WMs: What innovative ways do you see employers using to ensure remote workers have a voice and to support them?
PO: There is a company in Germany that has a hybrid set-up, so some people work in the office and others are remote. They have hooked up a webcam and monitor to their coffee area so that if a person in the office goes to the coffee machine, they might bump into someone else working remotely. This is important not just because it might be quite fun to “bump into someone else” if you’re on your own working remotely, but also because it sends a powerful signal to remote employees that they’re being cared for. These small things can make remote workers feel safe, like someone is looking out for them.
At the other end of the spectrum, making sure that the work of remote workers is visible (through the intranet or organisational podcasts or featuring them in social networks) and that they can access interesting opportunities within the organisation is also key.
WMs: Is the ‘always on’ issue a particular problem for remote workers, given it can be more difficult to draw a line between work and family life if both are in the same place? What can be done about this short of laws to stop people accessing work emails at night which may help many with work life balance?
PO: This is a very complex issue because individual preferences come into it. Where the balance is between work and life is very different for different people.
I’m not sure that the always on is a problem particularly for remote workers as so much of work now can be accessed from anywhere, regardless of whether you are mainly based in an office or not. In fact, remote workers might become better at drawing a line of when/where work starts and when/where it ends.
Conversations between colleagues and managers/ team members about work routines etc, can be helpful, helping people be self aware about how they’re managing their work and whether they are happy with it.
It’s all about role modelling healthy behaviours and agreeing expectations around communication. Or making it easy for people to communicate their preferences.
For those organisations who encourage (or demand) that people work from home, making sure that the home is set up for working is very important (and often overlooked).
Underpinning all this, is the need to focus more on remembering how diverse we all are as people, making more of an effort to understand individuals and remembering that social connection and access to support when needed is often more important than the latest tech.
*To register for the Minds@Work LAB event, click here.