A happy workplace makes a happy worker. Makes sense doesn’t it? Companies across the nation appear to believe so, as evidenced by the creation of new roles like ‘Chief Happiness Officers’ within corporations. This is just one way that we’re starting to see growing commitment to employee wellbeing. But with the rise of remote working (and with the meteoric rise in freelance work and short term contracts) the question arises: how do we engage remote workers in company wellness initiatives?
Remote working: why now?
In today’s technological climate, working remotely has never made more sense. With Skype, a smartphone and a sturdy internet connection, anyone can access the resources needed to do their job. Recent findings paint an optimistic picture of this ‘workplace revolution’, with increased numbers of workers utilising tools like Dropbox and Google Drive to share work, and businesses reporting a ballooning employee use of Cloud applications which can be accessed anywhere.
Remote working also has obvious benefits in terms of reducing fixed costs (a serviced desk space in London can cost up to £18,000 per year – not a number for the faint-hearted) but also has a range of benefits which contribute to both employee wellbeing and the business bottom line. These range from less sick days, a reduced carbon footprint, and overall happier, more productive employees. In fact, the positive impact on employee morale has been cited as a reason why 43% of employees intend to work remotely over the coming year, according to a Regus survey published in May 2017. In short, workers can maximise productivity at home and remain easily contactable whilst forsaking the monotony of the daily commute – and this makes for happier employees.
Remote working, then, appears to already be contributing to the wellness push in the workplace through giving employees more flexibility and reducing stress. However, we have to remember that whilst remote workers also encounter a lot of the same issues as their office-based counterparts (e.g. email overload, extended periods of desk-based work), they also face a set of challenges that are unique. These include: the fact that mental ill health (burnout, stress, overwork) is harder to spot, communication and cohesion between colleagues is not as strong when only virtual, and the fact that remote working can result in a feeling of social isolation from colleagues or lack of belonging.
On top of this, one recent paper warns that “it is currently unclear whether individuals can access occupational health, human resources or training easily when working remotely and companies should be aware of this”. All of this can potentially be really bad news for employee wellbeing and the business bottom line. So… what can we do to facilitate remote workers’ engagement in wellbeing initiatives?
Technology: making everything available to everyone
Remote workers will obviously miss out on on-site fitness classes, or the provision of free healthy breakfasts, but given that we have such a wealth of technology at our fingertips, this need not be the case. Though we can’t beam offsite employees their free fruit (we have a little way to go in terms of that technology yet) we should, in principle, try to make whatever is available at the office available away from the office. If there are onsite talks, or guest speakers for lunchtime lectures (‘lunch n’ learns’), make sure these are recorded or videoed so that they are available to off-site workers. Webinars and live feeds are a gift: use them!
Digital programmes, apps, or wearable tech are also a huge area of focus for wellness, off- and on-site. The most successful of these involve some kind of social aspect which makes wellness a collective activity. Step Jockey, for example, is an app-based programme which encourages workers to use the stairs rather than taking the lift, and creates a virtual leaderboard. This initiative creates a sense of friendly competition – and it also means that regardless of an employee’s location, they can still compete by using stairs outside of the office!
Consult your workers
This sounds obvious, but it’s shocking how often this is overlooked. Ask your workforce what they would find helpful, and take this into account when developing an overall wellness strategy. In particular, make sure that your remote workers are represented and catered for in your strategy. This in itself is the most important component of boosting remote workers’ engagement with wellbeing schemes.
One practical way to facilitate this discussion is to form an employee-lead health and wellbeing committee, which can help to relay concerns from workers to management, as well as offering suggestions on how wellbeing needs can be met. This should also foster positive relationships throughout the management chain, and lead to higher levels of wellbeing, better engagement and stronger feelings of belonging and loyalty: all good news for the bottom line.
Train your managers to facilitate wellbeing remotely
Corporations must foster a culture that values wellbeing. This sounds simple enough, but in practice can require a shift in terms of company mindset. Strengthening the social element of wellness is useful, but there also needs to be adequate training for managers so that they can structurally support this. In other words, as well as facilitating on-site wellness activities, managers need to be trained in the specific physical and emotional issues around remote working, and be aware of the different wellbeing requirements of this section of the workforce, because it’s not just an issue of physical proximity to the office – and out of sight must not mean out of mind.
Baker Stuart’s own PeopleLOOK tool is one way for managers to get a sense of how their staff are doing in terms of wellbeing, and how engaged they are with wellness initiatives. PeopleLOOK is an International Well Building Institute-approved assessment tool for use in the WELL Building standard, and tools like these are a vital source of data which can be instrumental in shaping suitable wellness initiatives for all employees.
Some final thoughts…
Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book ‘Dying for a Paycheck’ argues that white collar office jobs have become so stressful they can be as unhealthy as manual labour. He writes that the underlying cause of a lot of workplace stress is bad management, and its easy to find evidence of this. At its worst, you only need to think of the ongoing legal case involving France Telecom, where they are facing the accusation that they deliberately made bad management choices which intentionally caused severe stress for employees. Although this is a very extreme example, it does highlight the importance of, firstly, a positive and supportive work environment; and, secondly, good management. A huge indicator of the success of both of these elements is employee wellbeing, which is partly why it has become such a key metric for businesses now.
Only when the benefits wellness initiatives are fully extended to the ever-growing proportion of remote workers will wellbeing initiatives have the wide-reaching impacts that they need to have – and this means including remote workers in existing initiatives as well as developing wellness programmes that take into account the specific challenges faced by remote workers. Because whilst Skype meetings, virtual training and online resources are cornerstones in any worker’s ability to perform well in the current technological climate, the social benefits of being physically near co-workers cannot be underestimated: especially if you’re getting on-site yoga classes, or enjoying ‘Tequila Thursdays’. Especially the latter.
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