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A healthy company culture and a strong shared purpose will help you engage with staff as they work remotely from home in these uncertain times.
The dark days of winter – combined with the possibility of further on/off lockdowns – risk leaving remote workers feeling directionless, isolated and unhappy. But there are steps to avoid the homeworking blues.
“Many employees are struggling,” says Lizzie Benton, founder of employee engagement consultancy Liberty Mind. “Their mental health is impacted by fears and anxieties around coronavirus and everything that goes with it. That is not only dangerous to someone’s health; it leads them to making fear-based decisions in their work.”
But it needn’t be this way, suggests workplace well-being expert Sadie Hopson, if you have strong, empathetic, purpose-driven leadership. “There’s been a lot of talk [during the pandemic] of post-traumatic stress,” she says. “But what’s not talked about enough is post-traumatic growth, which can be achieved through a leadership strategy that helps people realise from this collective trauma we can build a collective strength and sense of solidarity.”
Succeeding on purpose
A Deloitte survey suggests purpose-oriented companies have higher productivity and growth rates, 30% higher levels of innovation, and 40% higher workforce retention than their competitors. But that purpose is more challenging to communicate when the whole team is working from home.
Hopson – who is also the founder of workplace well-being consultancy We Work Well – insists clear leadership will get that message across wherever your staff are. “There is so much we can’t control at the moment. Ensuring staff understand why their contribution is so valuable is vital in maintaining their mental well-being,” she says.
“It’s the company’s job to ignite the inspirational, aspirational vision, just so staff can see a light at the end of the Covid tunnel and believe ‘it will be better and I’m excited to be part of these projects’.”
Underlining that purpose effectively means going all the way back to your company’s mission and culture, says Marilyn Devonish, founder of personal and business improvement consultancy Trance Formations. “Now is a good time to take a step back, revisit your company values and ensure you’re adhering to them in lockdown,” she explains. “Company culture is not fancy statements, it’s about how we behave and what we truly stand for when no one’s looking.”
And a strong purpose will pervade everything everyone does – and provide more autonomy, Devonish says. “For example, online retail staff who understand a company’s purpose are more empowered to make decisions on refunds or exchanges. Not only do they not have to refer the issue upwards, being trusted to make those decisions enhances their sense of self-worth,” she adds.
Create a healthy culture
“Purpose stems from culture,” says Benton. “And everyone needs to be able to contribute to that, especially in the current situation.
“Businesses need diversity of thought to survive, so it’s vital to get feedback from your employees, because that engages and empowers them. But to do this, companies need to be ready for honest conversations – too many managers bring in bias and egos and think negative staff feedback is a slight on their own abilities, when actually their teams are just being honest about how things could be better for everyone.
“A healthy culture not only truly welcomes feedback, but considers and acts on it, which promotes staff’s sense of worth. If on the other hand their feedback just goes into a black hole, they’ll become disengaged and their productivity and performance will suffer.”
Keeping up morale
A clear purpose and healthy culture make it much easier to keep up morale. “Ensure culture and purpose shine through everything you do and communicate,” says Devonish. “Think about how the things that boosted morale pre-Covid and find ways to achieve that remotely and, crucially, neurologically. You want to create the same sensations, even if you’re not doing the same things. Dress-down Fridays won’t work if everyone’s at home in their PJs. But you can try to help staff reconnect with the feelings those Fridays engendered.
“Too many managers bring in bias and egos and think negative staff feedback is a slight on their own abilities, when actually their teams are just being honest about how things could be better for everyone”
Lizzie Benton, founder, Liberty Mind
“For example, if you define your team as a fun group, make sure you have fun! Even something as simple as having a 10-minute group Zoom chat asking people how they had fun this week can be hugely effective – people’s joy will reflect on to their colleagues and give everyone a boost.”
Remote working can too easily make people feel invisible and isolated, says Devonish, but there is a solution. “Find time for a regular group chat and get everyone to share their greatest work achievement that week,” she says. “If you’re in the office and have a great chat with a customer, afterwards you’re buzzing. Everyone is boosted and someone will say, ‘well done, that’s fantastic!’
“But if you make that successful call at home, not having that feedback can make you feel you haven’t achieved anything – even when you have. So as a manager, create the time and space for everyone to share what they’ve accomplished – get the response they deserve.”
Give staff the help they want
But how do you know what staff need to help them? “Don’t send out staff surveys,” says Benton. “Talk to them; ask them what they’re struggling with. Some companies give their teams what I call ‘plaster perks’ because the intention is there, but they are just covering the cracks. They’re not necessarily what people want right now.
“It’s nice sending your remote workers care packages or fruit teas or whatever. But that can seem a bit hollow if people are having a rough time or are struggling to pay for things. We need to shift from empathy to compassion, which is more solution focused. So ask staff what would really help them get through this – it might be a mental health counsellor, or a chat with a financial adviser. Don’t just assume what would help, talk to them about where they’re struggling and how you can practically support them.”
Communication is key
At the heart of it all is effective communication – and that, says Hopson, means understanding people’s situations. “It’s essential to understand how people are functioning at this moment,” she adds. “The way we led this time last year is different from the way we lead now. Individuals are stressed, which typically reduces our effectiveness at processing information by 80%. So messages at this time need to be around short-term goals. They have to be clear, concise, consistent. And if you don’t know the answers – and a lot of companies don’t at the moment – be honest and tell your teams that. Constant communication is what people need right now, because as soon as there’s a silence, we all start to fill in the gaps, we make assumptions and that’s how rumours run rife.”
Clarifying your culture, your purpose, communicating and connecting with your staff can be a huge step in supporting them through the challenges of remote working. But it’s not about what you say, says Devonish – but what you do. “We’ve all seen presentations where CEOs talk about all being in it together and people are rolling their eyes because they know that’s not true,” she says. “Your culture needs to permeate everything you do. And your purpose isn’t what you say – it’s what you do, it’s why you exist.
“Lockdown is a chance to step back, realign with your sense of purpose and examine how it can be human focused. You want your staff, suppliers and customers to look back and say, ‘wow, look at what that organisation did to step up’. Get it right and this could end up being your finest hour.”