How to Manage Employee Stress and Morale in Remote Teams
Learn how to help remote employees manage their stress and boost their morale in our latest post.
The first month you started working from home, you couldn’t believe how productive you could be.
The second month, you started missing the office a little bit. Maybe those watercooler conversations weren’t so bad after all…
By the third month, your work and personal life had become inseparable. You were working all the time, skipping meals, and yet, your productivity had hit rock bottom.
For millions of people who turned to remote work this year, this script might seem a bit familiar. Working from home sounds great - and is great - but it can leave you feeling stressed, lonely, and fatigued. When the boundary between work and home is erased, it can be difficult to switch off.
For creative agencies, helping remote employees manage this issue is critically important. In a people-oriented industry, the morale of your employees directly impacts the quality of their work, and, by proxy, your bottom line.
In this post, I’ll walk you through some tactics you can use to help your employees manage their stress.
Why Are Remote Workers Stressed?
On paper, working from home sounds like a dream. You skip the commute, get to spend time with your family, and even eat healthier home-cooked meals.
Except that things don’t always work out as expected.
Without fixed office hours, you often end up working far more than you normally would. As people transitioned to remote work en masse during the pandemic, one team of researchers found that the average workday had increased by a whole hour.
It wasn’t just that their days were getting longer - remote workers also reported feeling substantially higher rates of worry and stress over their in-office counterparts.
If you’ve worked from home for an extended period of time, you might have felt this yourself. The day seems unending and work that you might have once wrapped up by 5 pm stretches on into past dinner time.
With all this work piling up, it’s little wonder that most remote employees say that their biggest problem is “unplugging after work”.
Then there’s also the fact that remote workers often feel left out of the loop. Since they aren’t physically present in the office, they fear that they might get overlooked for promotions or not get a chance to assert their views, according to one study.
Combine all of this together, sprinkle in some good ol’ communication issues, add a dash of loneliness, and you have the perfect recipe for stress and low morale.
If you want to fix this issue, these are precisely the key areas you need to address - help employees manage their time, improve communication, and address the loneliness question.
I’ll share some tips on how to go about this below.
Helping Remote Employees Succeed
When the pandemic first struck, the biggest worry every business had was productivity. Was it really possible to be productive working from home?
All the data points to a resounding “yes”. According to a BCG survey, for instance, most remote employees notice an uptick in productivity after transitioning to full-time work from home.
At this point, for any manager, “success” shouldn’t be measured in productivity numbers. Rather, it should be measured in overall satisfaction, morale, and stress.
Like it or not, remote work is here to stay. Despite the stress of remote work, many employees will still prefer it over going to an office full-time. As a business, you have little choice but to follow along - else you risk losing your best workers.
This makes it imperative that you build a remote work environment that can be productive without being stressful. You don’t just want to be productive; you want to be sustainably productive.
To this effect, there are a few key issues you need to address:
1. Managerial Style
Remote work has different rhythms than office work.
There is no 9 to 5. Distractions at home are always an arm’s length away. From the mailman to children, anything can disrupt regular workflow.
Expecting remote workers to adhere to the same schedules as their in-office counterparts is unrealistic. You will have to accept that remote work will be asynchronous.
Sure, you should expect remote workers to be available for some part of the 9 to 5 schedule (especially if you have a large in-office workforce). But outside of these times, give them the flexibility to work when they want to.
This also requires a change in your management style. Micromanagement, never particularly desirable, is a disaster for remote workers. It breaks the rhythm of remote work and often hurts productivity rather than helping it.
Instead, give your remote workers autonomy and flexibility. Don’t micromanage their day-to-day. Rather, trust them to do the work - as per a schedule that works for the team as a whole.
Your goal should be to make remote work feel like a perk, not a chore. And the key perk of remote work (outside of the lack of a commute) is freedom and autonomy.
The more you micromanage, the more you chip away at this perk. And the end result is dissatisfied employees.
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2. Meeting Schedules
While you want to give remote workers the freedom to choose their own individual work hours, you’ll want some “common time” for meetings and chit-chat.
This seemingly simple task can be a minefield for remote teams, especially if they’re spread across multiple time zones.
You don’t want to give a single team/individual the luxury of 11 AM meetings. Nor do you want any team member to be subject to late night 11 PM meetings just because they happen to live in a different timezone. Doing so will just breed resentment and conflict.
Don’t have a fixed time for meetings - that just ends up favoring one team. Instead, rotate meeting schedules so that everyone gets to feel that their time is being respected.
The more globally distributed your team is, the more you’ll want to focus on your scheduling.
3. Career Progression
Remote workers can sometimes worry that their careers will stagnate since they’re not physically present in the office.
For one, being away from the office means they’re often not abreast of office chatter. And two, there’s still a belief that remote workers don’t work as hard or “have it good” because they skip the commute.
This can make working remotely a source of anxiety for career-minded employees. If you’re constantly worrying whether your in-office colleagues see you as privileged or lazy, you can’t really produce your best work.
“Visibility” continues to be a top challenge for remote workers (Image source)
The solution to this problem isn’t immediate. While you can reassure remote workers that they have the same opportunities as their in-office colleagues, it can just sound like empty promises.
Instead, you have to tangibly change your company culture to be more remote-friendly.
Here are some tactics that can help:
- Change your stated vision statement to explicitly mention your remote-friendliness.
- Ensure that remote work isn’t treated as a temporary solution but a lasting approach to work.
- Invest in tools and education for remote workers. This can be highly visible evidence that you’re serious about remote work.
- Give remote workers equal importance in in-office affairs. Don’t have any meetings where they aren’t invited, even if it comes at the cost of immediate productivity.
- Tacitly instruct managers to make remote workers feel heard and visible in team meetings.
Essentially, you have to commit to remote work. Treat it like a temporary solution and you’ll leave your remote workers feeling anxious about their future prospects.
Most remote workers want to continue working remotely.
But not all the time.
This is one of the paradoxes of remote work. As much as people like the idea of working from home, they also want the flexibility of working from an office when necessary.
In one survey, only a quarter of respondents said that they wanted to work fully remotely. A majority preferred a hybrid approach where they could head to the office a few days a week.
From an employee’s perspective, this flexible approach makes perfect sense. It helps them balance their in-home responsibilities while also enjoying the sense of belonging and socializing that only a physical office can offer.
For businesses, however, this hybrid approach can be challenging. It negates one of the key advantages of remote work - saving on office rent. It also makes scheduling far more complicated than it should be.
The solution is twofold:
- Flexible workspaces that allow you to hire additional space when necessary. Alternatively, you can set up teams outside your main office in coworking spaces.
- Better scheduling that lets managers know who is going to be coming to the office ahead and manage the workspace accordingly. If you’re working with coworking spaces, giving employees the flexibility to book a seat ahead of time is also very helpful.
If employees want flexibility, forcing them to work from home or the office will eventually be a drain on their morale. As this chart from Harvard Business Review shows, employees who were given a choice where to work were uniformly more motivated.
5. Belonging and Loneliness
Remote workers report better work-life balance and higher productivity across the board.
But they also report a startlingly low “sense of belonging” and camaraderie.
The problem is less acute for companies that are 100% remote (since everyone has the same employee experience). For companies that are only partially remote, however, working from home can give employees the feeling that they’re missing out.
Fixing this problem is arguably the single most important challenge in remote work at the moment. There isn’t any single solution; every business and team is different.
What you can do, however, is to create a more welcoming space for remote workers. Some ways include:
- Better tools: If your collaboration and communication tools can’t keep pace with the demands of asynchronous work, remote workers can feel left out. After all, their in-office colleagues can just hop over to a team member’s desk for some chit-chat. Your collaboration tools should give them the freedom to do the same as seamlessly.
- Create a sense of ‘presence’: Remote workers can feel isolated if they don’t share the same physical space with their team members. There are several ways to work around this problem, such as creating digital avatars, using virtual office spaces, or even asking everyone to have their video on at all times (even if they’re in the office). Your primary goal should be to give remote workers the same sense of shared space as their in-office colleagues.
- After-office virtual events: They say that team relationships are built outside the office, not within it. While your office workers might head down to the pub for a drink or two, your remote workers don’t have the same luxuries. Fix this problem by hosting after-office virtual events. This can be something as simple as a round of drinks on a Friday evening. Or it can be an entire series of virtual team building activities that involve everyone - including the in-office workers.
- Check-ins: Sometimes, the easiest way to make remote workers feel at home is to simply acknowledge them and their problems. A simple “I understand” from a manager can work wonders. It sends a clear signal: that remote workers are cherished team members and that you’re willing to listen to them.
Over to You
Building better remote teams is perhaps the biggest challenge of this decade. If you can do this successfully, you’ll have a massive advantage over your competitors. Although you might stumble at the starting blocks, it’s worth it to stick through and help your remote workers thrive.
From lower attrition rates to better talent and higher productivity - there’s a lot to gain from happier remote workers.
One way to improve remote worker productivity is to use better software. Agency management tools like Workamajig were specifically designed for distributed teams. Learn how Workamajig can transform the way your agency works today - tap the button below to get a free demo!
About The Author
Esther, Workamajig’s current Marketing Manager, joined the team back in ‘14. She's a Jersey girl at heart with plenty of NY grit from her time across the river. Like most credentialed marketing gals, she’s always got a good cup of coffee and would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.