How to Create a Positive Culture When Working Remotely
Upon the onset of COVID-19, many employees became part of a remote workforce. As we begin to come out of this public health emergency, it’s estimated that 25-30% of all American workers will be permanently working remotely. What does that do to company culture?
While working remotely offers a number of benefits to both employees and employers, it can be challenging for leaders to effectively support a remote workforce and maintain a positive company culture. In this episode of For Your Benefits, Kim Scott, LMFT, discusses this new way of working. First, she discusses how the pandemic changed the way we work, both in the short and long term. Then, she goes on to discuss the following:
Emotional challenges of working remotely
How working remotely impacts introverts and extroverts differently
How company culture can thrive outside of the office
What employers can do to encourage work/life balance
Ways managers and HR can help a remote workforce feel connected and engaged
Want to learn more about you can effectively support your employees’ mental health and ensure a thriving company culture? Check out this podcast. You can also read this blog post to discover how COVID-19 has brought to light the need for digital employee wellbeing programs like WellOnMyWay.
In This Podcast
Kim Scott, LMFT
Kim Scott, M.A., MFT, is a licensed psychotherapist, educator, and speaker with more than 30 years of experience in mental health, employee assistance, and relationship counseling. Kim has taught classes for business and professional organizations on stress management, trauma treatment, emotional intelligence, job burnout, positive psychology, emotional eating, the sandwich generation, coaching for excellence, team building, and critical incident stress debriefing. You can find and follow her blog at Therapeutic Musings.
So let’s start out. Let’s learn a little bit more about you. Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background.
I’m a licensed marriage family and child therapist, and I have been licensed for over 30 years. In the past 30 years, I have done a variety of things. So I’ve probably worked in almost every modality of mental health.
But in relation to what we’re talking about today, I spent 13 years working in Employee Assistance Programs in pretty much every aspect of employee assistance, where I’ve worked with the directors of H.R. and different companies. I worked with them on making a better workforce, on looking at what kind of employee issues come up in evaluating when there are problems, and going out and doing debriefings and organizational trainings.
And although I’m no longer in-house and an employee assistance program, I’m now working in private practice. I still work with EPWs in a variety of ways, from seeing clients to doing organizational trainings and working, doing consultation with H.R. people and coaching for employees to help them do better in their jobs. And that’s kind of a thumbnail of me.
Effect of COVID-19 on Working Remotely
Excellent. Well, it sounds like we are going to be in good hands today. So let’s start off and talk a little bit about COVID-19. So upon the onset of this pandemic, a lot of employees were forced to work remotely. So now as we begin to come out of this public health emergency, it is estimated that around 25-30% of American workers are still going to continue to work from home permanently, even well after all of this is over. So Kim has the pandemic and this widespread stay-at-home orders. Have they changed the workplace in the short and the long term?
Well, from what I’m seeing and what I’m reading, I also think it’s changed the workforce forever. I think that employers have found that remote working works a lot better than they ever would have imagined. And just think all of us had to punt and really move to almost full-time remote working in a matter of a few days.
So employers really jumped in, employees jumped right in. And I think we’ve had over a year to kind of get used to remote working and also to figure out what some of the glitches are, what are some of the things that don’t work as well. And that’s kind of what I’m seeing now, is initially employees were kind of afraid of the technology. How do I do Zoom meetings and how do I log into my employer’s system? It doesn’t seem like that fear is going on anymore. But now, some of that that Zoom fatigue, that isolation from being home is setting in.
And the clients and the employees that I work with are also learning more about themselves and what they really like. I mean, I think lots of people thought, “Oh, remote working, this is so peachy. I can stay home in my jammies. I’m cutting out all of my commuting time.” And they thought it was going to be great. And even the people who are introverts are finding it isolating and depressing and difficult in some ways because the workforce has changed.
And there are a lot of fears people are experiencing about what’s it going to be like a few months from now. What is my employer going to do? Are they going to bring us back to work the moment they call us on Friday and we have to be back in there on Monday? Is everybody going back in or will remote working be forever? So there’s definitely a lot of anxiety about the unknown and what is the new workforce going to look like?
Introverts Vs Extroverts
So, Kim, you mentioned introverts and extroverts. Does the remote work impact them differently?
Absolutely. For those of you who aren’t as familiar with the term introverts, that doesn’t mean they’re shy. Introverts or people who gain more of their energy from time alone so they can enjoy being with people that can need being with people. But they tend to like get rejuvenated and refilled and re-energized with downtime or time alone with just their thoughts. Introverts also tend to be the kind of people who would be less likely to jump into a large group meeting and say, “Hey, my idea is…” and really put themselves out there.
In that way, the extroverts are the people who gain their energy from being with others. So if extroverts spend too much time alone and isolated in their bedroom office, they’re going to become more and more lethargic, and depressed, and anxious. So the extroverts really need that exterior energy and the extroverts are the ones who would dominate and jump in and take over a big meeting.
So they’re very different in how they’re relating to working remotely. That doesn’t mean all introverts love working remotely or love everything about working remotely because introverts still need that connection with others and they still need the external validation and employers to say, “Good job.”
What also has happened oftentimes for the introvert is that there are lots of Zoom meetings or telephone conferences and they can get lost in the shuffle because if no one specifically saying, “Hey, Susie, what do you think about this idea?” or “John, what are your ideas?” they’re not going to be the ones to jump in and speak up. And with Zoom and telephone, it makes it even harder because you can’t pick up the subtle clues when we’re in a face-to-face talk, where you see where the conversation stopped and you have a moment to jump in. In Zoom and in telephone, people are so worried about, “Am I going to step on someone’s words?” And after they do that a time or two, they become fearful of talking again.
So some employers lose out, because some of the great ideas and innovations and contrary views that the introvert might have, they may not be share in those kind of settings.
Emotional Challenges of Working Remotely
That’s really interesting. So I think that regardless of whether introvert or extrovert, you’re going to be affected by remote working, it may depend on how you’re affected, but you’re certainly going to be affected. So, Kim, what are some of the emotional challenges of working remotely?
Well, lots of emotional challenges of working remotely. I’ve definitely seen a lot of individuals who are experiencing more anxiety, more loneliness, more depression. It’s kind of interesting because with remote work, employees aren’t always knowing what the expectations are as clearly. They don’t have their manager, a boss, walking by, popping into their office, and being able to say, “Hey, good job, you did that well,” or “Let’s tweak it in this way.” So when things come across via email, you know, it may be what you did wrong or what isn’t working on this report. There may not be as much of the warm fuzzy surrounding it, couching it and making it a little bit more gentle so they’re not getting the same external validation.
Now, both introverts and extroverts need that. Extroverts do tend to often feel that their locus of control is external. So when their bosses are smiling, shaking their head, and giving kudos, that is going to energize them. The introvert doesn’t need that in the same way, but they need that also. So that can lead to the anxiety of what’s expected of me.
Some employers, I’m finding, haven’t really figured out how to measure what’s getting done. Some employers have moved to and thought about various kinds of tracking systems to see what their employees are doing. And I have not found that good for the employees. That definitely diminishes trust, diminishes feelings of connection to the corporation, to the employer. So being able to measure and set standards more along the lines of we expect you to get this amount of work done and less so we expect you to work nine to five.
Unless you have a job where the person is literally managing a call center or needs to take calls, it’s much more useful for employees to have it based on projects. So it’s expected that you get this project done or you get this amount of work done. This also allows in the remote working so the employee knows what’s being measured and it allows them to still pop out of their work office and go throw their laundry in or pop into their kid’s bedroom and say,”Hey, is everything working on your class?” So it allows them to have some of that flexibility, but they still have measurable. So they’re able to say, “OK, I know I did what I was supposed to. I know I did a good job.”
Finding Ways to Improve Company Culture
I think some of the other issues that start coming up are, again, like I started saying, the isolation. There’s oftentimes in remote working, there isn’t as much attention paid to some of the employee enhancements and human resource aspects. So I think in continuing in the future of remote work, the more H.R. gets involved, the better. But being able to make sure that there are still the employee parties, even if their online parties or once we start going back to a hybrid or even a face-to-face work model, being able to make sure that employees are having ways to connecting.
I’m finding boundary setting is a big one for employees. They don’t know how to end the workday. So on some levels, yes, on some levels, this is making employers say, man, we’re actually getting higher productivity. But on the employee side, they are not setting their boundaries. So they wake up at six a.m., have their coffee, think, “I might as well sit at my computer and check emails.” And then they might have little breaks in the day where they feed their kids lunch, but pretty much they might be on their computer till 9:00 or 10:00 at night because a new email came in that I need to respond to. So that lack of boundary setting is making employees more stressed and making them have a more difficult time having a work-life balance.
Model Company Values
I think on this it’s also important for the employer to reinforce or set or model those values. So if your boss is sending you text messages starting at 6:00 a.m. or you see the emails come in all night, it is setting up a company culture that’s saying, “We want you to work 24/7. We don’t value balance.” So in some ways, it’s what managers and supervisors do, because employees see what they do more than what they say. And if they see their manager continuing to text, call, email starting early in the morning, late at night, the message they’re getting is I’m supposed to keep working.
And so to set the work-life balance, to have it actually be where an employee can set boundaries, employers need to model that. Supervisors, hey, if they do their work after hours, don’t press send on that email until it gets within work hours. Ok, maybe you don’t have to wait till eight or nine, but wait till seven. Don’t send them all night. That gives a different message to the employee and makes it hard for them to set boundaries with themselves.
I also think that employees have gotten more anxious and have felt fearful of their jobs because of communication difficulties with remote working. And this varies per boss and manager. Some don’t really check in unless they have it to do or and or unless they have a complaint. So the kind of, you know, the old saying used to be like, “management by walking around,” instead of that usual thing you see in an office where see people and you walk by and you chat and they say, “Oh yeah, that was good.” Or, “Let’s change it this way.” Employees aren’t getting that kind of communication. Some managers are better at checking in every day or once a week or at the end of projects and giving feedback and others don’t.
Some managers, an employee will stand like a letter they wrote or a project and ask for managers feedback, and they may not get back to them for days or weeks until 20, 25 minutes before it’s due and the changes made. So that communication piece, if employers are really focusing more on that as a way to help employees stay calm and keep their anxiety down, it actually goes a long way to improving the emotional challenges that employees face in the workplace.
Yeah, I think you’re right. I think that working remotely, you don’t have that opportunity to pop into someone’s office and say good morning, say hello, how are you doing? And have that communication, whether it’s work-related or not, it’s tough to build that rapport when you’re working remotely.
Yeah, and this is a topic, obviously emotional challenges that as a therapist, I could just go on and on and on about because there are so many that come up. One of the thoughts that went through my head, though, is for employers who have vapes, this is really a good time to publicize that to your employees, to let them know that they do have a mental health benefit, that they have an Employee Assistance Program and can get assistance during this process if they’re going through stress, because that’s, you know, a really good thing to know. And most therapists are for sure doing telehealth and lots are seeing people back in their offices now.
Building a Solid Remote Workforce
So Kim, I know you gave us some ideas about what employers can do. Do you have any other takeaways that you could give employers on how to make the best of the remote working environment for their employees?
Yes, absolutely. I think that one of the big takeaways is it is conceptual. You know, start with H.R. and make sure Human Resources is involved in discussing these kinds of decisions that might even include human resource training managers and supervisors of how to supervise and manage remotely.
What I’m anticipating and what I’ve been hearing from my clients is that probably post-pandemic, which, hey, maybe is it going to be in a few months, workforces aren’t going to go back to how they were. Some are going to say, yeah, let’s stay remote. Some are going to say employees get to choose. Some are going to say, you know, it’s 50/5,0 or you get one day working from home. So it’s going to be a lot of different options. And all of that is going to play into the takeaways and how employers should handle it.
Communication is Key
But the biggest key is communication. Communicate a lot with employees. There’s a lot of stuff when everybody’s in the office together that we hear and learn kind of metaphorically around the water cooler. It’s a little bit more difficult remotely, but it’s important to just communicate a lot, even if the employer is communicating, saying, “Hey, we’re evaluating options, are we going to stay? Fifty percent remote, all remote? When will we come back? We’re not sure yet. We’re still looking at that. But we want you to know we’re for sure going to give you two weeks notice so you’ll have time to prepare for coming back in.” Or whatever that communication is, let employees know. Employees are afraid. They’re afraid of what might happen.
Will we all get to go back? Will there be layoffs? You know, what’s going to happen? So the more an employer can communicate honestly and reassure where reassurance could be useful is very, very good.
The employers, in terms of how to manage remotely, it’s important for supervisors and managers to know their employees. And if they’ve got that kind of employee, a new employee, or the kind of employee that needs a lot of encouragement or support, check-in often not with big long texts, with a little text, not with a big long email. With a little text. With a little email. With a little phone call. “Hey, how are you doing? Just wanted to see if there’s anything you need from me.” Because those little check-ins help the people, the employees, feel connected if the workforce is going to be going back where not everybody’s going to be in the building.
At the same time, it’s important to have enough people on the same team and different teams there together because that’s a big place where a lot of synergy comes from. And, you know, like schools are going back. And in some ways it’s going to be, it sounds as isolating as being home, where at least in California, they’re going to be sitting in their classrooms, but they’re still going to be Zooming their classes. So each student will be six feet apart with their computer in front of them. So that doesn’t particularly add to that feeling of connection.
So as employers start bringing people back, it’s important to look at not just what the employee wants, like, do they want to be there Monday, Wednesday, and Friday? Sure, that’s important. But, hey, we want them to be able to be here when some others on their team are here or some other pieces of the team where they have synergy with, so that they can get that energy from each other and learn from each other. So that’s a very useful piece for new hires.
Provide Ways to Connect When Working Remotely
I think with remote work, it’s really important that there’s somebody kind of in charge of their training, just like if it were in real life. Coming in, not just throwing them in and giving them one project and teaching them that, but checking in a lot and really making sure that they’re getting the information that they need. I think it’s important for employees to have ways to connect.
So we talked about, I’ve talked about, having people in the office at the same time. But whether it’s remote or in-person, depending on which state your clients are in and the people listening are in, even planning online Zoom events, you know, Zoom murder mystery parties and some employers have done things like sent their employees your Postmates gift cards, so they can order their luncheon for their Zoom lunch meeting. Some employers are doing things like having an outdoor picnic where people can be at a distance and it can be safe rather than doing things in-house. But it’s really good in these hybrid models to pull people together so that they can have that synergy and not feel so isolated and alone.
Driving Positive Company Culture
So it sounds like keeping everyone connected is just super important. So how can employers promote a positive outlook? So as we transition to this new normal in this future of working, how do we support our employees? You know, we’re keeping them connected, but how do we keep them feeling positive and good?
Well, I think, again, it’s communication, communication, communication. The more the managers and supervisors are giving feedback, “Hey, good job. I liked what you did. That was great.” You know, the people and employers can and often do give rewards, like you get this bonus or this gift card. All of that’s good. But I don’t think anything matters more to people than the positive words of affirmation that hearing from your boss, “You did a good job. Thank you for getting that done.” So I think that’s one way to promote the culture communication through the emails and the Zoom meetings where you’re saying this is what we stand for and, you know, conveying that to employees, but also conveying that in action.
If you’re an employer who values work, life balance, model work-life balance, if you’re an employer that values creativity, set the workforce up so that they can have synergy from each other because a lot of creativity comes from synergy from each other. So whether that’s like I was saying before, having people in the office at the same time so that you’re consciously thinking of who’s going to be there Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, not just saying, “Oh, well, let’s throw these ten people in here,” but consciously saying, “Yeah, let’s have the research and development team here on the same days that the marketing teams here, because they really need to work together on how to get this message out,” or “Let’s have the sales team and research and development here,” so that you’re having people who work together or who need to learn from each other in the office at the same times.
Tune In to Employees
Creating a positive work culture also means tuning into your employees. Some of the best employees are the ones who appear to be the best, who are working the hardest and giving it their all, are also the ones who are more likely to burn out. So being able to have managers and supervisors have some training in things to look for and how to help employees set their balance is a way to set the work culture of “we care about you.”
So noticing that employee who you can tell just put finished a project in record time being able to say, “Hey, are you getting enough time for yourself? Are you way overworking? Maybe you need to make sure you’re taking those lunch breaks.” Or, “I’m noticing you’re logging in at seven AM. I’m getting emails from you super early to late in the night. Are you getting enough balance? Let’s pace yourself.” Because sometimes just those words of encouragement again, help an employee know that they’re cared for. And it also helps the employee who’s pouring it all on, helps them pull back if they don’t have that within themselves to do so. Those are some ways employers can create that work culture.
Involve H.R. When Working Remotely
I’d again say always involve H.R. so that H.R. is helping with creating the work culture, both through the message that you’re putting out, meaning message. We value work balance and we value creativity as well as to the employee ways to gather and get them together and show that we care about getting involved. Really important.
What you’re saying is it’s just modeling some of those behaviors and really encouraging them to take that time, take their lunch breaks. I can’t tell you how many folks I’ve talked to that say, like you had said earlier, “I get up at seven and I just go ahead and hop on the computer because I don’t have anything else going on. And then I don’t take a lunch or I eat at my desk and the only time I leave my desk is to do laundry or something.” And so I think that I’m guilty of that as well. So I think it encouraging that work-life balance is really important. And showing them that that’s important.
Absolutely. And when employees do that, they’re more likely to get burnt out. And they may seem like they are just the hottest employee for months. Hey, maybe even a year. But then that’s going to turn into the employee who’s like, “Oh my God, I don’t want to wake up this morning. I am so sick of this job.” That’s going to turn into the employee or potential to turn into the employee who starts feeling detached, who starts feeling depressed, fatigued, and even getting illnesses. Because when we’re overly stressed, our immune system goes down and it’s more likely that we’re going to catch this, that, and the other thing that comes around.
So it’s good to encourage a great job, but also to help our employees pull the brakes on, not just to keep saying, “Go, go, go, go, go! You’re doing great.” You know, let help them put some balance and structure into their day.
Supporting Employees Who Are Returning to Work
So Kim, my last question. You know, we’re all sort of in different phases of returning to work. I know that some folks have already returned and then there are some who may not be returning until next year. Let’s talk about what leaders in H.R. professionals can do and what employers can do to reassure their employees who are worried about returning and worrying their future at the organization. I’d love to kind of wrap this up with a discussion about how to support them. Those people that are they’re coming back now. How do you help them?
So I think people’s fears about coming back, from what I’m hearing, kind of go across the board from, “Will I be safe?” And so I think that reassuring employees on all the safety precautions and measures that the employer’s taking.
So, for instance, we have notices up in our office and with each new client that comes in, I go through what we do and explain how we sanitize surfaces throughout the day. We spray fabrics with disinfectant throughout the day. And I explain all the processes, how we have clients wait in their cars until their session time, and all the processes that we go through to keep them safe.
And even though the CDC, as of my latest reading, says we’re not really getting COVID from surfaces, says it still makes people feel safer to know that we’re taking every precaution because with this pandemic. Sadly, we found out after the fact, like, oh, yeah, those masks do help. Oh, yeah, that does that if we can get it that way. So I don’t think people are necessarily trusting of the info they get, so.
We are showing employees sanitation measures that are being taken, reassuring employees that if and having policies in place, that if anyone gets sick or has symptoms that they can and are expected to take that time off, that the employer does not want them coming in sick. You’re reassuring employees of whatever the testing protocol may or may not be and how the safety measures are being handled.
The other piece I’ve seen a lot of employees worried about is, “What if I have to go back before my kids?” Because that has been a huge factor in this pandemic. And actually, yet more women have moved to unemployment, have joined the ranks of unemployed, because someone needs to stay home with the kids. And that has been more of the moms. And so I think that there’s definitely that fear that I have seen in my clients, that kind of mad scramble of, “Wow, is my employer going to go back before my kids go back, and am I going to have to go back before there’s going to be summer camps and child care options open?”
So being able to work with employees and letting them know that if you’re having difficulties in and around childcare, if your kid’s school doesn’t open up, talk with us, we will work with you on making sure that we keep you and your family safe, and that you won’t have to choose between being a mom or being a dad and coming into your job.
Some of it is going to be very individualized. And I know with huge companies that’s more difficult. But the individual managers and supervisors can be talking about this with their employees and really taking those few minutes to understand their employees’ concerns.
But those are the kind of the two areas I’ve seen the biggest concerns that some people are bummed, thinking they don’t want to go back to the long drive and the commute. And, ok, all of us are used to, you know, that’s what we get paid for work is there are some things that are more of a hassle. But in those employees, it’s also good to know to be able to say, ‘Oh, you would like more work at home time? Let’s see what our company’s going to do. We may be going hybrid and let’s all see if I can advocate for you.”
So really, it’s about managers’ communication, in communicating what the big scheme is of how employers are keeping employees safe, communicating that it is fine and expected if you’re sick, to stay home. Communicating, “We care about you,” and managers and supervisors talking with employees.
So any special needs like child care needs, they can discuss and figure out how to make that work. So those are those are some of the things. I mean, it’s so, so, so simple. But it seems like communication is the biggest key on making helping people feel safe, connected to the company and knowing their company cares. So communication on the big level and on the little level of managers calling and talking.
Healthier, Happier Remote Workforce
Sure. Well, it is definitely a whole new world out there is we got to keep those communication lines open if we want to be successful. Yes. Emotionally and financially and everything.
Yes. And I truly believe that with all the devastation and pain that came through this pandemic, we’ve also learned so much that’s going to help businesses, the court systems and everywhere else, because now we’ve learned, well, we can do this. And having that balance, I think, in the big picture is going to lead to a happier and healthier workforce with more work-life balance. But we’re still in that transition phase. So we’re still learning what’s the right balance, what’s the right balance for me as an individual, I need to know myself for you as a company, what works for you and for your employees. But we do have the opportunity to move to a much better model, much quicker than would have ever happened if we weren’t forced to jump into it.
Well Kim, that wraps up this episode of For Your Benefits. I want to thank you for joining us today. We really appreciate it. I know that you have given us some great information that we can take with us to improve communication and really, really make our employees successful in their remote situations.
Thanks so much, Meghan. I’ve enjoyed being part of this.
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