Isn’t it about time you got remote working right

The rise in remote and hybrid working has afforded workers freedom and flexibility like never before, with work schedules now bending to suit lifestyles and personal commitments in a way that had long felt impossible for many in full-time employment. Need to pop offline for an hour to do the school run? Well, go on then! Fancy catching the last few golden rays of summer sun as the autumnal breeze blows in? Fill your boots – the whole world is your office… and why not take a long working lunch to finally finish that book?

Remote working then, was widely heralded as the dawn of a glorious new age for the wellbeing and happiness of the working population, but is this actually the case, and are remote workers reaping the benefits of a boost in their mental health that remote working once promised? Well, according to recent research at least, it seems as though the answer is “no”.

In reality, a whopping majority of 80% of UK workers report that working from home has been detrimental to their mental health, and, according to Microsoft’s New Future of Work Report (2022), researchers found that remote working contributes to workers experiencing feelings of social isolation and guilt.

For some, the findings of such bodies of research won’t come as a surprise, but a reflection of a stark and all too familiar reality as they continue to adjust to this now fast-growing way of working. For me though – a happy and fulfilled member of “the 20%” – I found the research to be truly surprising; a shock that shaped this very post as I considered for the first time that perhaps remote working isn’t, for everyone, the “magic fix all”, it has been for me…

Flash back as little as a year ago and with exception to periods of remote working during the pandemic (the first, and last time the “P” word will be mentioned within this post!), I was working in a full time, in-person, and nonflexible position; my freedoms constrained by the mandatory working week. With the advantage of hindsight, I now know that during that time I was blindly in the midst of a battle with depression as I struggled to balance the demands of a busy working life and the subsequent impact on my mental and physical wellbeing – particularly off the back of a then recent diagnosis of a chronic physical illness (one thankfully much easier to manage since my transition to remote working!).

Remote working offered a chance for me to champion and prioritise my own wellbeing and recovery in a way previously typical ways of working simply could not afford. Flexible hours have transformed my sleeping pattern and working from the comforts of my own home allow me to enjoy the benefits of various pain-relieving gadgets and gizmos that would have otherwise been deemed far too inconvenient for use in a physical workspace. I feel stronger, healthier, and happier, replacing the commute with increased time for exercise and down time. I rely on less medication than previous (and feel sharper for it!), and thanks to innovative and purposeful use of technology I feel just as connected to my remote team as I have ever felt when working in a shared workspace.

So, all that said I’m sure you can imagine my surprise when reading research which suggested that for most the impact of remote working on their wellbeing was negative. The benefits of remote working are manyfold, but it is clear the logistics and intricacies of remote and hybrid working are complex, and when not done well, the costs to wellbeing can be high, particularly in the areas of loneliness and isolation. So how can you ensure you or your team can enjoy the boost in wellbeing that the new golden age in remote working has to offer?

Firstly ensure you or your team is set up for success by establishing a structured daily routine. Research suggests that home-workers are more likely to work longer hours. Deciding on, and sticking to, your set working hours, separating your work and living spaces and muting work alerts when you are off the clock can go a long way in establishing a healthy work/life balance.

And on the subject of work/life balance; don’t be afraid to take a break. Know when to walk away and don’t feel guilty about it. You wouldn’t think twice about having a good cup of tea or a chat with a colleague in the office – so don’t impose restrictions on yourself simply for working from home. You’re only human!

It also helps to keep in touch with your colleagues. Communication must be much more intentional in the virtual workspace, with chat between colleagues often scheduled and hardly ever impromptu and subtle social ques and body language often missed. Such issues can only add to any sense of loneliness or isolation that you or your team will experience and setting up regular catchups, sliding into a colleague’s direct inbox and recreating your own virtual watercooler can go a long way in building a sense of community and belonging when working from home. Wherever you work, be it from home, the office or anywhere in between, it pays to talk!

There are a multitude of steps that can be taken to boost wellbeing in the virtual workspace and despite reservations around personal wellbeing, it would seem remote and hybrid working are here to stay with data suggesting that up to 97.6% of workers would like to work remotely at least some of the time, during the rest of their career. The demand is there then, but it remains clear that businesses, big and small, still have some way to go in transitioning to this way of working in a manner that substantially benefits the wellbeing of the majority of the workforce.

So what is the alternative? Well, many employers’ instincts may still be to push back against this growing phenomenon of remote working and I’m sure Microsoft’s findings will, for many, provide a platform for those opposed to this flexible way of working to state their case and push back against the trend. Nobody likes change, right? And this all still feels so new. But with demand so high, simply ignoring the collective will of the workforce can only spell disaster for team motivation, efficiency and outcomes across the globe…

So we know most want to work remotely and enjoy the flexibility that comes with doing so, but most of those who do work remotely report that for them and their overall happiness and wellbeing, the grass isn’t perhaps as green as they thought it would be. It seems that unless you are one of us “20 percenters” most workers are bound to this perpetual cycle of constantly striving for a working utopia that they never quite reach, cycling between longing for remote work and missing the office.

Us “20 percenters” however, do show that, whilst difficult, the balance can be struck. For me personally, I’ve never felt better than I have since I started working remotely, through enjoying a healthier work/life balance I have finally stopped wishing my days away, my life no longer one continuous countdown to the next weekend – and I won’t speak for my employer, but I will say that I’d like to think this shows in my effectiveness at work.

So, what can employers do to make sure their employees join the engaged 20% rather than the unmotivated and unhappy 80%? For me it’s simple; speak to your team, speak to each other and don’t shy away from what you think may be a difficult or awkward conversation about feelings of loneliness, isolation and unfulfillment. The statistics show that several of us are probably feeling the same – though the “why”, is likely to be personal to us all. My journey from a depressed and disillusioned teacher to a happy, healthy and fulfilled remote worker has been a personal journey – I’m part of the 20 percent because my employers have listened to me and prioritised my mental health as well as my physical health – in fact conversations around how they could support me through a potentially difficult transition were had before I’d even been offered the job, despite my insisting that this transition was just exactly what I needed!

It’s clear that remote working, when not done well, can present, to 80% of us at least, as a serious risk to our mental health, and employers have a responsibility to risk assess and mitigate this just as they do against any threat to physical health. Talking then, can open a gateway to discovering how best employers can support their teams, wherever they work, tailoring advice and solutions for the individual and ensuring the journey to remote happiness and success is as personal and transformative as my own experiences have (thankfully) proven to be. I don’t consider myself lucky, because luck has had nothing to do with it. I’m a 20 percenter because my employers and I have worked at making me so.

So, employers, managers and team leaders alike – make remote health and wellbeing a priority; ensure your employees are fulfilled – busy but not over-worked – allow them time to socialise with friends, loved ones and colleagues, afford them flexibility to take breaks when they need to enjoy the company of an actual human, find creative ways to ensure communication with colleagues, build a virtual water cooler into your remote work space and don’t force fun and socialisation but create a virtual and inclusive space in which they can grow organically. Above all though, just check in with your employees, know the signs to look out for and never assume your remote team are ok, because 8 times out of 10, you are probably wrong.

Remote working is here to stay, now we just need to get it right.

More of our latest news