Barbara Fisher recalled a time one of her remote workers traveled to Hawaii yet called in to four meetings over two days.
“I asked, ‘How are you recharging? Why did you even take your computer?’ As a remote worker, it’s an extension of what she does,” said Fisher, chief operating and people officer for digital health company Aduro Inc. who previously was a vice president for Intel Corp. working in human relations and talent management.
“The reality is that weighs on you. You’re never able to refuel.”
Remote work has become the new normal for companies responding to workers’ desire for flexibility. In its “State of the American Workplace” report, Gallup polling found 43 percent of employees worked remotely in 2016 compared to 39 percent in 2012.
In its 2019 “Employee Benefits” report on leave and flexible working released in June, the Society for Human Resource Management noted that remote work continues to rise in popularity as a benefit. Telecommuting of all types is increasing as a result. Part-time telecommuting — now offered by more than 40 percent of organizations — is up 5 percent from 2018 and demonstrated the greatest increase.
Ad-hoc telecommuting is offered by 69 percent of organizations while full-time telecommuting is offered by more than one-quarter of organizations, SHRM reports.
“From a remote worker’s perspective, some of the positive aspects are flexible job schedules, work-life balance and the freedom to work from almost anywhere,” said Tina Garrell, director of the annual HR Florida Conference for the HR Florida State Council, a SHRM affiliate.
For companies, it means extending a footprint beyond its headquarters, saving on office space costs and keeping employees happy.
“But employers are sometimes faced with different challenges arising with their remote workforce, such as the health and well-being of those employees who do not come to the office every day,” said Garrell.
Studies show remote workers struggle with loneliness, isolation, an inability to unplug and ongoing distractions.
“Global Work Connectivity,” a recent study commissioned by Virgin Pulse and HR advisory and research firm Future Workplace, concludes many remote workers feel isolated.
“While remote workers gain freedom and flexibility, the study found they are disengaged and less likely to want a long-term career with their company because of their lack of human contact,” said Dan Schawbel, a partner with Future Workplace.
The survey of more than 2,000 managers and employees in 10 countries found almost half of an employee’s day is spent using technology to communicate. Slightly more than half always or very often feel lonely as a result.
Men, introverts and younger generations indicated a greater need for work companionship. Leaders can support employee relationships by encouraging connection in person over online, researchers said.
“Remote workers in some organizations are among the most stressed, which can seem counterintuitive. The perception is they have more time and are free from office politics, getting dressed up and commuting,” said Mary Marzec, senior health strategy scientist for Virgin Pulse, a part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group that designs technology cultivating positive employee lifestyle habits.
With most employees’ waking hours spent on work, the work culture has a significant influence on adopting and sustaining healthy habits, Marzec said. While technology has paved the way for more employees to work remotely, it also has contributed to that sense of isolation, leading to mental and physical health challenges.
“Technology has created the illusion that workers are connected when in reality they feel isolated, lonely, disengaged and less committed to their organizations when overusing or misusing it,” said Schawbel, who also authored “Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation.”
“Most remote workers have the flexibility to work in different areas — a coffee shop or the beach — and they still choose to work at home,” said Fisher. “The convergence of work and home into one space underlies the struggle to unplug.
“You have to be able to recharge. Not doing it definitely weighs on an individual’s health and how they show up.”
Remote workers can feel left out of key decisions, leading to stress, frustration and unhappiness, said Fisher.
Distractions are another challenge.
One of Fisher’s employees who asked to work remotely later expressed frustration that home tasks were distracting her from work.
“When you are a remote worker, it actually is more work because you have to think about how you balance your time to get things done and make sure you’re still connected,” said Fisher.
That necessitates discipline in meeting work milestones and personal goals, she added.
Air in the at-Home Schedule?
The perception that remote workers have more time at home to take care of family responsibilities essentially is false, said Marzec.
“Drawing boundaries can be very difficult,” she added. “If somebody sends you an email, there is internal pressure to answer that right away to show you’re working. Somebody in the office can be in a meeting for two hours, go to lunch, and even stop at the bank on the way back. A remote worker doesn’t feel that freedom.”
Lack of face time with team members is another challenge.
“You can’t just stop over to somebody’s desk or bump into someone in the hall and ask them if they’ve followed up,” Marzec said. “Emails and communications have to be constructed much more clearly because you’re not there to back it up in person. Communication can start a downstream spiral of lack of productivity.”
Remote workers don’t have the feeling of support one gets by standing around the office water cooler and soliciting ideas on how to deal with professional and personal struggles, Marzec added.
Feelings of isolation and lack of social support are linked to anxiety and depression, she added.
“Even though you think remote workers are not working longer hours, often that sense of being present at work is on their mind and can contribute to depression and anxiety,” she added.
Remote workers also don’t feel they have the freedom to work out or take a walk, said Marzec.
“When you work remotely, you’re not getting in the extra energy like walking from a parking lot to work,” said Marzec. “Someone who works remotely could have as few as 1,500 steps in a day. Whereas in normal workday walking, you’re going to put in 5,000 to 6,000 steps. It isn’t the 10,000 recommended steps, but it’s a lot more than 1,500.”
Health implications depend one’s go-to for dealing with stress when working alone and not able to walk over to peers to get advice on how to move a project forward, said Fisher.
“Whatever your vice is to manage stress is where you’re going to go. That’s just human nature. When you’re alone, going to that vice is likely easier than when you’re in an office where you can reach out quickly to the person sitting in the cube next to you, tell them you’re having a rough day and try to figure the problem out.”
Companies have a responsibility to take care of the workforce and remote workers have to put themselves out on the radar more, said Fisher. That entails remote worker access to wellness initiatives.
“Part of that responsibility if you decide to have a blended workforce is figuring out how what you offer at your headquarters is also what you offer to your extension sites as well as to your remote workers,” Fisher said.
While remote workers may not be able to access the gym at company headquarters or enjoy a healthy lunch at the in-house cafeteria, inclusive team challenges such as walking or drinking enough water “are a lot of fun and help everybody feel included no matter where they work,” said Marzec.
Technology makes implementing wellness programs for remote workers easier, said Garrell.
“These programs offer a variety of options both remote employees and employees who physically come to the office can participate in,” she said. “An example of a program that would work well for a remote workforce is providing partial or full reimbursement for various fitness activities in which they choose to participate.”
That can include sports leagues, gym memberships, yoga classes and other activities available in the remote worker’s area that keeps the employee active and engaged. By allowing them to choose activities in which they are interested, it helps ensure higher participation rates and long-term engagement, said Garrell.
Brian Rhonemus, CEO of Sanford Rose Associates — Rhonemus Group, said he encourages everyone on the recruiting firm’s remote team to manage distractions by being as disciplined in their work hours as they would if they physically drove to an office with a more structured schedule.
Rhonemus also said some of his company’s remote workers use stand-up treadmill desks to address the struggle with scheduling fitness time.
“We also schedule blocks of time out of the office to meet people face-to-face to fulfill the need for social interaction,” he said. “We encourage participation in coaching and other outside activities and allow time for that away from the office. We share our personal and professional success in our weekly update call.”
Joey Frasier, CEO of Shortlist, a San Francisco-based freelancer-management platform, suggested that hosting events in remote locations can ensure remote workers feel connected to the office community.
“We constantly remain in contact with our remote staff to make sure they are happy and have all of the support they need,” he said.
Frasier said his company helps its customers manage about 70,000 workers, nearly all of whom are remote.
“Remote workers are encouraged to participate in wellness programs in their areas or online using apps like Calm or MoveWith. HR managers also can provide access to places like One Medical, which provides wellness and mindfulness services.”
Management support is critical. A manager can discuss with a remote employee how to set up their work schedule in such a way they can block off time to engage in physical exercise, said Marzec.
“It relieves that pressure that if I take a walk and don’t answer that email within an hour, I’m not going to be punished for it,” she added.
Garrell said she ensures that the three remote workers in her business are included in as many office activities as possible through daily sales team conference calls, video conferencing training programs and a group messaging chat program to communicate with management throughout the day.
“This helps make them feel like they are truly a part of our organization as well as having a positive impact on their mental health, productivity and overall wellness,” she said.
Fostering a strong work culture that helps remote workers feel supported can be done through team-building activities, social events and workstations where workers can get to know each other on a personal level, said Schawbel.
An investment in the remote workforce yields positive returns.
“When you give greater autonomy, flexibility, responsibility but also greater support for employees, they feel it,” said Fisher. “We talk a lot about ‘I want to have a loyal employee who doesn’t want to leave.’ It’s a balance. The company needs to show how invested they are in the person and the person shows how invested they are into the company based on that relationship between the two of them.
“There is so much research that employees are looking to be heard and valued. When an employee feels that, they’re able to reach full potential because they’re being challenged and rewarded in ways that inspire and motivate them. The impact to productivity and the bottom line starts to improve.”
When a company addresses physical and mental health challenges faced by its remote workers, those workers stay committed, Marzec said.
“The manager doesn’t have to replace that talent,” she added. “Many times, companies focus on health care costs when it comes to health and well-being and overlook the important factor of employee satisfaction and intention to leave the company.
“Once somebody leaves, that impacts other people on that team who now need to work more to fill the gap of the person who left. The manager needs to put in time to hire somebody else. The training may take up to a year before a new person is really folded into the organization. In some cases, knowledge is lost when somebody leaves and we have a very knowledge-based economy. There can be client loss. Protecting against unwanted turnover is an important goal of health and wellness programs.”