The sudden shift to remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic has left many team leaders, department managers, and corporate executives scrambling to catch up. In addition to dealing with the upheavals in their own lives, organizational leaders are also trying to transition their employees. Using rapidly developed procedures and thrown-together technology solutions, the newly remote workforce faces many challenges. Yet even with these challenges, relaxation can improve remote employee productivity and well-being.
Much of the research on remote workers conducted prior to the pandemic was positive. Studies consistently showed employee productivity gains and increases in engagement. This, in turn, led to higher levels of job satisfaction and lower turnover. But due to the sudden nature of the transition and added stressors employees are experiencing, worries surmount.
Between uncertainties about employment, finances, and staying healthy, those results may not hold true in the current environment. A recent study by mental health provider Ginger found that seven out of 10 employees reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has been the most stressful time of their careers.
If not addressed, over-stressed employees may develop mental health issues and have difficulty maintaining productivity levels. Common physical and mental symptoms of stress include headaches, muscle tension, and feelings of anxiety. These and other symptoms can result in a variety of unwanted behaviors from angry outbursts to alcohol abuse. To mitigate and reduce employee stress levels, leaders can encourage workers to care for themselves by incorporating opportunities for relaxation.
Relaxation & Remote Employee Well-Being
While 86% of employees report wanting to work remotely at least part-time, telecommuting comes with its own mental and physical health challenges. Currently, the pandemic is magnifying challenges such as isolation, loneliness, and fitness.
Hong Yin, Clinical Director of New Frontiers Psychiatric & TMS notes:
“I’ve had a number of patients during COVID-19 who reported excessive sleeping, having a hard time getting started with even the smallest things, overeating, feeling physically slowed down, and an abundance of fatigue. This is why focusing on relaxation and minimizing stressors is so important, as it will help remedy other problems you’re experiencing.”
She points out that these symptoms can cause difficulties in an individual’s ability to lead a healthy life.
The first challenge faced by remote employees is the negative feelings that arise due to the public health situation. Professor Alan Chu, Chair of Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology for the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay states:
“When we are stressed, anxious, or frustrated during these challenging times, the sympathetic nervous system is activated and our body releases chemicals such as cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress hormones.”
These chemicals cause increased heart rate, slow digestion, and increase blood pressure. Thus, the severity of the situation is apparent, and a solution is necessary.
Relaxation and Remote Employee Productivity
Improving the mental and physical well-being of remote employees by encouraging them to relax will increase remote employee productivity. Why? Because a relaxed mind is conducive to mental clarity, improved focus, and enhanced decision-making. How does this work?
According to Kate Sullivan, a Consulting Psychologist with Constellation Careers:
“Using different parts of your brain by relaxing—whether for you that means staring at the wall, running a marathon, cooking dinner, or watching a movie—allows the parts that you’ve been engaging at work all day to recharge. This, in turn, means you’ll be more productive when you do get back to work!”
With studies revealing remote workers are more productive than in-office counterparts, adding relaxation techniques could potentially result in additional remote employee productivity increases. Relaxation is also critical for helping the brain’s problem-solving capability. Sullivan went on to explain that freeing your mind to wander can improve your creativity:
“Ever notice how you get your best ideas in the shower? That’s because you’ve allowed thoughts to percolate in a sort of ‘subroutine’ while you are mindful in the moment. Letting your mind wander like this allows you to make new and different connections, potentially solving that thorny work dilemma you’ve been dealing with and upping your game at work!”
Practical Strategies to Help Your Remote Employees Improve Their Well-Being & Productivity
To promote well-being and increase remote employee productivity, a variety of easy-to-implement strategies have proven effective.
Implement Mindfulness & Meditation Activities
To help the body recover and reduce negative thoughts, Professor Chu advocates mindfulness and relaxation techniques including yoga and meditation.
“Mindfulness helps us acknowledge that we are not our thoughts and emotions. This perspective helps us be self-compassionate and not overthink stress and anxiety in order to prevent downward spiral.”
Employers can take advantage of the same technologies that are facilitating remote work to set up live or pre-recorded classes. Teach remote employees the benefits of relaxation and provide some simple guided meditations and mindfulness exercises. Alternatively, provide information and resources for your employees to access when they feel they need it.
Encourage Employees to Separate Work and Home
One common obstacle to relaxation for remote workers is the absence of clear division between the different areas of life. Sullivan advises:
“When work and life blend together—whether that’s because of a lack of physical boundaries or a lack of time boundaries—it’s essential to reclaim some space and time for yourself.”
One method that encourages a distinction between the different areas of your life is creating a physical separation. Counsel your employees to set up a workspace that is as quiet and private as possible. By working in one designated spot, employees associate that area with getting to work. Additional methods of boundary creation include setting office hours and establishing household rules to reduce distractions and intrusions.
Tim Luis, a Clinical Psychologist with Orleans Psychological Services, explains:
“Separation of work and leisure spaces is of utmost importance to engage in quality, recharging relaxation. [Without separation], lack of relaxation and differentiation of space and time can lead to higher rates of stress which can bring about experiences of anxiety, depression, substance issues, and physical health problems.”
Emphasize the Importance of Scheduling Time Off
In addition to establishing boundaries to separate work and home, relaxation is vital. To encourage an activity away from work, Sullivan suggests incorporating relaxation in a way that is very different.
“I recommend that people have some sort of hobby that doesn’t relate to their work. That’s because different activities engage different parts of our brains and relaxing in between spells of work helps you refresh the parts of your brain you need to function well at your job.”
Employers can encourage employees to stick to normal work hours and avoid the temptation to check their email and messages after-hours. As Nelson Sherwin, manager of PEO Companies remarks:
“I am insistent on a healthy work-life balance at our company, and I discourage working overtime, working during weekends, working during weird hours, etc. It’s such a slippery slope with remote work, because employees tend to work more—not less—like employers think. I’ve seen it first-hand and the burnout it can produce.”
Employers can also suggest employees schedule relaxation on their calendar to make it a part of their normal daily routine.
Allow Remote Employees to Set Their Own Schedule
Improved mental health and employee productivity are also associated with the ability to work a flexible schedule. CEO Max Harland of Dentaly explains:
“You don’t want them [your employees] to feel like they are tethered to their computer. That’s why we encourage our remote employees to work flex schedules and whenever is most convenient for them.”
In addition to flexible start and end times, Harland advocates his employees to reduce stress by taking regular breaks. He goes further by saying:
“I also recommend our employees take frequent breaks or days off when needed. We all know that in order to be truly productive, we have to be in a good mindset. If you’re never letting yourself relax or have some time off, the quality of your work will likely suffer!”
Research on productivity and taking breaks suggests that we operate most productively using “pulse and pause” cycles. This essentially means that we are most productive when we work and then take a break. The time worked and the length of the break varies depending on the study or technique. For example, the popular Pomodoro technique advises 25 minutes of work and a five-minute break with a longer break after four cycles. However, it is important for remote employees to establish a cycle that works best for them.
Implement Opportunities for Your Remote Employees to Socialize
Fostering relationships and team-bonding is a way to build community and improve remote employee productivity in a virtual environment. Employers can introduce opportunities for employees to communicate in ways that approximate the in-person experience. For example, setting up a group chat channel using Slack or another communication tool can create a simulated “water cooler” where employees can chat and post photos. Allowing time for workers to catch up before and after video conferences is another strategy that can be successful.
In addition to ongoing team-bonding opportunities, employers can schedule events such as virtual coffee breaks or Friday happy hours. Professor Chu shared:
“In our psychology department, we did Wellness Mondays during the spring semester in which everyone just chats about life not related to work. We also did some game nights (e.g., House Party app) to just have fun and chat.”
While research found improvements in employee productivity and well-being prior to COVID-19, added stressors due to the pandemic may potentially offset any gains. In addition to personal and family challenges, a variety of workplace issues have arisen in the rush to adopt new remote processes. As a return to normal seems a long way off, some companies are signaling that remote work may become a permanent part of their business model. This means that supporting the mental and physical health of remote workers is and will continue to be an important part of a leader’s job description. However, with a few easy-to-implement strategies such as those above, employers should quickly see an uptick in productivity and engagement.
How do you relax as a remote worker? Do you have any remote employee productivity tips as an employer? Connect with Virtual Vocations on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to share your advice. We’d love to hear from you!
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