Imagine you are a Mom working from a home office and you suddenly find yourself sequestered around-the-clock with three-year-old twin boys. You have clients. And deadlines. And LOTS of virtual meetings. Michelle Sonnenberg, one of my colleagues at ListEngage, is in this exact situation thanks to COVID-19. She sums up her plight in an automatic email reply: Please expect delays as I’m working from home with three-year-old twins. I will respond to you as soon as possible. Thank you for your patience.
Sonnenberg is not alone in her struggles. Other colleagues of mine who live alone are suffering from complete isolation. While they may be used to working remotely and not having personal contact in an office setting, they no longer have the ability to engage other people in any area of their lives. Many are now months into having had no personal contact with other people, and it is taking a toll.
A recent survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers(PwC) indicates that nearly half of the CFOs surveyed are expecting an increase in remote work following the COVID-19 crisis. Many are even considering making it a permanent option for roles that allow it. So, what can employers and employees do to cope in the face of these changes? How do we stay productive, manage a work/life balance, and keep our sanity?
When I asked Sonnenberg these questions, she laughed and said, “I’m not! Self-entertainment for three-year-old twins is non-existent. I am constantly trying to find ways to entertain them and make sure they’re not beating each other up or eating a glue stick in the corner. They require me to have eyes everywhere.” Her office has become a multi-purpose environment with frequent interruptions. And working with 14 different brands requires numerous meetings. “I just apologize in advance and explain they might hear some kid background noise,” she explained. “Most of our clients have kids at home, too, and they get it.”
A sudden shift to working from home when one has been used to seeing people in an office setting can have other ramifications, as well. I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Michael Roizen, an award-winning author and the Chief Wellness Officer at the Cleveland Clinic. I asked him to share his thoughts about the impact that sudden isolation and stress can have on employees and what employers can do to help workers cope.
According to Dr. Roizen, the Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Wellness and Preventive Medicine is seeing a strong dichotomy between patients who are trying to get healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic and ones who are incredibly stressed. He surmised it is about a 50/50 split among the patients he sees. “One group is grasping that what this virus does is pick on people who are not healthy or who are aging faster than they should with issues like obesity, heart disease, or diabetes,” he said. “The patients in this group are committing to regular exercise schedules, are learning to eat healthier, and are cooking for themselves. They’re also requesting more virtual appointments to help them stay on track.”
Dr. Roizen continued, “I also see patients who are incredibly stressed out and have almost given up on anything. They are showing a fair bit of weight gain as a result of the stress. What’s encouraging is that those who are experiencing the high levels of stress are starting to reach out and ask for help from our Wellness team.”
What companies can do to support their employees
Dr. Roizen encourages businesses to make wellness a partnership between employers and employees. Employers need to seek out what motivates their workers to change harmful habits and behaviors into healthier ones. “The biggest question,” he said, “is how do you change behavior in a way that motivates continued positive changes? For instance, people know that smoking or eating too much is bad for you, but that knowledge does not necessarily motivate change. You have to look for the individual tweaks. Is it grandkids? Longer life? Curiosity? Playing better golf? Financial? You can find a passion in almost everyone, then play on that passion as a motivator.”
One idea is to incorporate a buddy system to help employees get over the hump. For instance, Dr. Roizen finds that pairing up with a friend who wants the same thing can be a strong motivator and help alleviate some of the feelings of isolation and loneliness in a remote environment. He also suggests that companies find a balance in their use of virtual meetings, which, in excess, can cause employees to feel overwhelmed and less productive.
ListEngage’s Chief Operations Officer, Bryan da Frota, thinks companies should be reaching out to every employee individually either directly, through supervisors or other co-workers, and finding out how they are doing. “I know we’re all busy and are trying to stay ahead of what the lockdown is doing to our businesses, but employers need to find a way to make the time. Check on your employees. Check on your colleagues. It’s not necessarily about fixing problems. It may just be about listening to what they’re going through.”
“A remote workforce has different layers of challenges,” he continued. “It takes more than just getting a virtual meeting account. Folks who are used to working in an office and seeing people every day are suddenly at home or in an apartment by themselves.” While video conferences are not a replacement for being face-to-face with people, da Frota suggests that using video in virtual meetings at least allows for eye contact, seeing someone’s facial expressions and hand gestures.
Da Frota also shared that personal discipline on the part of the employee can play an important role. “Our rituals are important to us, whether we’re aware of them or not. I am someone who likes structure. I get up in the morning, work out, make coffee, feed the kids, grab a shower, get dressed, and I’m ready to go by 8:30. Then I put on my headset and sit at my computer and start working. At 5:30 I do an activity with the kids then watch some news and make dinner. It can be simple or elaborate – personal rituals, religious rituals, they add structure to our day and help break things up. Self-discipline also tells us to STOP working when it’s time. Just because we’re working from home doesn’t mean we need to be ‘always on’. ”
Both da Frota and Roizen agree – don’t wait until you feel ready to do something. Just do it! Pick one thing and start now. Success will breed further success. “There’s an ancient piece of wisdom we’ve all heard,” said da Frota. “It’s about the journey, not the destination. Just the act of trying to do something can be just as important as succeeding in it.” Roizen concludes that companies need to focus on doing right by their employees. “Of course companies need to do what is needed to survive during this time,” he reflected, “but I think the ones who have been focusing on what is best for their employees, who have been investing in innovation and employee care, will be the ones who survive long term because they will have fostered an atmosphere of trust and loyalty.”