A new checklist provides a quick reminder for managers on how to support the wellbeing and productivity of remote workers.
In the early Covid-19 lockdown, many workers were asked to work from home. As workplace wellbeing researchers who had just been sent to work from home ourselves, we set out to investigate research on isolated and confined working from pre-pandemic times.
We wanted to offer pre-emptive insight into the potential challenges and mitigations of this new way of working. Our team’s work over spring and summer 2020 was finally distilled into a one-page practical checklist for the proactive management of remote workers.
Here, we explore what went into building the evidence-base for the checklist and explain why any manager – however experienced – could benefit from using it.
Before the pandemic, we regularly gave public talks on how to improve workplace wellbeing. Previous research on remote working had suggested it provides many benefits, especially around helping employees achieve a better work–life balance.
However, the research usually drew on studies of those who had volunteered to work remotely and/or worked part-time in and out of the office. What would happen if separation of the act of working from the usual workplace was deeper and not the individual worker’s choice?
To answer these questions, we at Norwich Business School conducted a ‘review of reviews’ – a process that involves systematically checking the extent of literature available on a topic and judging its quality and relevance.
We explored pre-pandemic literature on isolated and confined working (for example, research on people in remote or rural conditions, such as the Arctic or ‘fly in, fly out’ situations in Australia), to bring to light worst-case scenarios. The review identified risk factors for poor wellbeing in three overarching areas: reduced social interaction; difficulties organising work; and maintaining an appropriate work–life balance.
After living in restricted circumstances for over a year, readers will undoubtedly recognise some of the findings of this research from their own lives. For example, less face-to-face contact with colleagues can lead to difficulties obtaining support or input, a lack of clarity of expectations and feelings of not being recognised or valued.
A lack of casual contact can also make it harder for colleagues and managers to pick up on and help with issues that may be affecting colleagues, leading to other problems. People can find it hard to separate their personal and working time and workloads can creep up. Workers can also end up doing things on their own where previously they would have received more support. Inequalities can also be exacerbated by being forced to work in poor housing or difficult cohabitation conditions.
Yet despite this gloomy list of potential risks to remote worker wellbeing and productivity, it was also clear that mitigation was possible. One study suggested that decision-aids (for example, checklists or guidelines) could help isolated workers and supervisors deal with complicated problems.
The sudden move to managing large numbers of remote workers seemed a fairly complex problem, so we decided building a checklist would be a good way of providing a simple reminder of some of the key things managers can do to support the wellbeing and productivity of their remote teams.
To move from an academic review to a practical checklist, it was important to draw on real-life findings of what managers and employees were facing. We worked with Cambridge Constabulary to explore the successes and challenges of their move to more distributed and agile working in summer 2020.
The research – which involved interviews with police officers and staff as well as the workforce completing daily diaries recording their experiences of remote work – provided detail on areas where active manager engagement made a difference to employee experiences during remote working.
The key areas were identified as:
- Physical circumstances of the work
- Equipment and technology
- Managing the home/work boundary
- Supportive management
- Contact with co-workers
- Feeling valued/collective purpose
- Fair allocation of workload and benefits
- Appropriate feedback and appraisal
- Opportunities to learn and network.
These themes were used as a framework for building a simple, one-page checklist for managers on the things they can do to support the wellbeing and productivity of their workers.
The detail of the framework came from the experiences described by workers and managers in the ongoing fieldwork with the Constabulary and older research by colleagues on managing and supporting distributed (i.e. remote or mobile) workers.
The idea behind the checklist was not to restrict manager autonomy, but to act as an aide memoire during difficult times. In his 2009 book The Checklist Manifesto, surgeon Atul Gawande argued that even very clever, very trained, very skilled people can make big mistakes in complex, stressed or rushed situations if small routine steps in bigger processes are missed.
Checking a one-page guide can be the difference between asking or not asking a question that could nip a problem in the bud regarding an isolated employee’s wellbeing and/or productivity. The checklist is therefore a tool in the toolbox of any manager, however experienced.
The final step in building the evidence-based checklist involved circulating it to managers in a variety of other organisations – members of the East Anglia Workplace Wellbeing Taskforce – who were asked to comment on its usefulness. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and a few final tweaks to the questions were made to make sure the terminology was more inclusive to managers in a wide variety of sectors.
There may be important management activities specific to sectors and worker circumstances that cannot be covered in a one-page general approach, but feedback from users since the launch suggests the framework allows managers to start having conversations within their organisations about what individual managers can change, what wellbeing and safety practitioners can contribute to, and what needs to be dealt with at organisational level to make supportive management possible.
Find the checklist at:
For the ‘review of reviews’ on the wellbeing and productivity challenges of isolated work see: bit.ly/3rpbYp9
The checklist was produced for and published by the PrOPEL Hub, an initiative that brings together leading researchers from several UK universities – and the CIPD – to develop practical tips and tools to help businesses improve productivity through enhanced workplace practices and employee engagement.
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