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Tackling Anxiety | The Challenges of Remote Working As A Leader

October 7, 2020
8.5 min read
Tackling Anxiety | The Challenges of Remote Working As A Leader
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Why is tackling anxiety, fear, and grief so difficult in times like the pandemic we are in right now? Why do managers and leaders struggle to find the right way to engage, support, and lead their employees? What works and what doesn’t?

This article will explore the genuine risks and challenges of remote working, what we should do about it, and how organizations and exceptional managers are doing their best to lead in this time of unrest, change, and uncertainty.

This Anxiety & Grief Is Temporary, But Is One of the Biggest Challenges of Working Remotely

This pandemic and crisis is a temporary state. It can be a tough thing to accept, as it doesn’t feel that way today. We often need to remind ourselves or others that while things will change, this state of significant uncertainty, upheaval, and loss is temporary.

The incredible stress our digital-first responders are under is tremendous. Many of us are working exceptionally long days, week after week, and truly testing our time management skills.

The pandemic period has been the most intense we have ever seen the impact of personal lives on work lives, at least in our technology work industry, especially as finding work life balance became more difficult. While this is happening, it’s incredibly inspiring to see people drive to help others, make a difference, and find a way to persevere and make things better, not just for today but for tomorrow’s future.

Now is the time to stock up on compassion. Learn and develop that incredibly useful skill of compassion and empathy as a manager as there may never be a time in your career where it will be more important than right now.

Why Are Managers & Leaders Concerned?

Let’s start with what we know. It’s unfortunate, but we have seen some managers and leaders in the industry struggle with seeing anxiety and grief as something that should not be in the workplace. “The leave it at home.” approach and “don’t bring it to work” has never been a healthy or effective way of looking at this, and it’s especially crucial during times like these to find the right ways to lead and support our employees, peers, and colleagues.

These feelings are not bad employee behavior. Bad employee behavior can indeed corrupt a whole remote team, and bad employee behavior is proven to be contagious, more so than good behavior.

As managers and leaders, one of the responsibilities we have is to be champions of excellence and, when needed, to address bad behaviors of remote employees, and employees in general, before they spill over and affect the behavior of other employees through peer effects. By under-appreciating how easily bad behavior spreads, it can have a significant impact on corporate culture and performance.

“Anxiety and grief are not the same as corrupt behavior; they aren’t bad behaviors.”

It can be tempting to think of anxiety and grief in the workplace as bad behavior. Even in our personal lives, we sometimes do this. We think of it as a gang of feelings. If you feel sad and let it in, it will make things worse. We fight feeling anxious; we fight feeling sad and try to avoid grieving.

How Should We Think About This Challenge?

One of the best ways to tackle those feelings in yourself, in others, and employees is to tackle it through the same steps of grieving, with an empowering step of acceptance and, if possible, finding meaning as the goal.

That isn’t to say that this doesn’t interfere with performance. As a peer or manager, connecting with employees and working through the steps of grieving can be a great way to help others during this time.  We can also find an approach to addressing the increased levels of anxiety and grief in our workplace based on how we tackle the impact and risks of our “always-on culture.”

Research has demonstrated, for example, that being “always-on” increases conflict and interference between our work lives and our home lives. As an example, sending and receiving emails outside of conventional working hours contributes significantly to stress. With so many new remote workers, the boundaries between work and home have become increasingly blurred, making it even more challenging to switch off.

There are real negatives of “always-on culture,” and it often leads to exhaustion. You can burn out. You can struggle to have time for your private life (when your personal life needs more of it than ever). You can struggle to find time for children. You can have regrets, many tense situations, lose friends and relationships, and much more.

Over 30 percent of first-line and information workers said the pandemic had increased their sense of burnout at work. We know that employee burnout accounts for as much as 50 percent of a company’s attrition.

This impact of “always-on culture” has real-world research and solutions from a management and leadership perspective. Solutions we can use even to address issues like anxiety and grief that are all too common today.

We know that while it can have significant negative consequences, there can be positives as well. Being always-on means that it’s easier to stay in the loop and get quick responses. It can provide flexibility to where and when you work, and accessing work outside of the office often leads to greater engagement with work and greater job satisfaction.  

The challenge is mitigating the negatives while emphasizing the positives. We know how to tackle this and have successful remote work environments and supportive work-life policies. We need to use this set of tools as one of our biggest levers in business to address the increased anxiety, and grief employees feel versus treating it as bad behavior.

What Can Be Done Right Now?

Let’s revisit that set of techniques and skills we have learned to address “always-on culture” impacts in the workplace.  

Here are a few of the most common tactics that we used to manage “always-on culture” and get better outcomes effectively:

Recharge by having a quiet area of your home to work or use it for a retreat.

  • Reduce meetings and add more focus time if you need to influence this pattern. Doing this may help you find more balance.
  • If you don’t have that space but can afford noise-canceling headphones, you can still make this kind of space mentally (while not as good if you can’t be outside, or somewhere else it might be a good option).

Recharge by doing something active.

  • Take breaks. Go for a walk or a run if you can. Do something new and different.

Use video and not just voice. Make time for 1:1 video chat, especially.

  • Don’t obsess with getting every little thing right or having the perfect home working environment.
  • It’s common today to blur or hide your background. Backgrounds can be empowering, and they can be more than just a pretty feature.
  • Embrace that not everyone dresses formally for work anymore when you can (though I still have a dress shirt and suit jacket handy just in case it helps some customers with a sense of normalcy and confidence).

Read messages before you send them.

  • If you are worried but aren’t sure how to word the message, accompany it with some 1:1 time to explain via voice and video.

Don’t forget it’s a marathon and that you need to support your own needs, not just the needs of others.

  • It’s okay to need support, especially if during this time of crisis, your close friends and family aren’t around to help.

Turn off your device when not working.

  • Make time for a virtual commute. Not just before work but especially after work.
  • Don’t send emails or request chats outside of regular working hours.

Ensure you have some time for other activities so that your workday doesn’t become overly routine.  

  • Timeboxing or converting to-do actions into blocks of time on your calendar might help.

How Can Technology Help with the Challenges of Remote Working?

It’s critical to understand that digital technology that is advancing the stresses of “always-on culture” is also working to remedy it. As an example, Microsoft has begun building wellbeing and productivity insights and actions directly into tools users use, such as Microsoft Teams. From unwinding with Headspace on your virtual commute to discovering opportunities to prevent burnout, there are new insights and experiences available to individuals, teams, and organizations that can help today.

These new personal wellbeing experiences have been around for a while, but them being in the places and tools we all work in shows just how critical they are and how important this subject is for organizations today.

Tackling the genuine risks of “always-on culture” isn’t limited to just individuals but is also something that managers and leaders need to act upon.  

As leaders, we need to compare the habits of our teams to teams of similar size and function. Examine and explore your teams. We have insights and data with a remote and digitally powered workforce that arguably are more powerful than the analog methods we have employed in the past. We can answer critical questions like these important ones using data available to us in these digital workplace tools today:

  • Are our after-hours collaboration norms for the entire team consistent, healthy, or desired?  
  • Are our employees at risk for burnout?
  • Are people maintaining strong internal connections?
  • Are relationships with customers improving?

Remote Work Tips - Launching and tracking change programs to remind team members to avoid after-hours interactions and preserve quiet days.
Figure 2 – Launching and tracking change programs to remind team members to avoid after-hours interactions and preserve quiet days.

Acceptance, Meaning & Tackling Challenges of Remote Working

A repeat paragraph that we think is important: It can be tempting to think of anxiety and grief in the workplace as bad behavior. Even in our personal lives, we sometimes do this.

We think of it as a gang of feelings. If you feel sad and let it in, it will make things worse. We fight feeling anxious; we fight feeling sad and try and avoid grieving.  

Being a manager and a good peer right now means supporting one another. It’s not about just acceptance but working together to find meaning as well. We are not as remote as we thought. We can find new ways to connect, engage, and flourish.

Keep trying. Reset your expectations daily, and remember it’s essential to acknowledge and accept how others feel. “What you feel is never wrong.” It’s true, and it’s important to continue to tell your employees, peers, colleagues, friends, and family that it’s okay to feel and that you don’t have to feel that way alone. Unlike the pandemic, this isn’t something you have to protect yourself from or keep socially distanced (in more ways than one).

Tackling the challenges of remote working alone can be overwhelming and feel impossible to manage. Especially during times like these, it’s important to lean on others to help keep your organization running smoothly. Reach out to us for help with the current state of your digital workplace. We promise, you’ll love the way we work. Together.

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