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Post-COVID work environment

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This blog, authored by a member of the Safety, Health and Wellbeing Panel, details some of the challenges and benefits of the post-COVID working environment.

Author: Paola Casagrande, CEng FIStructE

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated digital transformation across industries and has fundamentally changed the way we currently work. Remote or hybrid work (ie partly remote) have become more widely accepted and integrated into many organisations. Working from home, flexible working hours, compressed work weeks, and other arrangements accommodate more diverse work styles and employees’ different circumstances. Companies have revised their work policies to be more flexible, acknowledging that employees have different needs and preferences.

This shift has a significant potential to improve employees’ productivity and, if managed well, their wellbeing. However, remote or hybrid working can also be challenging, both for employers and employees. The impact on mental and physical health of working remotely or in a hybrid way does vary among individuals and is influenced by factors such as the nature of the work being undertaken, personal preferences, work environments, situation at home, and the specific implementation of hybrid work policies.

This article highlights the positive impacts and the challenges of the post-COVID way of working and explores how to enhance its benefits and mitigate potential issues.

Positive impact:

  • The increased flexibility in when and how work can be undertaken can have a positive effect both on mental and physical health. Greater flexibility in managing work and personal lives can help reduce stress and improve overall mental well-being and should allow individuals to schedule regular breaks and exercise
  • Less commuting can reduce stress levels and contribute to a better mental state. Commuting time can be redirected towards self-care activities or spending time with family
  • Increased autonomy and control can empower individuals, leading to increased job satisfaction and a positive impact on mental health. Autonomy in scheduling breaks and activities during the workday can contribute to better physical health by allowing individuals to incorporate healthy habits
  • Business travel may be approached more selectively, reducing travel time, cost and carbon footprint, while allowing a wider participation in meetings
  • When well-managed, hybrid or remote working can be effective in reducing burn out or fatigue
  • Collaboration and connectivity may be positively impacted, as being away from the office forces employees to make a conscious effort to reach out to team members
  • The higher productivity can result in more job satisfaction and potential for growth

Challenges:

  • The flexibility of remote or hybrid working can sometimes result in difficulties in setting clear boundaries between work and personal life, leading to potential stress and burnout. Overworking without proper breaks can also impact physical health, leading to issues such as eye strain, fatigue, and musculoskeletal problems
  • Employees working from home may not have an ergonomic workstation setup, potentially leading to discomfort or physical strain. Depending on individual’s home circumstances, it may be difficult to have clear physical separation between home and work set ups, and sometimes individuals may be distracted by their young family or roommates. In these cases, remote or hybrid working feels like a privilege they cannot access, potentially leading to feeling resentful and excluded from the benefits others may be able to afford
  • Extended periods of hybrid or remote work might lead to feelings of disconnection, isolation, and loneliness. For some individuals, it can be difficult to cope with lack of face-to-face interactions and this can impact team cohesion and may affect mental well-being
  • Although some individuals take advantage of commuting to exercise, hybrid or remote working may contribute to a sedentary lifestyle and have potential implications for physical health
  • The remote or hybrid working arrangements do not necessarily improve work-life balance, especially when employees’ online availability requirements are significant or when tasks and calls compete for the employee’s time
  • Training, development and mentoring can be negatively impacted by hybrid and remote working, both for employees working remotely or those working in the office but lacking support due to colleagues not being present in the office. This is particularly detrimental to early career employees, but it also affects those new to the team who can benefit from the support an office environment can provide and learn from the casual interactions that come from sharing an office space
  • Although digital tools have significantly developed and allow effective cooperation in a virtual setting, they may introduce challenges in communication and lead to misunderstandings or feelings of disconnection. Strained communication can in turn impact teamwork and collaboration, potentially affecting the success of projects and creating stress for individuals. It may be particularly difficult to be effective in exchanging ideas and engaging in workshops in a virtual setting
  • Attending virtual meetings, although allowing wider participation, can lead to mental fatigues when there are no breaks between calls

 


Courtesy of Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab Research proves your brain needs breaks


The way forward

Employers play a significant role in addressing the challenges created by hybrid and remote working by implementing supportive policies, fostering communication, and promoting a healthy work culture. These are some potential strategies that can be deployed:

  • Establish clear rules on hybrid and remote working arrangements and encourage employees to communicate their needs. This applies also to flexible working arrangements, which must respect the overall team dynamic and business needs
  • Foster regular team meetings, both virtually and in-person, to maintain a sense of connection and community
  • Offer training programs that focus on effective communication and collaboration in a hybrid work environment
  • Conduct regular check-ins with employees to discuss workload, challenges, and well-being. These check-ins should act as open communication channels to ensure that employees feel supported and heard and managers should be proactive in addressing potential issues and providing support. It is important that employers allow adequate time and resources in support of the important role line managers have in ensuring their team’s wellbeing
  • Implement well-being programs that address both mental and physical health. This may include guidance and resources on setting up ergonomic home workstations for remote workers as well as access to mental health support services, and workshops, webinars, or resources on stress management, resilience, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. It is particularly beneficial to offer line managers training in recognising mental health issues, especially in a virtual working environment
  • Establish flexible scheduling options, allowing employees to manage their work in a way that suits their individual preferences while meeting business needs. However, such arrangements must be respectful of colleagues’ own arrangements, and project and client’s requirements

Individuals, too, can take proactive measures to boost their mental and physical well-being in a remote or hybrid work environment within the overall team context and needs:

  • Establish clear boundaries between work and personal life. Define specific work hours and take breaks to avoid burnout. Communicate availability to colleagues and managers to manage expectations
  • If possible, designate a specific area in the home for work to create a separation between professional and personal life
  • Set personal goals for maintaining a healthy work-life balance and well-being. Take regular breaks during the workday and incorporate wellness practices into the daily routine, such as mindfulness, regular exercise, and healthy eating habits. If available, take advantage of any wellness programs or resources offered by the employer
  • Regularly assess own well-being and work satisfaction. If signs of stress or burnout appear, take proactive steps to address them. If struggling, reach out to mental health resources or support services provided by the employer or seek external support from mental health professionals
  • Hybrid, remote and flexible working must be effective for the individual and the team and sometimes these may not be appropriate or desired arrangements. This should be acknowledged and accepted, without detriment to support, opportunities and resources provisions

Enhancing the positive impact of hybrid and remote working should build on the advantages of improved productivity and promote well-being for both employers and employees.

Here are some strategies which the employer can consider:

  • Acknowledge and appreciate employees' efforts, accomplishments and contributions, both in the office and remotely. Ensure that communication is inclusive of all employees, regardless of their location. Share important updates, company news, and success stories regularly
  • Offer opportunities for continuous learning and skill development, allowing employees to enhance their expertise and stay engaged in their work. Provide resources for employees to attend virtual conferences, workshops, or training sessions
  • Encourage a holistic approach to work-life balance, recognizing that personal and professional lives are interconnected. This should be underpinned by policies that support employees in managing family responsibilities and personal commitments
Employees can also play their part:
  • Promote a positive, supportive work environment and sense of connection by actively participating in team-building activities, engaging in virtual and in-person social events with colleagues and attending professional networking and collaborative projects
  • Set clear goals and priorities, and regularly evaluate progress to ensure a sense of accomplishment. Embrace time management techniques to maintain productivity and work efficiency
  • Be transparent about work progress, challenges, and achievements. Provide and seek regular feedback to enhance professional development and ensure alignment with organisational goals. Act on feedback received, both in terms of performance improvement and personal growth
In summary, the impact of hybrid working on mental and physical health is complex and context-dependent. The COVID-19 pandemic has, in a very short period of time, radically changed the dynamic and relationships between employers, employees, colleagues, project teams and clients. Striking a balance between flexibility, meeting business needs and maintaining a sense of connection and community is crucial. Ultimately, by working together and prioritising the well-being and needs of both employees and employers, the complexities of remote and hybrid work models can be addressed and a more flexible, inclusive, and productive work culture can be created for the future.

 

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