Work health expert talks about creating a productive and healthy WFH setting
Last updated on: December 22, 2021
Whether you’re a newbie in a remote working world or you have years of experience, you probably know that this work setting comes with its own advantages and challenges. And, speaking of the latter, according to Buffer’s 2021 State of Remote Work survey, the biggest struggles for remote workers are not being able to unplug (27%) and difficulties with collaboration and communication (16%).
To find out how remote employees can deal with these, but also some other problems, such as work-life balance, I reached out to Elaine Meyer. Elaine is a freelance writer who covers topics ranging from remote work, burnout, tech, to mental health, public health, and healthcare. She writes for media outlets such as Doist, Fast Company, Forbes, Huffington Post, Columbia University, and Weill Cornell. Apart from writing, she also worked as an English teacher in France, where she spent seven months.
Since Elaine is well versed in previously mentioned topics, I wanted to pick her brain on subjects like remote work, burnout, work-life balance, and employee wellbeing. In this article, I’ll share with you all the valuable tips and advice that Elaine pointed out during our interview.
Table of Contents
How to communicate and collaborate within remote teams?
If “distance makes the heart grow fonder,” remote work makes the stress levels soar.
Namely, according to a recent survey, stress and weight gain are among the key health issues for remote workers in the USA. Adequate communication, on the other hand, could help relieve stress and anxiety, especially in times of crisis.
With that in mind, I wanted to hear what Elaine considered crucial when it comes to communication and collaboration with remote teams.
In case you’re wondering whether it’s possible to achieve maximum collaboration with your remote team and still retain a healthy WHF setting, take a closer look at Elaine’s actionable tips for achieving just that.
Promote the async-first approach
In her article on asynchronous communication, Elaine pointed out that the async-first approach is all about making “written communication the default.” That way, meetings gain more purpose, workers become more productive, and everyone’s ability to focus quickly increases.
However, change doesn’t come easy to people, and resistance to any novelty in a work environment is quite common. Yet, Elaine has a two-step solution for even the most skeptical team members.
First, to get familiar with the benefits of a distraction-free work environment, she recommends reading a book or two on this topic. “Deep Work” by Cal Newport could be a great starting point.
After reading comes the talk:
“The second step would be to talk to team members and ask them what their struggles are right now at work. Rather than feeling like you have to boil the ocean, you are just able to focus on a smaller set of issues.”
Lower the emails volume
Apart from setting clear communication expectations for their employees, remote managers should be the ones to set an example too.
Elaine thinks managers are the ones responsible for clarifying how and when a team should get in touch with one another. Therefore, they need to avoid sending emails after working hours.
So, whenever you work late, and you want to email an employee, save the email and schedule it for the next day.
Schedule fewer meetings (and strive for diversity)
Another valuable tip that Elaine suggests is having fewer meetings — for instance, one meeting every two weeks rather than every week.
She also adds:
“What really benefits people are one-on-one meetings. When working in a remote company, people might feel like they’re not visible. That’s why regular check-ins are important, to make sure that people still feel on duty even when not in the same space.”
Reducing the number of meetings can also benefit managing multicultural virtual teams.
According to Elaine, whenever time difference is an issue, asynchronous communication can save the day. If there’s a proper and organized system for sorting out messages, nothing will be overlooked, even when people work in different time zones.
“I also write about public health, and a doctor told me recently that the more diverse your medical team is, the better it is for everybody. Embrace that diversity and see it, rather than think everyone is the same.”
How to build trust among remote team members?
Having a trustful and trustworthy relationship with coworkers is vital in any work setting — but building trust in the remote workplace is especially significant.
Let’s take a closer look at Elaine’s standpoint on the best practice for building a culture of trust.
Shift your focus to the outcomes
In Elaine’s opinion, when managers or employers worry too much about whether their employees are working or slacking off, this usually ends up badly.
“That kind of management seems to breed fear and anxiety among employees and actually, leads them to work in a way that is less productive.”
So, in a way, this behavior is ineffective both for managers and employees. Elaine continues:
“If you treat people like they’re not to be trusted, they’ll act that way. But, the main thing is whether they’re doing the work that you’re expecting of them. Also, setting clear goals and focusing on the outcomes is more important than time spent on something.”
In order to help remote workers be more effective with their tasks and finish them on time, managers shouldn’t interfere too much with what employees are doing. Ultimately, the results will speak for themselves.
How to care about remote employees’ wellbeing and mental health?
Apart from improving communication and building trust within remote teams, maintaining our mental health when working from home is vital, especially for workers who are new in this type of work setting. Let’s see what Elaine had to say about companies’ awareness of their employees’ wellbeing.
According to Elaine, employee wellbeing is closely linked to their work-life balance and the amount of time they devote to disconnecting from work. Companies, however, have their say in ensuring the balance is maintained.
“I think the key is introducing meditation or yoga, or just resources so that people can take care of themselves. Also, set some predictable hours, to help people disconnect from work. In the US, working mothers have really been stressed out since they’re taking care of their kids and working remotely. Having some flexibility for people in that situation is important.”
Elaine mentioned that one working mother told her that workers should talk to their employers about flexible working hours. Employees can discuss this subject with their bosses and explain when they can be available for work. Then, during these working hours, employees should put everything to work and give their best efforts.
How to create a better remote work routine?
Without wasting hours in commute, remote employees have gained approximately an hour a day of their precious time. Although so much can be done in an hour, if people spent their extra time finishing their work tasks from yesterday, the benefits of the additional hour could quickly disappear.
Sometimes, the fear of being seen as a slacker prevents remote workers from separating their work routine from their day-to-day lives — and they tend to make their entire day only about work. Choosing to allocate your extra minutes to responding to emails might not do much harm if done once a month. Yet, in the long run, this could potentially endanger your overall wellbeing.
Having spent seven months teaching English in Bordeaux, France, and experiencing work-life in the USA too, Elaine has had a firsthand experience of diverse work routines — so let’s see what she had to say about creating healthy WHF habits.
Regulate working off-duty
Sometimes, teleworking employees are expected to be available for their bosses and managers outside their working hours. In some countries, like France, this is regulated by the Right to disconnect law.
But, when not regulated by state/federal law, should companies have some kind of work policy that will prevent employees from working or even just being available off-duty? Elaine says this is the conversation that governments need to start having.
“It needs to be more than at the company level, it needs to be at a national level. Because every worker who works from home is struggling to disconnect. We’re humans — we hear the sound of a messaging app — and we want to respond. We really need to know that, from 5 pm to 9 am nobody’s going to send us emails, and we can back off. That’s kind of how I felt in France. People were just not expecting me to respond, and it would look overly American if I did respond.”
Although France found a way to regulate workers’ off-duty hours, America, on the other hand, does not seem to be near solving the same problem.
However, Elaine states that, since American companies are so influential, they need to take the lead on this and start introducing company policies on the right to disconnect. Everyone needs to be talking about this, according to Elaine. Businesses, unions, and the government should all work together in addressing the issue of off-duty work.
Strike a better work-life balance
Now, what about work-life balance? I was curious to find out if there was any significant difference between balancing work hours and free time in France and the USA.
Since Elaine worked only as a part-time employee in Bordeaux, which is in the Southwest, she believes that the life she had in France is much distinct from the lives of Parisians who work for a tech company.
However, she surely notices differences compared to her life in the USA.
“I felt like work’s not the focus for people’s lives (in France). People don’t ask ‘What do you do for a living?’ as often — that doesn’t come up first in a conversation. Most people take their vacation days, even if they don’t go anywhere — they take the time-off. For me, it felt easier to take sick time off in France.”
Elaine points out that this is because French culture is quite different from American culture.
“It feels like in America, people need to show like they’re committed. Even though nobody’s telling you: ‘Don’t take a vacation,’ or ‘Don’t respond to my emails all the time,’ people feel like they need to, because it’s the culture here.”
But, she also remembers reading how, in bigger French cities, if you work for banks or tech companies, the work-life balance is more similar to what Americans experience.
So, in general, did Elaine enjoy working in France?
“I really liked working there. Other Americans I met, who also worked in France, said that it’s a nice break from the US culture.”
💡If you’d like to learn more about cultural and language barriers in the workplace, we covered this topic in one of our previous articles.How to overcome cultural and language barriers in the workplace
How to disconnect after work?
Setting boundaries between work and free time is a common struggle for many telecommuting employees. Working from home, your laptop is always within reach, so it can be quite tempting not to log in during dinner time.
Although increasingly common, this type of behavior puts employees at higher risk of burnout. To reduce the risk of getting carried away with work, I asked Elaine to share a tip or two on
disconnecting after work.
Recognize overworking as a problem
In order to unwind after working hours, Elaine emphasized the fact that workers first need to identify this behavior (not being able to disconnect from work) as a problem.
“Then, they need to figure out why they have a problem: are they struggling to disconnect because their boss really wants them (to work) or is it because they feel like they need to signal their commitment. If it’s the latter, I would encourage people to take the risk – don’t check the email, and you’ll see that the world hasn’t exploded overnight.”
Another thing that Elaine emphasizes is sharing your problems with others.
“I would encourage everyone to try to talk to a boss — but it’s hard sometimes. Or, talk with other coworkers. If it’s a difficult culture, maybe consider going somewhere else where disconnecting is easier. But, I know that you can’t just do that overnight.”
Find a replacement for your gadgets
In his book, “Digital Minimalism,” Elaine states that Cal Newport, says that when you’re trying to disconnect and minimize the role of technology in your life, you have to have something that you want to do instead.
For instance, looking forward to a family dinner is a reason you’ll want to disconnect.
She also highlights the importance of deleting work apps from your phone.
“Don’t keep work apps on things that are non-work. If you’re a freelancer, like me, it’s a little harder, but don’t keep your work email on your phone if you don’t have to. At my old job, I deleted a work email from my phone, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
How to recognize the first signs of burnout and what to do about it?
However incredible it might seem, nobody’s immune to burnout. According to the newest Indeed’s Employee burnout report, 53% of the respondents have admitted feeling unmotivated, tired, and unfocused when trying to finish their day-to-day work tasks.
Given that Elaine has experienced burnout herself, I wanted to hear her unique story and how she managed to deal with this significant issue.
Don’t ignore the negative emotions
Elaine highlights that bad feelings should always be taken seriously.
“Sometimes I would say to myself: ‘Elaine, you’re not a corporate lawyer or a banker, you’re not working crazy hours, you shouldn’t be burned out.’ But, that’s not really fair. We all work a lot, so I think we all have legitimate reasons that we don’t feel great.”
“I think just recognizing the problem is a really good place to start. Maybe, talk to a mental health professional if you can, or a friend. Reading articles about burnout — the articles other people have written — helped me recognize it as a problem. Then, make any change you can to minimize the source of burnout in your life — like taking some time off.”
Introduce changes to your routine
Elaine also suggests focusing on basic things, such as eating healthy meals and getting outside. As she further explains:
“When you take yourself seriously and you change things in a positive way, that will actually help you with your work.”
Another crucial point that can be quite helpful is changing your environment.
“The culture that surrounds us often really makes an impact, but I also understand that it’s hard to change it. Going to France was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. Not just the fact that I’ve lived there, but that I did it, that I’m capable of doing something that scared me. I think that every time you do something that scares you and you see that it was a good experience, you feel more equipped to deal with other challenges.”
Bonus recommendations for book lovers
Inspired by Elaine’s article on how to read more books, I was eager to learn what books she recommends when it comes to productivity. So, this is Elaine’s brief selection along with reasons she enjoyed these books.
“‘The Joy of Missing Out’ by Svend Brinkmann. It’s about having a more minimalistic life and figuring out what your priorities are. When you figure out what your priorities are, you won’t feel so bad that you’ll inevitably miss a lot of things.
There’s also a book called ‘How to Do Nothing’ by Jenny Odell. It’s about productivity, but in a different way than we usually read about.
And, a book called ‘Essentialism’ by Greg McKeown, which is about setting priorities.”
💡Be sure to check our list of the best books on productivity.20+ Best books on productivity
Talking to Elaine made me realize that establishing a productive (and healthy) remote work setting is a team effort. Everyone should be included, managers, employees, and employers.
Here is how:
- Managers: They need to establish a trustworthy and truthful relationship within the team. Besides, instead of having too many team meetings, these team calls should happen less often. But, leaders should have occasional one-on-one meetings with each team member, so that everyone feels included.
- Employees: To be more productive, while maintaining their work-life balance and mental health, workers need to set clear boundaries. Thus, whenever they’re working, their attention needs to be aimed at job tasks. But, once they’re done with work, employees should look forward to their free time, which they can spend either with their family or friends or doing some solo activities that help them unwind. This way, it’ll be easier for workers to unplug from work.
- Employers: Employers should allow some flexibility when it comes to the working hours of remote workers, especially working mothers. Furthermore, employers should provide their workers with yoga/meditation classes, or at least with resources on how to take care of their mental health.
✉️ Do you work remotely? If so, what challenges do you usually experience? Send your answers, suggestions, and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and we may include them in this or future posts.