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.

How to create a productive and healthy remote work setting without burning out - cover-min

The importance of communication, collaboration, trust, and wellbeing in remote teams

We tackled the topic of remote work and remote teams. I wanted to hear what Elaine considers crucial when it comes to communication and collaboration within remote teams. Apart from that, building trust among telecommuting team members is another valuable point, as well as employee wellbeing. After all, according to a recent survey, stress and weight gain are among the key health issues for remote workers in the USA.

How to communicate and collaborate within remote teams?

In Elaine’s article on asynchronous communication, she points out that the goal of having async-first communication is that “written communication is the default” and “meetings are more purposeful.” That way, workers are more productive and are able to focus on work.

But, what happens when remote managers or employers are skeptical about this concept?

Elaine recommends educating oneself about this topic, and one of the best books for it is “Deep Work” by Cal Newport. Here are the following suggestions.

“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.” 

When it comes to remote managers, Elaine thinks they should set clear expectations with their workers, such as when employees are available and how to get in touch with one another.

One way to improve communication within a remote team is 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.

Another valuable tip that Elaine suggests is having fewer meetings, for instance, one meeting every two weeks rather than having it 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.”

Now, when managing virtual teams, you’ll also need to think about team collaboration and how to achieve it. This matter is extremely important in multicultural teams, where there are employees working from various places in the world and various time zones. According to Elaine, asynchronous communication is the solution here, again. Thus, if there’s a proper and organized system for sorting out messages, nothing will be missed out, although 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. Embracing that diversity and seeing it, rather than thinking 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. In Elaine’s opinion, when managers or employers worry too much about whether their employees are working and not 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 to finish them on time, managers shouldn’t interfere too much with what employees are doing. The results that workers make 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. So, I asked Elaine if she believes that companies pay enough attention to employee wellbeing.

She claims that employee wellbeing is closely linked to their work-life balance and whether employees have space to disconnect from work when off-duty. So, what should companies do to help employees in this field?

“I think 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.

The differences between working habits and work-life balance in the USA and France

Elaine spent seven months teaching English in Bordeaux, France. Having experienced working both in the States and France, she’s capable of comparing working habits in these countries. But, I was also eager to find out how Americans and French approach work-life balance, and how these nations regulate off-the-clock work.

Why working off-duty needs to be regulated

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 government’s nations 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 a sound of Slack, 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.”

Elaine clarifies that this problem is probably not going to be solved soon in America. However, she claims that, since American companies are so influential, they need to lead on this and start having company policies on the right to disconnect. On the other hand, when it comes to France and their regulations, French law mandates that companies need to set a policy with their unions or employees.

So, Elaine concludes that everyone needs to be talking about this – businesses, unions, and the government.

Work-life balance in the United States and France

Now, what about work-life balance? I was curious to find out how important juggling work and free time is for these two cultures.

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 that central for people’s lives (in France). People don’t ask as much what you do, that doesn’t come up first thing in a conversation. Most people take vacation even if they don’t go anywhere, they take the time-off. 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 “respond to my email all the time,” people feel like they need to show it, because it’s the culture here.”

But, she also remembers reading that in bigger French cities, if you work for banks or tech companies, work-life balance would be more similar to what Americans experience.

So, in general, did Elaine enjoy working in such an environment?

“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.

Setting boundaries between work and free time and avoiding burnout

Now that we’ve covered the issue of work-life balance, let’s see what practical steps you can take to set boundaries between work and free time. Elaine mentioned some quite handy tips on this matter, and we’ve also talked about how to recognize the first signs of burnout.

How to disconnect after work?

Many telecommuting employees struggle with disconnecting after work. There’s no commuting, their home office is the place where they live, so workers easily get carried away with work.

So, 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: 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.”

Elaine adds that Cal Newport, in his book “Digital Minimalism,” 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 Slack or 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.

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.”

How to recognize the first signs of burnout and what to do about it?

Given the fact that Elaine has experienced burnout herself, I wanted to hear her unique story and how she managed to deal with this significant issue. 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.

She adds:

“I think just recognizing the problem is a really good place to start. Maybe, talking to a mental health professional if you can or a friend. Reading articles about it, the article that other people have written, helped me recognize it as a problem. Then, making any change you can to minimize the source of burnout in your life, like taking some time off.”

Besides, 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 an environment.

The culture that surrounds us often really makes an impact, but I also understand that it’s hard to do 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 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 (but also wine 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.

And, since Elaine has a WSET certificate in wine and spirits, I wanted to hear more about this experience.

🍇”When I was in France, I went to a chateau in Burgundy that had its class, it was a WSET certificate. Basically, you taste wines for two days, and then you take a test. I think the cool thing about the wine certificate is that it gave me a base knowledge to be able to appreciate wine, even if I don’t work in an industry.”

So, what’s her favorite French wine?

🍷”I really like wine from the Beaujolais region. In Bordeaux, they drink sweet white wine, and they pair it with foie gras, and I love that combination.” 

Wrapping up

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:

  • 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 blogfeedback@clockify.me and we may include them in this or future posts.