Article by Nancy Yip, Area Director of Hong Kong at IWG
The business world has turned into a giant laboratory for flexible working lately – Since January, large numbers of office workers across China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan started working from home or having alternative work arrangements as a measure against the widespread epidemic. Flexible working is in itself nothing new. As the IWG 2019 Global Workspace Survey has revealed, more than half of global and APAC employees already work outside their main office in business lounges, remote offices or at home for half the week. The million-dollar question lies in how the approach could be perfected to bring out its best intended result.
While flexible working has imperceptibly been proven to be a win-win policy, all that glitters is not gold. Flexible workers enjoy high degree of freedom and flexibility, but finishing work in an environment with a physical absence of team members can also create multiple challenges to their mental health and wellbeing. If left ignored, these challenges might gravely jeopardize the benefits of having the freedom to work remotely. As home-working takes place, it is now ever more important for HR managers and business leaders to start understanding the mental health implications of solo workers.
Loneliness and isolation
Technological developments have facilitated the proliferation of flexible working, enabling access of documents and communications regardless of geographical or time limits. On the flip side of the coin, however, it also discourages people from communicating face-to-face. Many now prefer to text or message a co-worker, instead of walking across the office to ask a question personally.
Working out of office further limits personal interactions, which may lead to a rising sense of isolation. Human are social animals. Without the stimulation from social interactions to help us stay motivated and engaged at work, many of us will soon lose interest and struggle to feel a sense of belonging to the company. According to an online survey on remote workers, loneliness and communication challenges are top challenges for remote workers, with one in every five remote workers struggling with lack of communication and isolation.
Tech fatigue and shortened attention span
Technology also causes another headache. Constant digital connectivity combined with the fear of being disconnected can also lead to signs of tech fatigue, including tiredness, memory issues, irritability, and increase in stress levels. A scientific research found that the high level of energy a person used to respond to a constant information flow would lead to shortening of attention spans. Another research on the impact of technology on intelligence by well-known British psychologist Dr. Glenn Wilson, further revealed that persistent interruptions and distractions at work can decrease a person’s IQ score by an average of 10-points, disrupting employees from demonstrating their full capacity at work.
While these effects could hinder the productivity of a regular office worker, solo workers are especially vulnerable to tech fatigue, as they often work flexible hours which easily leads to a lack of clear boundary between work and life. When work and life take place under the same roof, many struggle to draw a line.
Distraction, stress, and anxiety
Distractions at home can also cause workers to worry that they are unable to perform as well as one would in the office. For home workers, IWG’s survey found that 3 out of 5 APAC respondents are distracted by attention demands from family members while working from home. Hiccups such as the lack of physical hardware and facilities such as printer, fax and photocopier, slow or unreliable internet connection also frustrate workers at home. A Stanford study has shown that being constantly distracted will lead to lower cognitive ability and forgetfulness, which could further cause workers to fall into a vicious cycle of anxiety.
Recognizing the possible mental health complications of remote working is the first step. The next for HR managers and business leaders is to minimize its detrimental effects by perfecting the company’s flexible working policy. Here are three tips to consider.
Tip 1: Develop a support system
In many Asian countries, discussions on mental health struggles are still considered a taboo in professional settings. Managers are encouraged to take the lead to address the issue, conveying the message that employees’ emotional wellbeing is also a company priority. Having frequent and open discussions about stress, anxiety and loneliness help employees recognize that these are valid reasons to ask for help and doing so would not undermine their professionalism and performance.
Tip 2: Never underestimate the value of human touch
Simple gestures from an email commending teammates on their work, regular catch-ups and casual conversations are effective ways to maintain contact and establish a sense of inclusion for home-workers. It does not stop there. When possible, meet in person through happy hour gatherings, coffee chats and team lunches. Do not underestimate the value of team building activities, as for employees struggling with working alone, human connection could be powerful in preventing them from falling.
Tip 3: Invest in a coworking space
A home just isn’t a proper workplace. For many remote workers, having to find a well-equipped environment to settle down every day is still a major factor contributing to stress and anxiety. In the long run, businesses can consider investing in coworking spaces, which offer a network of locations and a professional setting for concentration and office support for employees who are constantly on the go. This also allows remote workers to better handle confidential tasks or discussions, using designated meeting areas with a higher level of privacy than coffee shops. Some flexible workspaces even have community events which help solo workers establish professional connections, network and relax.
With the rise of technology and shifts in the perceptions on the 9-to-6 office schedule, employers and employees are both expecting flexible working to be part of the routine. IWG’s own survey suggests that 83% of businesses in APAC have introduced a flexible workspace policy, or are planning to adopt one. As more employees work remotely, companies who takes care of their staff’s mental wellbeing are sure to be ones that gain the most out of them.