In our post-covid reality, many people found themselves working from home. Some people hated them, some loved them, but everyone had to adapt to them.
We, humans, are creatures of habit, and generations of doing work created certain cultural expectations in the same manner. Working from home breaks those expectations, which creates a sense of unease. This is true even for people who understand that their life is much better when working from home. They sense that something is out of place, which generates confusion and anxiety.
The challenges that come with working from home jobs go beyond the psychological. There are logistical issues, workflow issues, problems with focus… The list goes on. We’re going to go through the most common and pernicious challenges that come with the adoption of working-from-home jobs and then outline the six key solutions that savvy leaders can implement to counter them.
The Main Challenges Working From Home
Many challenges come with working from home. Each of them — or often, a combination of all — results in burnout, and burnout leads to people leaving. If the goal is to improve retention, we need to tackle them. Before we figure out how to do that, we need to learn which are the most significant challenges and their root causes.
Work Takes Over Life
There’s a reason some countries have put forward legislation to stop bosses from calling their employees after-hours once they transitioned to working from home jobs. Work-life balance is about more than when you work and stop working. It’s about when you stop thinking about work. That’s hard to achieve when there are a dozen work notifications on your phone’s lock screen.
It’s not only bosses who are to blame. Just the fact that there’s no clear distinction — you don’t cross the threshold of your house’s door to start and stop Work — will train your brain to learn that Work is now forever. It’s exhausting even for people who love their work.
Life Takes Over Work
Of course, the opposite can happen. If you’re at home, and especially if you’re not at home alone, but with significant others, pets, kids, a family of any kind… There will always be something to do. Some chore, some fun activity, some little gray kitten is looking cute and begging for a snuggle. Of course, there are our favorite books and video games lying around, together with the ones that we never got around to reading or play. And Netflix or Amazon Prime is only a click away!
Of course, most people aren’t complete slobs and have a modicum of self-control. I don’t want to infantilize people who have working-from-home jobs. They know how to manage their schedule and impose limits on the people who share their living space. But it takes time and energy to do so. Willpower is a resource, just like time and attention, and working from home requires an extra amount of it.
Lack of Sunlight and Movement
Here’s a controversial opinion: the commute is good for you. OK, so maybe not that hellish, 2-hours per day commute. But a moderate commute, something that at least gets you up and walking from your bed to your car and vice versa.
When everyone got switched to working from home, many of us neglected ever leaving the house. You might scoff at the idea that walking to the car and then from the car to the office makes you healthier, but it certainly beats getting up from bed and then sitting for 8 hours straight without even a whiff of sunlight and fresh air.
Low Motivation and Engagement
If you’re familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you know that people need more than health and wealth to thrive after a certain threshold. One thing they need is to be challenged and acknowledged by their peers.
In an internet-only setting, it’s easy to think of the people who work with you as computer-controlled characters in a video game. Most of our interaction in Slack or Teams happens through short, simplified text messages and character portraits of varying quality, some of which don’t depict the actual human behind the screen. It becomes easy to feel like all your Work goes into a soulless box with no tangible effect on the real world or real people. This leads to the final big problem…
Insecurity About Contribution
Without live feedback from peers and bosses and clear visibility into how our work impacts others and the world, it’s common to have days go by without feeling we made an impact.
It is often the case with people working from a home job that they look back on the day as a string of checkboxes filled, emails sent, and documents submitted. They feel like they didn’t accomplish anything.
Guilt soon follows, leading to extra effort and one of the previously discussed problems — Work taking over life — that ultimately results in burnout.
How To Retain Employees Working From Home
1. Set Clear Work-Hour Expectations (and Stick to Them)
I can’t kick people from Slack (well, I can, but it’s not productive), but I routinely tell people to log off and get some rest if I see they are online way over their usual hours.
Team communication apps like Slack or Teams facilitate two colossal problems: lack of focus and overwork. During regular work hours, pings are distracting; being repeatedly distracted over days and weeks lowers productivity and makes you exhausted; the natural progression is toward several of the problems outlined above.
When onboarding someone, I ask them to write the hours they commit to online and make them available to the team on a team spreadsheet. Ideally, that should be around 50 to 30% of their work hours and have at least 20% overlap with the person who is the farthest from them, time zone-wise.
I’m not saying you need to patronize and babysit the adults who work for you. But I used to be the guy who was happy to see someone overwork and do nothing about it because I felt it would be a boon to the bottom line. Short-term, yes, but I eventually realized that it led to me losing my best people. You don’t want to be like I was.
Let your people know you expect them to stick to their work hours, and if they are staying past that time, gently remind them that it’s time to take a break.
2. Allow For an Office Stipend
We usually think about office stipends as funds to get chairs, laptops, or second screens, but the most important thing is a discrete office.
If your employees have an extra room at their places, by all means, give them a stipend to pimp them up. But if they aren’t so lucky — and depending on local Covid policies, consider renting them a spot at the local co-working place or a small office space outside the house.
They will flourish in a distraction-free environment, and a (small) commute will be mentally and physically healthy. If the office or co-working location is within walking or biking distance, that’s the best-case scenario. One of my mentors even set up a shack in his backyard to serve as his office. Not every employee will have the luxury of a backyard, but if they do, it’s worth paying for a setup like that!
3. Encourage People To Take Walking Calls
A perk of having a podcast where I interview people leading remote teams is that I get my pick out of a wide variety of tools and tactics to make working from home… work. Of the thousands of insights I gathered over the years, the one that keeps on paying dividends is the “walking meeting” tip I got from Nassim Kammah, an engineering team leader who was then working at Mailchimp.
The advice is straightforward: for one-on-one calls, go audio-only and take to the streets with a good 4G or 5G phone and proper earphones. Anyone who’s had a good hour-long walk with a colleague while discussing work knows that the movement is beneficial to generating ideas and getting clarity. It’s also going to be a definite win for your employee’s physical and mental health, getting them that much-needed physical activity, fresh air, and sunlight.
4. Set a Daily Feedback Loop to Acknowledge the Work
The Agile Manifesto folks got this one right: it’s a powerful thing for a team to spend 10 to 15 minutes at the beginning of each day stating what they accomplished on the previous day, what challenges they faced, and what they expect to do on the current day.
By creating a daily ritual where everyone learns about what everyone else is doing and the challenges they face, you prevent people from feeling like they are working in a vacuum.
When your people have working-from-home jobs, and if they are spread across many time zones, do the ritual asynchronously. I recommend having a Slack channel dedicated to that. Here, it falls onto you, as the leader, to go through it every day and acknowledge each contribution.
5. Create Opportunities For Celebration
Seeing everyone else’s Work and challenges — and showing their own — will do wonders to retain your people working from home. But it can still feel dull and mechanical. People will feel like they are just going through the motions, and while they’ll know their contributions are being seen, they’ll feel unsure whether they matter.
In a remote setting, it’s not enough for you to be a leader. It would help if you were a cheerleader. When people see their work come together, they feel like they are a part of something. But when they see the effect of their work coming together, that’s when they feel part of something worthwhile.
There are many ways to celebrate remotely, and you should engage in all of them. I recommend having a channel/forum/email thread dubbed “kudos” or “appreciation” where people can head to offer spontaneous, public praise to a colleague. As a leader, make it a point to go there often to compliment your employees (genuinely, of course) and incentivize your managers to do the same. People will follow the leadership’s example and start doing it themselves, too. That’s how you begin a virtuous cycle.
Of course, when someone on a team — or the team, through their combined effort — achieves something important, like closing a critical account or getting better results from a new marketing campaign, make it a point to announce the team’s channel! Never waste a chance for public praise. My rule is: always praise publicly and criticize privately.
6. Schedule Regular One-On-Ones With Your Team
People who get working-from-home jobs suffer from “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome. Even if you are aware of their contributions and performance, they don’t feel you are. Regularly scheduled one-on-ones are the best way to sync up. They are also the perfect opportunities to offer and receive feedback.
The setup that has worked out well is the 30 to 45-minute call. I take these seated and on video while the employee-employer relationship is blossoming, then do the “walking meeting” after cementing trust.
I use the first 10 minutes for casual talk, and I attempt to be genuinely focused on learning about the lives of the people who work for me. This doesn’t come to me naturally, but I care about them and their work-life experience, so being familiar with their hopes, dreams, and goals is integral to the process.
Then, I talk about their current tasks and contributions; I try to discover their challenges and what they enjoy the most and the least about their Work. We brainstorm about getting more of the former and less of the latter. This takes up the bulk of the conversation, and it’s also where I offer any feedback I may have.
Finally, the last 10 minutes are to elicit feedback. Ask for a grade on your management and ask how you can improve their Work. In the first few conversations, you won’t get anything worthwhile, but eventually, someone will offer you some simple pointers.
The net result is that the employee will feel listened to; they will feel like they have a stake and a say in their destiny inside the team and that what they do matters. Which it should.
Retaining People Working From Home isn’t Hard
None of the advice I shared in this article should be hard to implement, and that’s the truth: remote Work doesn’t have to be complicated. It just needs to be different. Shoehorning usual office practices into remote Work is an excellent way to start, but it will only take you so far.
Eventually, for the sake of your employees with working from home jobs — and for the sake of your business, which depends on them — you need to take some steps to ensure their well-being, which will be how you retain them.
“Healthy, happy, and productive” should be your mantra; give your people the conditions to do their best work while remaining healthy, and make sure they understand the value of their contributions, and they will be happy working for you. Happy, healthy people don’t leave their jobs, whether they are working from home jobs or not.
What Issues Have You Had Working From Home?
If you have ideas you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!
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