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How to Improve Remote Employees' Well-Being

A group of people in a conference room watching a video conference.

​Before the pandemic, about 20 percent of HubSpot's 7,000 employees worked remotely. At the end of 2021, the cloud-based software developer, which is headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., decided to go all in on a hybrid business model that allows employees to choose whether they want to work from home, a mix of from home and in person, or at the office.

Today, 60 percent of HubSpotters work fully remotely, 30 percent divide their time between home and the office, and the remaining 10 percent are in-office employees. However, all employees are free to modify their status if their needs or life circumstances change.

Although HubSpot employees say they appreciate the flexibility, they also acknowledge that the work-from-home experience can be isolating. "Our internal research found that our employees are craving connection more than ever," said Meaghan Williams, HubSpot's manager of hybrid enablement and operations. "Meaningful connections spark engagement, growth and a greater sense of well-being."

While remote work often provides a welcome degree of flexibility and improved work/life balance, it remains an imperfect solution. In Microsoft's New Future of Work Report 2022, researchers found that although remote work can improve job satisfaction, it can also lead to employees feeling "socially isolated, guilty and trying to overcompensate."

Remote and hybrid work pose some unique challenges to the well-being of employees, including the risk of isolation, the difficulty of disconnecting from work and the blurring of work/life boundaries, said Gleb Tsipursky, author of Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage (Intentional Insights, 2021).

"Despite these challenges, the benefits of remote work for the large majority outweigh the downsides," Tsipursky said, noting that he agrees research on the issue raises important questions about what employers can do to improve the mental health of remote employees.

The Many Faces of Well-Being

To preserve and support employee well-being, employers must first define what well-being means to their workforce. "Well-being is a common word without a common meaning. If you ask 10 people you get 10 answers," said Melanie Langsett, the rewards, recognition and well-being leader for Deloitte US, based out of the Atlanta office. "There is no universal definition. Each organization defines for itself what it can influence. We recommend that employers focus on what they can do something about."

Langsett explained that at Deloitte, "we define well-being as the ability to thrive mentally, physically, financially and have a sense of purpose."

Pulse surveys and other employee research typically are the best way to get a handle on the state of employee well-being, Tsipursky said. "To get an accurate picture, this should be compared with the experiences of the employees before and after the shift to remote work."

When a company survey revealed that 85 percent of Synchrony's 16,500-person workforce wanted some form of work-from-home model even after the pandemic, the consumer financial services company gave everyone the option to work remotely, either full or part time. To ensure that the transition was successful, Synchrony developed a holistic approach to employee well-being that encompasses physical, mental, financial and community aspects, said DJ Casto, the company's New York City-based CHRO.

"Synchrony makes active listening a consistent part of our well-being strategy," he explained, adding that the company conducts frequent roundtable discussions, pulse surveys and town hall meetings with employees at all levels to encourage honest conversations, real-time feedback and diverse perspectives.

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Remote Work

Build Meaningful Connections

Tsipursky encouraged employers to use technology to keep remote employees in touch.

An example is HubSpot's Connect4 initiative, which is designed to create connections among the company's hybrid workforce. There are four components to the framework:

  • Purpose: Create intentionality around connection.
  • Ease: Use technology to make it easier to connect with other employees.
  • Equity: Ensure that remote employees can come together in person and virtually.
  • Sustainability: Make sure employees are contributing to the environment in a positive way.

"Our culture is not tied to a location, and neither is building connections," Williams said. "Everyone has the opportunity to opt into something meaningful."

At Moogsoft, a fully remote AI and IT operations developer, "well-being means making sure employees are happy and their needs are met," said Sharifa Parker, vice president of people for the company's 135 employees.

Because the organization is spread across three continents, social connections are usually built with the help of technology. This includes Coffee Connections on Mondays, happy hours on Zoom and automated pairings in Slack between employees who don't usually interact with each other. Employees also are encouraged to engage in a remote-workplace version of what psychologists call "parallel play," where people listen to music together and work side-by-side on virtual projects.

Managing Expectations and Boundaries

Remote and hybrid work can make it hard for employees to create boundaries between their work and personal lives. To address these issues, employers should establish clear expectations around communication, response times and work/life balance.

"It's easy for people working remotely to blend work and home. You have to give them permission to put up appropriate guardrails between work and life," Langsett said.

While working together at a large Texas law firm, Eric Pacifici and Kevin Henderson experienced intense pressure as associates to rack up billable hours. As they grew personally and professionally, they found that the ethos of big law firms was contrary to what they wanted. So in 2022, Pacifici (who lives in Windermere, Fla.) and Henderson (who lives in Dallas) decided to create SMB Law, a boutique mergers and acquisitions firm, using a completely different business model.

"We envisioned a firm where we could work from anywhere," Henderson said. "We wanted the flexibility to control our own schedules so that we could put family life first and be available to our kids."

To make that happen, they needed to move from a billable-hours fee structure to a flat fixed-fee model to discourage overwork and promote greater work/life balance.

"We are finding that many talented attorneys are willing to trade off big law salaries for more flexibility and less stress," Henderson said. "Our clients also like the fixed-fee model because it gives them more predictability around costs and allows them to build better relationships with our attorneys. Billable hours hurt the relationship to the client because they provide a perverse incentive to run the clock."

At Moogsoft, the primary focus is on employee mental health. The firm created a mental health Slack channel, provides a free subscription to the Calm app, and encourages employees to take time off during the day and throughout the year.

"We don't want people to clock in and clock out," said Parker. "We want them to manage their day the way they want and to take time off when they need to."

The Coaching Solution

Gallup research found that five interconnected elements of well-being—career, social, financial, community and physical—affect everything from an employee's job performance to their health status.

"Generally speaking, career well-being is the most significant," said Gallup's well-being lead Ryan Wolf, who works out of his home office in Omaha, Neb. "The key to career well-being is helping to get people into positions where they are playing to natural talents, strengths and abilities. It's about helping employees find the work that suits them."

Individualized coaching provided by managers is considered the most effective conduit to success.

"When coaching comes from the manager it carries a lot of weight," Wolf said. "Managers can guide their team members to resources offered through HR, L&D [learning and development] and financial institutions."

Coaching is also central to Synchrony's well-being strategy. However, the company relies more on external wellness coaches than on managers.

"We found our front-line managers were not equipped to address their teams' well-being issues, so we began offering well-being coaches," Casto said.

It has been an iterative process. In 2019, the company piloted a life coach program to help employees access mental health resources and financial counseling. The following year, they expanded the initiative in partnership with an external professional group to offer wellness coaches who could address the total well-being of employees and their families. The coaches also serve as guides to company benefits and resources, connecting employees with clinical support or with a financial advisor to work on savings goals.

Regardless of emphasis, HR has a vital role to play in any successful well-being strategy. "HR is responsible for understanding the needs of the employees, implementing policies that support well-being, and ensuring that managers and leaders are aware of the benefits of prioritizing employee well-being," Tsipursky said. "HR can also play a key role in organizing training and resources to support remote work and maintain a positive company culture." 

Arlene S. Hirsch is a career counselor and author based in Chicago. 


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