When Gary Marsh’s department transitioned to a hybrid telecommuting model 18 months ago, he didn’t know he and his team were preparing for a new normal where the vast majority of us are working from home. Marsh, the Director of Talent Management for Harris Health System, describes a system where all non-clinical employees worked from home 2-3 times a week. The result? When stay-at-home mandates came down, the transition was not as difficult for Harris Health employees.
“It was like a test drive,” says Marsh. “But now my entire team enjoys working from home.” It’s not just his team enjoying the benefits of telecommuting. Marsh has conducted polling of Harris Health employees and found by-and-large people are responding positively to the change, especially those ditching a lengthy Houston commute.
“I used to have a ‘fun’ commute back when I lived in Southern California,” laughs Marsh. “It was brutal. It definitely took a couple of years off my life.” When he moved back home to Houston his commute dropped from 90 minutes each way to 10. Now he has no commute at all. “it’s amazing how not sitting in your car and being home at reasonable times can really improve your quality of life.”
Indeed, according to HR professionals like Marsh and health experts like Michele Hunnicutt, who is Harris Health System’s Director of Employee Wellness, there are a ton of positive aspects about telecommuting, quality of life first and foremost among them. Says Hunnicutt, “Even before this crisis, I’ve been a firm believer in telecommuting. In today’s world, from a health and wellness standpoint, I think it’s critical that employers work with their employees to achieve a balanced work/life integration.”
And while some companies worry that telecommuting negatively affects productivity, neither Marsh nor Hunnicutt have seen this to be the case. In fact, Hunnicutt notes, because of the lack of office distractions and the personal flexibility telecommuting allows, employees are often happier, which leads to better productivity. Add in the fact that we’re not spending 2+ unproductive hours in the car, and productivity increases by default.
Rondell Bailey, an HR veteran who now heads Harris Health’s Learning Resource Center, agrees. He’s been watching the effects of telecommuting on Harris Health employees and acknowledges some real positives. Besides improved quality of life, Bailey has witnessed what he calls the “we’re still working” benefit, which basically amounts to the gratitude felt by those lucky enough to still be working.
“The ‘we’re still working’ benefit is not meant to be insensitive to those who cannot work right now,” Bailey clarifies. “Instead, the fact that we’re still gainfully employed is a benefit that shouldn’t be taken for granted. I believe recognizing this fact enables us to have an increased level of empathy for those not as fortunate and allows us, as HR professionals, a new level of patience that may not have been as prevalent before.”
Still other benefits are emerging. Hunnicutt observes that from an employee wellness standpoint, working from home enables healthier life choices. We eat better because we’re cooking our own meals, and we exercise because we have the time. Bailey notes employees of Harris Health have embraced the technology inherent to telecommuting. Because he sees a future where telecommuting becomes the norm, he’s excited his team now has these important skills. All three, Bailey, Hunnicutt, and Marsh speak of enjoying more time with their families.
Despite these benefits, telecommuting has some challenges, from mental health issues linked to the lack of in-person interaction to potential burn-out from a dysfunctional work/life balance. “A comfort curve is still being managed here,” acknowledges Marsh. But all three experts stress Harris Health managers are working hard to provide solutions to these potential drawbacks. Says Bailey, “Even though there are no one-stop solutions that will work for every single individual, there are some helpful tips that, when tailored to your individual telecommuting situation, can mitigate any less-than-desirable side effects from working from home.” 1. Find the Right Balance to Your “Work/Life Blend”
Because telecommuting removes the physical act of going to work, Bailey notes what used to be a work/life balance is now more of a work/life blend. This can cause burn-out. “The same elements that aid productivity in telecommuting, like never having to go into the office, can also do harm,” Bailey says. “We’re doing more simply because we can.”
To combat this, all Harris Health managers have been conducting coordinated employee check-ins to make sure employees get the support they need as well as don’t feel overworked. “Because of the physical distance inherent to telecommuting,” says Bailey, “We want to avoid an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality with our employees.” If this means making adjustments to elements like “core time”—the time during the day an employee must be reachable by phone or email—in order to ensure all employees don’t feel trapped at their kitchen table for hours at a time so be it. Harris Health is looking to stay nimble in order to head off burn-out. “We’re here and we’re listening,” says Marsh.
From a wellness perspective, Hunnicutt stresses having a functional work/life blend is the most important factor in maintaining mental and physical health. She encourages us to develop a routine that designates work time and family time. When the moment comes to trade your work hat for your home hat, Hunnicutt suggests giving ourselves a little bit of time to transition between roles. This helps maintain a healthy boundary between home and work.
“Also bear in mind keeping a routine or schedule does not mean being inflexible,” says Hunnicutt. “Keeping yourself and your family on a regular sleep and eating schedule will help reduce your overall stress, but if it’s too rigid, you lose that benefit. Maintaining flexibility while wearing multiple hats is what an ideal work/life blend looks like.”
Hunnicutt also encourages setting up a designated workspace, if your home allows, that is comfortable and functional, preferably one you can leave when your work is done. In other words, turning your living room into your office and back every day can get stressful. Says Hunnicutt, “Life integration is more important than ever now. Personal circumstances make a difference. Creating a healthy workspace helps. Stay organized, keep good lighting, be near a window. And take your roles as parents and employees in shifts when possible.” 2. Take Advantage of Mental Health Resources
While telecommuting, it can feel like we’re unmoored, alone to face whatever challenges the day holds. But Marsh, Bailey, and Hunnicutt all point out Harris Health, like many Houston companies, has a variety of programs to assist employees and their families during this health crisis. As the Director of Harris Health’s Employee Wellness programs, Hunnicutt oversees the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). The EAP is an invaluable resource to Harris Health employees. Here employees can receive free counseling, financial and legal assistance, and resources to help locate childcare like Harris Health’s new partnership with the Houston YMCA. In recent weeks, Harris Health witnessed increased demand for their mental health programs and responded accordingly.
“Additional programing on how to deal with the mental health challenged caused by COVID-19 is available,” says Hunnicutt. “These programs are not only for nurses who are concerned about getting their families sick but also for telecommuting employees who are dealing with the stress of now having to be a worker and a teacher and a parent, all at the same time.”
Regardless your industry, your company’s HR department is most likely offering some support. If not, Houston has mental health resources you can investigate.
3. Make It Part of Your Routine to Connect with Others
Besides searching out mental health resources, Hunnicutt, Marsh, and Bailey all agree there’s one important step they’re taking as managers to improve their employee’s mental health that we can do, too.
“I can’t stress this enough,” says Bailey. “Interaction with others is key.” Bailey and other Harris Health managers use what they call “101s”. 101s are short, personal interactions between managers and employees that aren’t even necessarily work-related. 101s can make the difference between a happy, productive employee and one who may begin to feel isolated, despondent, or anxious.
“As managers, we need to weigh the pros and cons of telecommuting for each individual employee and not take on the mantra that there’s a one-stop solution for all employees,” says Bailey. “Working from home is a privilege, but managers need to stay in touch with their team and make sure we’re doing what’s best for our employees.”
Marsh agrees. “Connection with others is absolutely vital. From an employer standpoint, that means we’ve tried to focus on consistently knowing the pulse of our employees. We want them to know that if there are more things we can do that will help encourage them throughout this crisis, we will do them.”
These check-ins are not just for managers. All of us, as individuals, can help each other by increasing the amount of checking in we do with our co-workers, friends, and family. “Touching base with people and checking in is vital,” says Hunnicutt. “It’s something small we can all do to help. Social support and outreach aren’t just good for the people you’re reaching out to, it makes you feel good, too.” 4. Know the Mental Health Warning Signs
The resulting focus on employee wellness has made the importance of knowing the warning signs of mental health issues all the more imperative. Hunnicutt says there is a list of things she and other managers like Marsh and Bailey look for in their employees that we, too, can be mindful of when we check in with others.
“From a manager’s perspective, noticing an employee putting in erratic work hours, either at odd times of the day or just someone obviously overworking, missed deadlines or lack of availability, unexplained absences or reckless behavior are all mental health warning signs,” says Hunnicutt. “From a co-worker or parental perspective, if you hear frequent physical complaints, that could be a sign. Increased irritability, anger, trouble sleeping, all these may mean your child or co-worker is having difficulty coping with these unprecedented times.”
Most of these signs can be mitigated by relationship building and checking in. “Just touching base with someone, seeing how they’re doing, and giving them an opportunity to share is the first step,” says Hunnicutt.
With these resources available, Harris Health hopes for continued success with its telecommuting program, one where the pros far outweigh the cons. If you’re feeling more of the negative side effects of telecommuting, health experts encourage you to seek help. Reach out to your manager. Look into what mental health resources are available in your area. Check-in with a friend or loved one. You can be sure while we’re all telecommuting, they’ll be checking in on you, too.