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Duty of care: How employers can support the wellbeing of their distributed workforces

by Jackson B

Kristine Dahl Steidel, Vice President End User Computing EMEA, VMware


Employees around the world have become accustomed to working in untypical locations, and for many that is at home five days a week. While this somewhat forced working practice has been vital in order to keep businesses running, it is highly unlikely a 100% home working policy is the answer to the future of work. What is more clear is that distributed ‘anywhere’ working – where employees can work from home, the office, a remote office, a café or a combination of all – will become more of a workplace blueprint – as it has been proven to work. But as workforces become increasingly geographically dispersed, employee wellbeing becomes even more critical.


But how can business leaders support their employees when they are ‘out of the line of sight’? With new challenges, like juggling work and family life, limited human interaction, and employees feeling the pressure to work longer hours, understanding how employees are feeling, engaging and performing is where management and leadership need to focus.


In fact, employers like Dropbox have already put employee wellbeing firmly at the centre of their business strategy. By capitalising on technology, they are going ‘virtual first’ to make remote working the default option and implementing non-linear workdays, giving all employees the freedom to work in a way that best suits them. With a holistic ecosystem of resources, the company will be able to track their progress and balance in person connections with remote work. They can adapt quickly depending on employee needs and effectively support the wellbeing of remote employees.


Maintaining a strong workplace culture


The flexibility of being able to work from home is not a new conversation. But there has been a seismic change in employee expectations this year, with a 41% increase in the proportion of employees across EMEA who now see remote working as a prerequisite rather than a perk. But for many, the increased pressure and perception of having to always be ‘on’ while working from home have become bigger conversations, requiring management support.


Employers must ensure they are encouraging employees to switch off after hours, prioritise their health by getting outside during the working day, and reassure employees that they don’t need to be sitting in an office to be a part of a supportive and positive work culture. Managers and HR teams have a real opportunity to adapt the work practice rule books, for example ensuring managers are not making contact or sending emails outside of core business hours.


What’s more, to retain the best talent, employers can instil a positive culture of trust so employees feel empowered to do their best work. Organisations should steer away from employee monitoring software that tracks output, and instead, for example, schedule regular video catch ups with teams to ask about their priorities, performance and how they’re doing. Employee input is essential and needs to be acted upon – or at least fed back – so individuals feel that their voices are being heard. Boosting trust will in turn maintain a good bottom line with employees reporting greater productivity (34%) and morale (30%) with remote working1.

Kristine Dahl Steidel

Kristine Dahl Steidel


Technology is here to help


In the big shift to remote working this year, many businesses may have feared IT teams and systems wouldn’t cope with the rapid change. However, in many cases, technology has proven to be the saviour in keeping businesses running.


Throughout country lockdowns, we saw businesses quickly adapt to adopt virtual meetings, replace team drinks with online quizzes and implement regular catch ups over video calls. The digital ‘inclusion’ shift even saw employee confidence grow, with nearly three quarters (73%) of employees citing improvements in personal connections with colleagues and 61% feeling more empowered to speak up in video meetings. Although humans still crave and require in-person collaboration and, admittedly, ‘Zoom fatigue’ has started to plague some of us, this global experiment has revealed that technology is here to help and we will increasingly see new and innovative tech being used to support businesses in keeping culture alive, despite distance.


Maybe start with having the right digital tools and work apps. Accessible on any device and all secure. Simply put, it’s the same tools employees are used to in the office – but from wherever they choose to work. This is all available now through software and is both reassuring for employees – who can focus on doing their work rather than have to learn new technologies – and there is no latency in getting employees up and running.


But with regards to the constant innovation at play, artificial intelligence (AI) based applications have the ability to match employees with colleagues for interactions based on similar interests, no matter where they work in a business. Imagine AI technology being able to connect Mark in marketing with Claire in finance, for example, who have never met, but are both die-hard Tottenham Hotspur fans and can form a workplace connection entirely online. Virtual reality (VR) headsets could be used to allow employees to ‘attend’ meetings. Employees would be able to look around and see their colleagues sitting next to them to create the feeling of a community.
While these ideas certainly won’t replace in-person interaction, it highlights how technology can really help foster greater collaboration and aid company culture. While these innovations may sound futuristic, the technology already exists to create them. With the rapid pace of technological adoption among businesses, there’s no reason why employees can’t be connecting via AI and attending VR meetings in the near future.


Removing location bias


With geographical location suddenly become less of a recruiting focus, businesses have the opportunity to capitalise on hiring more diverse talent and skill set pools. Candidates living too far from major office hubs to commute are now open to apply for roles that would have once been inaccessible to them. And while businesses benefit from this, they need to be mindful of location bias and the impact it can have on employee wellbeing.


Location bias can occur when one employee, who is perhaps less well-off, is unable to come into the office based on where they live. A colleague who has an expensive apartment just a short commute from the office in the city can come in when they please, catch up with their boss and form strong in-person connections. Over time, this can have consequences for both employees. The colleague close to the office might be favoured for a promotion, since they are front of mind during the decision-making process. The colleague living far away might deliver equally impactful results, but since they are not there, they could be at a disadvantage.


To combat location bias, it’s important for checks and balances to be put in place. Management must clearly signal how they will evaluate employees equally, no matter where they chose to work. Not doing this could create a situation where people feel forced to commute into the office, impacting their wellbeing at work and increasing stress. To truly capitalise on the diversity benefits distributed working offers, businesses must ensure their duty of care expands to those who can’t live near their office and actively prevent bias from becoming a problem.


The future is flexible


Like it or not, the future of work has fundamentally changed, with an increasing realisation that a distributed workforce works. But employers have a responsibility to ensure this works for the business and employees. Employers that prioritise wellbeing and embed it into their policies to will see improved results from teams. Employees that achieve a good work-life balance, feel trusted by employers, and connected with colleagues will be best equipped to perform. If businesses want to make the most of distributed working and get the best out of teams, employee wellbeing must come first.

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