All trick and no treat: the top 5 scariest realities of the virtual workplace

Halloween may have just passed, but it feels like this whole year has featured lots of tricks and very few treats. Before January 1st rolls around, we’ll have experienced two national lockdowns, a huge cultural shift to working from home on a mass scale, and many will have felt enormous mental and emotional strain as a result.

And it doesn’t help that the novelty of working from home has largely worn off. It’s not without its benefits, of course, but this kind of long-term separation from colleagues and a ‘normal’ working life is definitely starting to have an impact.

Here are the top five scariest realities of the virtual office, and what can be done about them.

1) Isolation

The first lockdown earlier this year caused many to feel completely isolated from friends, family and colleagues, especially those who live by themselves. Not only that, people also had to get used to a completely different way of working. We saw the use of tools like Zoom and Teams skyrocket, but most will still have missed the natural social interaction that office life brings. The impact of these changes on employees’ mental health is huge, and conditions like depression and anxiety have become more common in recent months.

Employers are powerless to change many of these factors, but they can ensure that the virtual office is as human as possible by providing ways for staff to connect with each other in a more social, supportive and meaningful way.

2) Video overload

Staying connected to colleagues both is obviously important, so the meteoric rise of video conference calls since the first lockdown is easy to explain. But in reality, these calls can be - and often are - full of awkward conversation and even more awkward silences. With the first lockdown lasting months longer than expected, it’s not surprising that people are yearning for more natural interactions.

The use of technology might be unavoidable at the moment, but businesses can take steps to avoid these stilted conversations. Replacing them with smaller group sessions, for example, can help to create a more social atmosphere, as these chats can feel more like the conversations staff might have in the pub or after work.

3) Presenteeism

With no commute to contend with, it’s probably not all that surprising that presenteeism has increased. Research from the Mental Health Foundation and LinkedIn shows that 79% of HR managers believe the pandemic has encouraged staff to be present at work despite feeling ill. In many cases, staff are unwilling to call in sick because they feel it reflects badly when they are working from the living room. This clearly shouldn’t be the case, and it seems ironic that in the midst of a global pandemic, employees are not prioritising their health, both mental and physical.

Employers need to make it clear that they are aware of the significant toll COVID-19 is having on their staff’s wellbeing. It is essential that employees have the chance to switch off at the end of the day and take time for themselves, as that is the only way they will remain happy, engaged and productive. Encouraging staff to take a day off if they need it is also vital.

4) Burnout

Presenteeism is also connected with employee burnout. When working from home is the norm, staff may feel they need to be online constantly in order to prove their worth. When they have no visibility amongst the leadership team, staff tend to work longer hours to prove they’re actually working. This leads to burnout, disengagement and loss of productivity in the long run.

Taking annual leave might also feel pointless at the moment, which only exacerbates the problem. Employers need to reiterate the importance of drawing a line under the working day and should encourage team socials to help with this. Hosting work drinks or socials on a separate platform to the one used for meetings can help give employees the feeling that they’ve left the ‘meeting room’ and are heading the ‘pub’, which is vital for team morale.

5) Disappearing company culture

Without the buzz of the office, it is tricky to maintain a strong company culture, especially for SMEs who often have a close-knit team. There’s no chatting over a morning coffee, no lunchtime catch-ups with colleagues and limited team bonding. Plus, many employers have had to furlough some of their staff or make some redundancies, which can have a big impact on the workforce, especially amongst smaller teams.

Company culture is an essential part of staff retention, and retention and engagement are both key during the pandemic; it’s therefore vital to maintain and nurture them. Employers should try to create a sense of unity by injecting some fun back into the workplace via a mix of social calls and games, whilst also encouraging people who might not always socialise with each other to chat more often.

The coronavirus pandemic has hugely exacerbated feelings of uncertainty and even dread as we head into a second lockdown, and employers have a responsibility to help where they can. Remote working is clearly here to stay, so it’s imperative that employers take steps to address the challenges of the virtual workplace if staff are to stay healthy, happy and productive.