By: Liz Fosslien and Sara Gottlieb-Cohen
Betsie Van der Meer/Getty Images
In a recent study, 89% of human resources leaders said that their teams have recently voiced concerns about job security, leadership changes, or reorgs. But there were notable differences between the responses of in-person and remote team members: Remote employees were 32% more likely to feel anxious in the wake of news about layoffs and were far more concerned about getting a new manager during a reorg. And 67% said this anxiety had an impact on their productivity. People who go to the office at least some of the time — whether that be hybrid or fully in person — were 24% less likely to say that uncertainty has impacted their productivity over the past six months. The authors offer five strategies for managers to help reduce remote workers’ anxiety and help them feel more connected to the organization and to their colleagues.
Workplace anxiety is on the rise. Starting in the fall of 2022, layoffs began in the tech industry and started spreading more widely. These cuts, paired with continued uncertainty about the economy and the future of work, have left employees understandably skittish.
Over the past year at Humu, we’ve analyzed employee engagement survey responses and behavioral data from more than 80,000 employees. In a recent study, 89% of human resources leaders told us that their teams have recently voiced concerns about job security, leadership changes, or reorgs. Anxiety also seems to be driving what employees want most: Half of workers prioritized job stability over both a higher salary and career growth.
But what struck us most were the notable differences between the responses of in-person and remote team members. Remote employees were 32% more likely to feel anxious in the wake of news about layoffs and were far more concerned about getting a new manager during a reorg. And 67% said this anxiety had an impact on their productivity. People who go to the office at least some of the time — whether that be hybrid or fully in person — were 24% less likely to say that uncertainty has impacted their productivity over the past six months.
It makes sense that employees who spend less (or no) time in person with leadership, their manager, and their team might lose out on an important social buffer against workplace stress.
But the answer is not to force everyone back into the office. Our research shows that people really want remote opportunities: 50% of employees say that remote work is a top priority for them in their next role, while only 4% would seek out fully in person work.
So how can organizations continue to offer the flexible work arrangements top talent wants — and mitigate anxiety among remote workers? The key is to train managers to foster a strong sense of inclusion within their distributed teams.
Creating the conditions for wellbeing and productivity in a remote or hybrid setting can initially seem difficult. Managing a dispersed team requires different skills than some managers may have used before, which might make it seem harder. But with focus and practice, it gets easier.
Here are five ways managers can reduce anxiety — and boost performance — among remote and hybrid workers.
Put chit-chat on the agenda.
When everyone works in the same office, it’s easier to get to know one another while making small talk in the kitchen or walking to and from meetings. Because remote workers don’t have access to these casual collisions, building relational trust in a distributed setting requires structure.
An easy way to combat affinity distance, or the emotional separation that can crop up between remote team members,is to dedicate the first five minutes of team meetings to a shared ritual. Have everyone say something they’re excited about or try “High, Low, Ha,” where each person talks through one highlight from their week, one low point, and one thing that made them laugh.
Our remote team at Humu kicks off meetings by asking something light-hearted and easy to answer — and we rotate whose responsibility it is to come up with the question. We’ve bonded over prompts like “What food is underrated?” and “You have five seconds to grab an object. Then share with the group what it is and why it’s in your home.” These activities make work relationships feel less transactional and create a social buffer against unnecessary anxiety.
Create cross-functional connections.
Dispersed employees tend to lack shared context, from body language to shared kitchen snacks to inside jokes. They also often have less visibility into what’s happening across teams, which can lead to confusion and an “us vs. them” attitude between functions.
Managers should look to build bridges with other teams in their organization. Try to create opportunities for remote employees to work on cross-functional projects (people tend to feel closest to the people they work with the most) or connect your team members to people from another department for informal chats. You might say something like, “Tracy, Kim’s expertise is related to what you’ve been focusing on. Why not set up time with her this week to get her thoughts? Happy to make the intro.” You can also regularly host colleagues from other departments at your team meeting to talk about their work, how your teams partner, and what they’re excited to learn from your reports.
Finally, make it a priority to take notes during important meetings and share them, either in a folder or summarized in a public channel. Among hybrid and virtual teams, careful documentation is especially important in boosting performance and trust.
Make a list, and check it twice.
It’s easy to fall into the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” trap when you don’t have much in-person time with your team. In other words, you’re more likely to reach out to the people you’ve worked with the longest or who speak up the most in team meetings. This bias can lead you to measure and reward access rather than performance.
To combat this bias, when you’re evaluating who to delegate work to or who might be best suited for an exciting opportunity, don’t just go with the first person who pops into your head. Write down every single person on your team. Carefully review your list and consider each individual’s strengths and areas where they might need (or want) development. Then make a more informed, intentional decision.
Think carefully about how you use 1:1 time.
Our research shows that 49% of employees feel anxious before 1:1s with their manager. These meetings offer a great opportunity to intervene and try to alleviate your team’s anxiety, but you might need to reconsider how you run them.
Do you ask check-in questions (think: “How can I best support you?” or “Is anything unclear or blocking your work?”) and seek input from your reports? You can do a lot to calm an insecure employee by saying, “Your skills are very unique and important to this company, and I value your opinion and expertise. What do you think of this?”
If you focus your 1:1s on status updates, you miss out on a valuable opportunity to better understand and support your people. Worse, you inadvertently send the message that you only care about pressing tasks and to-do’s, which can leave your team feeling expendable and stressed. Think about whether there are alternative channels (think email or Slack threads) in which you can get status updates.
Reflect on how you show up as a manager.
As a manager, you have an outsize impact on how employees feel in their day-to-day–and on what they feel safe sharing. A big part of your job is to create an environment in which each team member feels comfortable being genuine and flagging concerns.
Are members of my team asking questions or surfacing issues?
When I communicate a decision, do I also share why and how it was made?
Have I ever opened up about what I’m feeling to a direct report?
If you’re only getting positive feedback, especially when things are uncertain and employees are undoubtedly feeling anxious, you should be concerned. Aim to provide more transparency where you can, and to set the tone for conversations by sharing what you’re experiencing. You don’t need to suddenly become an open book, but saying something as simple as, “I know there’s been a lot of change lately, and that can be stressful. I’m feeling it, too,” can go a long way.
By focusing on the actions outlined above, managers can connect remote and hybrid team members to each and to the larger organization, making them feel more included and less anxious.