As the workforce becomes increasingly remote, many digital agencies are faced with a new challenge: how do you promote mental health and wellness for a distributed team?
The Elementary Group is a web design and development company based in Yorkshire and London, UK. Here’s how they support the mental health of their employees.
When Elementary’s team went fully remote in 2014, it felt like a big leap. They had read about the benefits of the remote business model; as a digital agency, they were already engaging with many of the practices, tools and techniques the team would later rely on for this new way of working. Still, they had some trepidations. Transforming the way of communication and collaboration, while continuing to deliver outstanding work for their clients, was going to be a difficult task.
Five years on and Elementary Digital’s team has remained remote — and they are constantly growing. The trend of remote working is growing too. According to a recent study, more than 4 million people work remotely across the UK; it’s a figure that’s expected to encompass over half the UK’s workforce by 2020.
Elementary are proud to be early proponents of this working model. Forced congregation around desks, office politics, long commutes and presenteeism never reflected their company values. Since going remote, the agency has seen an increase in staff retention, saved on costs and have been able to attract the best talent from around the world — not just what’s available within a commutable distance. They’re now convinced that the big leap they made in 2014 was the right choice for Elementary Digital.
Conversations across the sector have been keen to highlight how a remote working model can benefit both a business and its employees. But it’s important to address how, as an industry, they can deal with some of the challenges that come with managing a remote team — especially when it comes to promoting wellness and a truly connected culture.
In 2019, software company Buffer surveyed almost 2,500 remote workers in countries around the world about their experiences with remote working and the ways it has affected both their lifestyles and mental health. The respondents made it clear that they preferred remote working to a 9-5 schedule in an office; 99% of those surveyed said that they would like to work remotely, at least some of the time, for the rest of their careers.
It seems that those who practice remote working see it as the best model for a work-life balance. The reported benefits of remote working reflect what their own team have told; they value the flexible scheduling, the ability to work from any location and the professional autonomy it allows them.
But the respondents also described issues that surfaced after going remote — many of which related to their mental health. Examples included the inability to ‘unplug’ after work, loneliness and difficulty with collaboration and communication. As early champions of remote working, they’ve spent years navigating (and providing solutions for) many of the challenges that accompany their working model.
Here are some of the ways you can promote mental health and wellness within your own remote team.
A big part of their transition to a fully remote business was making sure that they didn’t sacrifice the positive, every day interactions the team had experienced working together in an office. It’s an aspect of remote working that contributes to loneliness and can be really detrimental to the mental health of your employees — if you don’t offset it in other ways.
At Elementary Digital they use communication tools such as Slack, Skype and Google Hangouts (both voice and video calls). The agency’s Slack channels are segmented by professional channels for their clients, projects and a general channel, which is specifically for office news, jokes and conversations between members of the team. It’s really important for them to have an online space devoted to casual chats and fun; it’s also a great way to promote collaboration and build on working relationships.
Despite what they believe are the benefits of their working model, it’s essential that everyone who works for Elementary Digital get to know each other outside of the digital space. The agency is big proponents of the traditional concept of ‘meetings’. The team has still spend time together in offices, whether that’s at their clients’ offices, the Elementary Digital office or over Skype. They have a bi-weekly team catch up (often while enjoying a beer); it’s an opportunity to chat through what they’ve been working on, or some of the challenges they might be dealing with and look forward to what’s ahead.
Elementary also organises fully expensed monthly socials and team building exercises for their staff. Not only does this ensure that remote working doesn’t become isolating, but helps to foster in-depth connections within the company.
Curate positive spaces
Remote working gives employees the opportunity to work from a space that suits them best, whether that’s from a home office or a coffee shop. As all the employees are given a laptop with the software they require to do their work, they can access whatever they need — whether that’s updates on a project, or feedback from colleagues — from their ideal working environment.
They’ve taken this approach with their own office, too. The office space has a laid back atmosphere and breakout areas fitted with sofas and chairs, so that when employees do choose to work from the base they’re just as comfortable as they would be at home. Complimentary refreshments, like coffee, tea and water are always available — and they often celebrate the end of the working week with an alcoholic drink.
They also encourage their team to bring in their pets, regardless of whether or not having clients visiting. Many studies have shown that animals have a positive effect on their mental health — and they’ve seen firsthand how they can elevate the mood in a workspace!
Promote a work-life balance
Besides reducing stressful commute times and saving money on fuel, working remotely allows the staff to manage their own time. The agency wants everyone to be able to work around important personal responsibilities like childcare, appointments and their relationships with friends and family. This encourages a healthier work-life balance for individuals, the result of which is better mental health for the team overall.
Digital Marketing Head, Graham Pinkney at Elementary Digital said,
Working remotely has allowed me to balance my life and time much easier. I can work efficiently without the stress of day-to-day office life, such as commuting and dealing with traffic. I find remote working more relaxing; I complete all my tasks and excel in my work, all while in the comfort of my own home. On the days I don’t feel my best, I can choose to stay at home, rest and still get things done. It definitely relieves the stress of falling behind on my work.
Katie Burrows, Account Manager at Elementary Digital also commented,
I feel remote working has improved my general happiness and mental health as it gives me more free time overall (I had a long commute before). This means I have more time for chores and life admin during the week and can dedicate my weekend time to doing things with my boyfriend and seeing friends and family.
Ultimately, promoting mental health within a remote team can be a bit balancing act — one they’re committed to getting right. One of the best indicators that the team is happy is their staff retention rate — 12 of the employees have worked for Elementary Digital for over two years. By promoting a truly connected culture while operating a remote working model they’ve been able to keep employee wellness at the forefront of their business. It’s been a big part of their story to becoming fully remote; and while stigma around mental health in the workplace remains, it’s a topic they will continue to be advocates for.
The founder of the Elementary Group, Gyles Seward has over 20 years of marketing consultancy experience and is a seasoned expert in helping organisations grow online. Having worked across all sectors he uses his insight, knowledge and experience to help organisations channel marketing activity that delivers quantifiable results. A passionate advocate of a ‘digital approach’, Gyles is the lead consultant for the Elementary Group and has worked with local universities to help the next generation of digital marketeers.
Elementary is a WordPress Agency in Leeds that provides WordPress Design, WordPress Development and Support. All their team is UK based.