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 it supports the mental health of the employees.
When our team went fully remote in 2014, it felt like a big leap. We had read about the benefits of the remote business model; as a digital agency, we were already engaging with many of the practices, tools and techniques we would later rely on for this new way of working. Still, we had some trepidations. Transforming the way that we communicate and collaborate, while continuing to deliver outstanding work for our clients was going to be a difficult task.
Five years on and Elementary Digital’s team has remained remote, and we 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, which is predicted to grow to encompass over half the UK’s workforce by 2020.
We're proud to be early proponents of this working model. Forced congregation around desks, office politics, long commutes and presenteeism never reflected our company values. Since going remote we've 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. We’re now convinced that the big leap we 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, we 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 our own team have told us; 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, we've spent years navigating (and providing solutions for) many of the challenges that accompany our working model.
Here are some of the ways you can promote mental health and wellness within your own remote team.
A big part of our transition to a fully remote business was making sure that we didn’t sacrifice the positive, every day interactions we 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 we use communication tools such as Slack, Skype and Google Hangouts (both voice and video calls). Our Slack channels are segmented by professional channels for our 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 us 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 we believe are the benefits of our working model, it’s essential that everyone who works for Elementary Digital get to know each other outside of the digital space. We're big proponents of the traditional concept of ‘meetings’. We still spend time together in offices, whether that’s at our clients’ offices, the Elementary Digital office or over Skype. We have a bi-weekly team catch up (often while enjoying a beer). It’s an opportunity to chat through what we've been working on, some of the challenges we might be dealing with and look forward to what’s ahead.
We also organise fully expensed monthly socials and team building exercises for our 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 our 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 our 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.
We've taken this approach with our own office, too. Our office space has a laid back atmosphere and breakout areas fitted with sofas and chairs, so that when employees do choose to work from our base they’re just as comfortable as they would be at home. Complimentary refreshments like coffee, tea and water are always available, and we often celebrate the end of the working week with an alcoholic drink.
We also encourage our team to bring in their pets, regardless of whether or not we have clients visiting. Many studies have shown that animals have a positive effect on our mental health - and we'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 our staff to manage their own time. We want 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 our team overall.
Our digital marketing head, Graham Pinkney 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.”
Our account manager, Katie Burrows said: "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 we're committed to getting right. One of the best indicators that our team is happy is our staff retention rate. 12 of our employees have worked for Elementary Digital for over two years. By promoting a truly connected culture while operating a remote working model we've been able to keep employee wellness at the forefront of our business. It’s been a big part of our story to becoming fully remote; and while stigma around mental health in the workplace remains, it’s a topic we 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.