What if your staff isn't comfortable working from home?

Not all mortgage professionals are looking forward to the prospect of more remote work post-COVID-19

What if your staff isn't comfortable working from home?

Working from home isn’t for everybody. But with the country only gradually reopening and COVID-19 still a threat to both public health and the economy, mortgage companies will be forced to consider keeping their work-from-home structures in place for the foreseeable future.

For brokers used to working from a home office, the last two months have likely meant little change to their day-to-day routines – or those routines’ impact on their families’ lives. But for admin staff, managers, analysts and other employees used to working in an office environment, working from home can create new anxieties that take away from the purported increase in productivity some workers experience after relocating their laptops from the office to the ottoman.

“People have been asked to do more than they’re used to,” says Pivotal Consulting’s Heide Garrigan, referring to the increased burdens of child care, home schooling and even parental care COVID-19 has thrust on millions of Canadian families, “plus they’re working from home. And they’re trying to do it all.”

One of Garrigan’s neighbors in the Denver area provides a telling example. A mother of three, she has a job that allows her to work remotely regularly. But when COVID-19 meant her, her kids and her husband would need to work, study and live together 24 hours a day, it didn’t take long for the pressure to get to her.

“By Friday of that first week, I saw her outside and said, ‘How you doing?’ And she burst into tears,” Garrigan says.

MBN asked Garrigan what mortgage professionals who find working from home more stressful than the office can do to ensure they’re doing their best work for their clients. She identified four areas where small tweaks can reduce the tension.

The myth of being ‘always on’
With no meetings to take someone out of the office, there can be an impression among remote workers that working from home, since everyone at the company knows where you are, means always being available, 9-to-5 be damned.

“This whole expectation that you’re always available to answer calls or texts or IMs or anything like that, I think that’s a challenge for people,” Garrigan says.

She suggests setting office hours – including regular breaks – and actually sticking to them. A productive day in a space designated for work should allow people to be productive enough that they can avoid having to be available all the time.

But Garrigan says mortgage companies have a role to play in creating an environment where employees are trusted enough that they don’t feel as if there’s a potential to disappoint the boss every moment of the day. Such situations allow employees to step away from their instant messages/email/Skype/Slack for a few minutes without worrying that their work ethic may be called into question.

“In an environment where’s there’s trust, people are more likely to not have to be ‘on’ all the time,” Garrigan says. “If you’re always on because you’re trying to prove yourself, that’s stressful.”

Productivity up, positivity down
Humans, social animals that we are, often thrive in communal environments. Working from home may benefit a company by increasing productivity, but the forced seclusion causes many remote workers to feel isolated and disengaged.

“We’re producing, we’re doing great, we’re working, working, working, but the fun has been taken out of it. People aren’t seeing each other,” says Garrigan.

She says remote workers who no longer have commutes to slog through should take advantage of the time they’re saving. Rather than dedicating those minutes to doing more work – how many MBN readers have only worked 8-hour days since COVID-19 sent them home? – employees should be filling that time by doing something for themselves, like exercising or taking a class; activities that have the added benefit of a community component (when social distancing allows for it), which can alleviate those feelings of isolation.

Quieting the chatter
Part of the challenge of providing an engaging remote working environment is when a potential solution to one problem becomes a problem in itself.

HR directors and office managers are doing their best to keep their workers connected. But ongoing Slack, Skype and other instant message chats can be highly distracting, particularly if an employee feels pressure to always be available.

“I have had a few people who said that at least when they’re in the office they can put their headphones on and people know not to bother that person,” Garrison says. “Or they can go to an empty conference room.” That’s less of an option when workers have to hear a “ding” every time one of their colleagues types “OMG! So cuuuuute!” into a Skype thread about dogs.

“Turn it off,” Garrigan says. “Does your boss know your cell phone number? Does your boss know your email? Believe me, your boss can reach you.”

She also urges companies to set up separate chats – one for relevant, work-related messages and one for random, non-work topics – which will allow employees the choice of following along with their co-workers’ chitchat at their leisure or ignoring it completely.

Lack of one-on-one feedback
“When you’re sitting in a meeting, you know if an idea came across well, or if your boss is happy or if you’re being heard,” Garrigan explains. “All of that is lost when it’s just phone or text or instant message or email.”

People thrive when they’re acknowledged, and they learn better when they can be guided through their mistakes with someone whose body language and tone they can read. Providing feedback through text, even when it’s positive, doesn’t carry the same weight. If you did a good job walking a client through a recent change to the loan application process, what would you rather receive: a smiley-face emoji or an actual smile?

Using video to provide feedback, even if it’s a brief “Way to go!” can work wonders. It’s more natural and allows workers to see the impact their efforts have had on their employers’ emotions, a nuance that is often lost when feedback is given in text.

Garrigan says companies need to consciously set aside time for providing feedback to their remote workers, whether it be a one-on-one conversation or a team chat. “It isn’t a status meeting,” she stresses, “it’s a feedback meeting.” For companies whose employees are stretched for time, feedback can also take up the first few or last few minutes of a regular status meeting.

Working from home may be the new normal, but it will take continued effort on the part of brokers, administrators and the companies they work for to ensure it feels that way.