Sick and Tired, Working and Not-Working on a Remote Team

In this article, Maya Middlemiss reminds us that people on remote teams also get sick, but that sick-leave might be more difficult to take. 

I can remember coming in on the tail-end of a telephone conversation, around this time of year - but many years ago, the last time I worked in a colocated office (and I truly mean many years, it wasn’t this century). My colleague was speaking on an external line:

“No, don’t worry, we’ll find out about that and deal with it, you just concentrate on getting well. It’s fine. Poor you, keep warm and rest - let me know when you can, about tomorrow. Take care.”

Shortly followed by (once the receiver was replaced), “*****, Carol’s off sick.  That’s a ****ing pain, today of all days!”

And it was.

Despite working in a shared office building, all of us had distinct roles and responsibilities, and whilst we nattered frequently about non-work things, updating everyone else on our autonomous project work happened mainly in scheduled meetings. So exactly what needed doing on Carol’s stuff this morning was far from obvious, even to her line manager. And poor Carol, huddled under her duvet with her medicine of choice, had no access to office files or documents - not even to email, which was pretty new to us then anyway.

Being Off-Sick

Carol had presumably woken to her alarm as usual, on a dark November morning, and made a judgement call. She was a diligent hard-working project manager, who’d been nursing a cold all week, but that day felt extra rough and had an escalating fever.  

Out of courtesy to her colleagues, she knew she had to decide whether to come into the office or not pretty early on.  Should she get herself up and presentable, then face a commute involving a brisk walk and two tube trains, taking just over an hour, when she felt like this? Given the times and distances involved - and hers was below-average in both for central London these days - she chose the paracetamol and her bed, and who can blame her?

It was extra hassle for her manager, and indeed for all of the rest of us, to cancel her meetings and contact some clients, but we knew she’d do the same for us. And who even knew whether she’d be back in tomorrow?  Meanwhile, perhaps it’d be worth picking up some fizzy vitamin C drink or something at lunchtime, because Carol had be sniffing into tissues all week, around our workplace with its shared refreshment facilities, central heating and meeting rooms.  The department would be in big trouble if anyone else went down with the flu…

Sick Leave and Remote Teams

It’s hardly surprising then, that remote teams have a measurably lower rate of overall sickness absence than colocated ones - as high as 68% improvement.  Furthermore when a commute to a distant office is involved, inevitably the absence has to be measured in whole days, even for things like a scheduled appointment which happens at an inconvenient time. Home-based workers find it far easier to log back on again if they feel better a couple hours later, and not lose the entire day.  

Indeed, every manager knows, an undefined proportion of “off sick” days aren’t quite what they appear on the face of it. Most businesses still don’t have a policy or culture of emergency personal leave, and as such, if an employee has a domestic or family emergency to deal with, the only way they might be able to deal with it is to call in sick at work.  Whereas a home-based worker can keep an eye on their sick kids or wait for the plumber without any drop in their productivity.

However, it’d be a mistake to blithely assume that a remote team equals fewer days off sick, and that’s all you need to think about.

Whilst some of that 68% difference can be explained by spurious ‘sickies’ and reduced exposure to viruses in the office and on public transport, remote workers still become unwell from time to time.  So remote teams which have negligible recorded sickness absence might need to look a little more closely at what’s really happening.

Balancing Needs and Commitments

One of the greatest reported drawbacks to working from home is a blurring of boundaries between work and home life, and when managing acute or chronic illness this can have both positive and negative consequences. Sure, you don’t have to decide first thing in the morning whether to be off sick or not, but perhaps that’d be much harder to do anyway?

If your work can literally be done from your bed, how ill do you have to be before you feel you can say you’re unfit to do it?

And when you have access to work files, emails, and collaboration tools via the smartphone on your bedside table, it’s pretty much expected that however close you are to death’s door, you’ll at least put the fires out before taking yourself offline for the rest of the day - divert calls, rearrange diaries, and rapidly brief colleagues on emergency action on crucial projects, even asynchronously.  

Plus, you don’t have to worry about spreading your germs over your internet connection.

Of course this makes the absence far easier to manage organisationally, and might make it easier to take badly-needed rest with a clearer conscience... But for knowledge workers in 2017 it becomes harder and harder to genuinely unplug from it all, when that might be what is badly needed.

Reading the Signals

For managers of remote teams, it can also be much harder to spot and deal with impending or complicated health problems.  Going back to Carol, her manager, however frustrated, was not entirely surprised when she rang in sick - because she had been looking like hell all week.  Indeed if she had dragged herself in that morning, it’s quite likely someone would have sent her straight home again as soon as they set eyes on her… And that’s the one thing which doesn’t tend to happen in a virtual team.

In virtual or remote teams, people have to tell their colleagues what’s going on for them and how they feel. This means that the manager, indeed the whole organisation, has a responsibility to create a culture where that is genuinely safe and OK to do. A team where people can bring their whole self to work, the good and the really-not-so-good-today, in a non-judgemental setting. A team where people are trusted to judge when they need to take the day off because they’re not well enough to work.

For hybrid organisations, the matter can be further confused by a perception that working from home is a kind of easier or soft option.  In the UK, remote working is often considered as a ‘reasonable adjustment’ under the Equalities Act 2010, for staff suffering from stress and depression, or managing chronic illness. The “Fit Note” (which replaced the ‘sick note’), or the Return to Work Plan offered by Fit for Work provides options for people to continue working in a different capacity instead of going off sick entirely - working from home is one of these options.

Whilst this has many benefits for people whose health or disability makes accessing a traditional workplace challenging, we contend that all the benefits of remote work should be available to everyone who wants it.  

True equality surely means each person being able to define their own needs, for a working environment, team communications, and meaningful professional activity.  

Being able to say “I have flu, I am unplugging for at least the next 3 days” or “I have a headache, hopefully I will catch up this evening but for now I can’t look at a screen” without defensiveness, or any expectation of judgement. Or without the need to put on that slightly weak, tired-sounded voice that Carol doubtless found herself quite unnecessarily adopting when she rang in that morning.

Towards Psychological Safety

As a manager, this is a good time of year to reflect on your own mindset, and how this affects psychological safety within your team:

  • Do you model the behaviour you expect, by being open about your own needs, asking for help when you’re feeling rubbishy, and taking time off when needed?

  • Do you encourage people to bring their whole selves to work, and share what’s going on for them, good and bad?  

  • Do you help people protect their boundaries and meet their own needs, by not rewarding martyrdom and self sacrifice, encouraging them to take the time they need to be happy and well when they need to?

And if you are having one of those rubbishy days, at least you don’t have to haul off to a tube station in the dark. Wrap up warm, take plenty of fluids, and keep your germs to yourself. Chances are you will be back on your feet more quickly than your commuting colleagues, and then you’ll be ready to get back to work - but not before you ARE truly ready.

This and other blog posts have been collated into our book on leading remote teams: Thinking Remote: Inspiration for Leaders of Distributed Teams. Available in paperback, ebook and audiobook.