Managing the Virtual Workplace Means Managing Mental Health

How one global firm helps far-flung team members deal with uncertainties on the home front
Gord Ray
Millennial working with a computer laptop on the wooden floor next to dog.

Update | January 2021: 

Almost a year after the COVID-19 pandemic began, lockdowns continue, and millions still work from home—in makeshift offices, on living room floors, in bedrooms and half-finished basements, or wherever they can eke out space. Though work at home has advantages, isolation is not one of them. Working alone can worsen our mental health. We must pay attention. A good start is this article. It was written just weeks into the pandemic by Gord Ray, Instagram’s brand development lead for Northern Europe, based in London, England. Here, Ray explains steps that Instagram was taking to help employees cope.

Original Article | April 2020:

Until very recently, my advice on working from home would have focused on “practical tips.” Given the quickly changing circumstances brought on by coronavirus, we at Instagram have had to quickly shift to the mental health of staff and their unique circumstances of working from home. Our priorities have pivoted to: looking after yourself; looking after your loved ones; and work. Note that work is No 3 on the list.

As we shift to making people’s mental health a priority, we’ve experimented with a number of ideas. For example:

Team video conferencing lunches: We meet on the video conferencing platform BlueJeans and enjoy our lunch together. We also organize video-conference-based happy hours, some with dress-up themes.

Photo-based groups that focus on working-from-home (WFH) themes: These have generated hundreds and sometimes thousands of pictures in just a few days. Pictures matter. We can take in so much from a single photo or short video to make us smile. Some examples: sad WFH lunches; WFH meals that aren’t too shabby; WFH with pets or kids support group; sad WFH office setups; WFH memes for quarantined teens.

Groups to discuss parenting issues: Facebook (the parent company of Instagram) has many young people who are worried about their parents. We have created groups to share how to talk to parents about specific issues that arise. For example, my mother’s exercise class for seniors was cancelled. Many gyms now offer classes on Instagram LIVE but they aren’t relevant for an older generation. By sharing in groups, we’ve discovered great new ideas, such as YMCA’s senior exercise classes. As schools are now all closing, we also have young parents looking for tips on how to work at home with kids. This is another new workplace group. 

We’ve also experimented with improving the video conference experience. We suggested, for example, that everyone in a conference not speaking go on mute and instead be more animated in their facial expressions, such as giving a thumbs-up. This helps the person speaking know they are being heard. We also use the “Brady Bunch” view (when images of all attendees are shown) so we can see who is on the call. As we always say, test and learn.

From a leadership perspective, we’ve seen a shift to the main role being “cheerleader for their team” and a heightened focus on culture. We’re ensuring people have the flexibility to miss meetings and do what works for them. At first, there was a sense that if everyone was at home, everyone should always be available. But increasingly, taking breaks at a time that is right for the employee and his or her kids, or getting to a grocery store that still has food, is more important. So, leaders are making sure to be sensitive to these needs.

Gord Ray is Instagram’s brand development lead for Northern Europe. He is a Commerce graduate of Smith School of Business and a member of the school’s Global Council.

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