With the COVID-19 pandemic shuttering offices across the U.S. and around the world, millions of people are suddenly working from home. And for many, that’s a new experience. Until recently, few U.S. workers spent entire days working from home.
While there are tremendous benefits to remote work, there are also challenges — particularly for those who count on the routine and social atmosphere of an office or work site. As Susan Ashford, professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, and her coauthors stated in their literature review of nonstandard work, many scholars and researchers “have documented the feelings of isolation experienced by teleworkers” and have found that the experience can lead to “significantly more negative emotions such as loneliness, irritability, worry, and guilt.”
Research Updates From MIT SMR
Get weekly updates on how global companies are managing in a changing world.
Please enter a valid email address
Thank you for signing up
Naturally, all of those feelings can make it tougher to focus on work and be productive. And that’s in the best of times. Now, add to that the mounting stress from a global pandemic, which has led the United Nations to issue warnings emphasizing the importance of mental health. Parents with children at home due to school closures face additional burdens and distractions.
As businesses work to ensure that their employees have the technology to telework, they also confront another challenge that could have repercussions that are just as profound: helping workers reduce their stress and stay focused and productive.
Years of research and work in helping people find focus, meaning, and purpose in their jobs have shown me that businesses have a powerful tool at their disposal to tackle this challenge. It’s one that can help newly remote workers reduce stress and remain engaged: peer coaching.
This is different from peer learning, which focuses more on skill development. With peer coaching, employees spend time in pairs, speaking with each other about their challenges, stresses, fears, and hopes. They listen and talk equally, and support and encourage each other’s vulnerability.
The goal is not to come up with solutions to each other’s problems, but to help each other find their own solutions. Sir John Whitmore, author of a book on executive coaching, defines coaching as “unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.”
Peer coaching also differs from mentoring, which is, at its core, about external knowledge transfer. (My company, Imperative, offers additional material on activating peer coaching and how it differs from other forms of employee engagement.) Ultimately, peer coaching is about two people helping each other validate and activate their own knowledge about themselves, which can help them in their work and daily lives.
Because the two participants are in the same organization, they face some of the same challenges and stresses, which helps establish a kind of camaraderie that researchers say can be particularly helpful in alleviating stress.
Our 2019 Workforce Purpose Index, a survey of U.S. full-time workers, found that peer coaching also helps create a better work environment over the long term. People who regularly engage in peer coaching are 65% more likely to feel fulfilled at work and 67% more likely to report being a top performer. They’re also 73% more likely to report feeling a sense of belonging at work and 50% more likely to stay in their jobs for more than five years.
However, managers must get a few crucial steps right in order for these programs to be as successful as possible.
Provide the time. Managers should encourage and expect their reports to set aside one hour each week to engage in a single, uninterrupted session with their peer coaches (short of an emergency that precludes it). The two participants should also have a clear understanding of how to spend the time and know that each will speak and listen an equal amount.
To help people fill these slots in their schedules, managers should invite reports to volunteer to engage in these sessions. Managers across different departments can create a running list of volunteers and invite any of their reports to reach out to anyone on the list and schedule a time to talk.
Avoid pairings involving the direct chain of command. “Peers,” in this context, do not need to be at the same level of an organization or have the same amount of seniority. In fact, having different experiences and skill sets and working in different departments can be helpful because each participant may approach this type of conversation differently, offering new ways to help each other reflect and consider their next steps.
But in order for peer coaching to be most successful, it’s important that both participants feel that they are on equal footing with each other. To avoid introducing the power dynamics of a manager-report relationship into peer coaching, set up pairs who don’t report to each other within a hierarchy.
Encourage positivity. Managers should encourage participants to begin these conversations with positivity. It can be helpful to have them open by asking each other something like, “What has working from home helped you appreciate about your work or your life?” or, “What have you found inspiring or moving in your work in the past week?”
This can be especially impactful amid the current upheaval. It helps people have conversations focused, at least in part, on finding purpose in their work. The World Health Organization has said that emphasizing purpose at work is a key to helping reduce stress.
Model the behavior. Managers should set the right example by building time for peer coaching into their own schedules and telling their teams about it.
Our research finds that managers gain a great deal from peer coaching. Leaders and managers often face challenges that are difficult to navigate, and it’s often fellow leaders and managers who can best provide support. Peer coaching between managers can provide the support needed that might not be possible from other people, like their supervisor or HR department.
Peer coaching also provides a powerful opportunity for managers to develop crucial leadership skills such as problem-solving, empathy, and collaboration. These are essential skills — ones that will strengthen your business for years to come and help you to manage through times of uncertainty in the future.