As so many of us find ourselves back in various phases of lockdown, I am thinking once again about the repercussions of an indeterminate period of working remotely – particularly the potential for feelings of frustration and even burnout. While these feelings are not necessarily entirely new – after all, which one of us hasn’t previously felt simply exhausted after a challenging time at work – I think the context we find ourselves in right now adds a different dimension to the insidious way in which burnout comes about. To put it another way, burnout has always been an uninvited guest in our lives, but the pandemic has, unfortunately, opened a few more windows to help it creep in.
Different daily dynamics
One of the illusions the pandemic has created is that it is the nature of remote work itself which is tiring and challenging. But in truth many of us have been remote working successfully for several years. When I look back at my own career, I’ve led remote teams for all but five of my 20 years at Microsoft! But the undercurrents are different in this instance and it has made both the practicalities and the reality different as well.
For one thing, for most of those years, my and my team’s ability to work remotely was a choice, rather than a necessity, which is already a significant psychological difference. For another, it was likely we were primarily working (by ourselves) at home most of the time, as opposed to also balancing family responsibilities, home-schooling and sharing our workspace with all the other members of our household, all during the course of the workday.
Microsoft research shows that as people increasingly work from home, they’re working more, and arguably being mentally ‘at home’ less. They are in significantly more meetings, taking more ad hoc calls, and managing more incoming chats than they did before the pandemic. The more they communicate with their colleagues, customers, and partners, the fewer boundaries there are in their lives, making the dynamics of the workday very different.
So, it’s not surprising that in these cases, where the lines between work and home have blurred to the point of disappearance, that online fatigue and feelings of disconnectedness set in more quickly and feel more debilitating.
As leaders, this is a crucially important time to ensure we bolster the good work we’ve done in the past several months in bringing our teams together around new ways of working – so we can build the resilience and energy we all need to keep going for however long this next stage may take.
Our research indicates that businesses whose team leaders look to understand the unique experiences of each team member, and help them protect work/life balance, have happier, more engaged employees – and who are more innovative in their thinking. 64% of employees who indicate they have a caring boss, stated they’re happy with their job; and over 50% say they look for new ways to solve problems or improve the way they currently work.
I’ve had a LOT of conversations with colleagues and other leaders about where the rules of team engagement lie and where they might need to evolve. While there’s no one single answer or silver bullet, I want to share some of the answers we’ve landed on collectively. Of course, I must caveat that our conversations have been primarily about office workers such as ourselves, rather than frontline workers, whose sources of stress are vastly different.
- Uninvite yourself and beat meeting fatigue – most of us know the pain of jumping from one call to another with few breaks in between; making us feel like we’re ‘always on’ and, sometimes, ‘always running behind’. Dare yourself or your teammates to uninvite yourselves from non-essential calls. Sure, there are meetings that need everyone to be present – and there are many which only need one representative from each team.
- Find dialogue and input in different places – as we all frequently find ourselves in similar calls and forums, it’s easy for the energy to die out once the novelty wears off. Use different communication tools to get discussions going, rather than defaulting to a call every time. Try a Teams chat or a shared OneNote, for example, or send around a quick survey or poll to gather thoughts and opinions. Just be sure to agree which tool makes best sense for what purpose or you’ll simply end up back on a call again to clarify!
- Be intentional about the work-life balance of your team – as leaders, we need to be proactive about checking in with team members and meeting them where they are, in terms of what their individual context and situations may be. Each one of us is different and our needs evolve over time, so these conversations need to be open, honest and regular.
- Use tools to see where you can help and provide support – as I have said before, though it may seem counterintuitive, technology can often provide a way to manage our offline lives. As we help our teams navigate the challenges of being online more than ever before, we should use all the resources we can to ensure we’re empowering and supporting them as much as possible. For example, using a tool like Microsoft Viva can help figure out whether your team is at risk of burnout, so you can help reset ways of working before the situation gets irreparable.
- Find ways to be together, even when we’re apart – on our Leadership Team, we created a challenge for ourselves on our internal Be Well platform, tracking our physical and mindfulness activities as a team and even ‘competing’ against other teams globally. In addition to helping with our physical and mental wellbeing, it actively brought us closer together, despite being separated.
I’m interested to hear what other leaders have experienced and how you are injecting enthusiasm and empathy into your remote work routines. Despite the last year feeling like it has already lasted a lifetime, we’re all still very much at the start of the journey when it comes to imagining longer term hybrid working models and mindsets.