The pandemic has seen numerous organizations struggle with how to implement burnout recovery and protection in a future of work that demands a shift from full-time in-office work to hybrid and remote work.
Staff feel emotional drain from excessive obligations to be connected and lack of work/life balance. As homes were converted into offices, many employees felt that the lines between home and office have started to blur. So how can leaders prevent employees from burning out, and help with burnout recovery for those who are already on the way to burnout, while working on hybrid or fully remote schedules?
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This problem came up for Dave, a consulting client of mine and CEO of a midsize fintech company that shifted to a fully remote schedule during the pandemic. Several months after the change, many employees started complaining of burnout, with some threatening to resign.
Although Dave felt worried, several members of the C-suite dismissed the problem and said that the employees just needed more time to get used to the changes. They also ignored studies citing increasing cases of burnout in remote workers.
The company ended up losing three key employees before Dave took action to contact me about this issue. I advised him to implement best practices in burnout recovery and protection in the hybrid and remote future of work. These best practices are based both on external research and interviews I conducted with leaders at major organizations I helped guide in developing and implementing effective strategies for a work culture fit for the future of work.
Why Did Remote Work Burnout Recovery Become a Major Problem?
It’s futile to imagine that the post-pandemic future of work would be similar to how it was in January 2020. In reality, our future is largely hybrid and remote, at least for those who aren’t boots-on-the-ground essential employees. This realization requires leaders to make the necessary adaptations to their work arrangements, or risk driving their companies into irrelevance.
During the pandemic, surveys show (1, 2) two-thirds of all US workers worked remotely some of the time and over a half full-time. Surveys from a number of big companies show two-thirds to three-quarters employers intend to permanently switch to a mainly-hybrid schedule of 1-3 days in the office combined with a minority of fully remote employees.
As remote work became the norm during the pandemic, organizations looked to maintain collaboration and communication between employees while maintaining productivity. Unfortunately, these organizations transposed their existing in-office processes and ways of interacting onto remote work.
That included, for example, trying to recreate the same office-based team collaboration environment through virtual formats such as Zoom happy hours and frequent team meetings. The overload of back-to-back video calls led to many employees feeling “Zoom fatigue,” the drain felt by excessive use of video calls throughout the day.
When you think about it, does it really make sense to expect virtual meetings to have the same social and emotional connection felt working in a small meeting room in the office? But that’s exactly what leaders seemed to expect. No wonder their staff felt burned out.
Another problem stems from technology overload. The availability of numerous options for collaboration and communication has led many employees to feel overwhelmed by the number of tools they have to use to keep up basic communication between team members and colleagues. Keeping track of messages and tasks on Slack, Trello, Microsoft Teams and Asana can often start to feel like a technology overload.
A further challenge stemmed from managers still relying on the mental framework of “time in the office” as a primary measure of evaluating performance. Transposing this to a virtual environment, employers began to focus on every staff member’s “time logged on” rather than their actual deliverables that contributed to the company. The increased focus on spending more time logged led to a race to the bottom of employees working after hours.
Work from home has been difficult for many working parents in particular since a home does not provide a conducive environment to work when there are kids playing around the work station. Leaders need to ensure work/life boundaries remain in place to reduce burnout and encourage flexible working schedules whenever possible for working parents. Of course, leaders similarly need to accommodate other employees who have at-home commitments: for instance, caretakers for elderly parents.
Why Have Leaders Failed to Adapt to the Future of Work?
Leaders often fail to adopt best practices for the future of work because of dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. These mental blindspots, which often lead to wishful thinking, result in poor strategic and financial decisions. They render leaders unable to resist following their gut and their personal preferences instead of relying on best practices.
One of the biggest dangerous judgment errors impeding best practice adoption for the future of work is called functional fixedness. When we have certain unyielding perceptions of appropriate practices, behaviors, and processes, we tend to ignore or even actively reject others, even if they might be a better fit for a changed context.
Functional fixedness explains why so many C-suite leaders were unwilling to adopt the changes that have been needed to help remote-working employees overcome burnout. They did not make meaningful efforts to research strategies of hybrid and remote work that would preserve employee morale and workplace efficiency without compromising employee mental health.
Instead, they continued to transpose pre-pandemic practices of office culture to remote work. That failure to adapt to the future of work led to numerous employees getting increasingly disgruntled and eventually quitting, a phenomenon experts are calling the Great Resignation.
To address such problems requires setting clear boundaries and expectations for work/life balance and disconnect. It also requires addressing problems such as issues integrating junior team members and providing them with on-the-job learning, which helps protect junior team members from burnout. You also need to address the deteriorating team cohesion and organizational culture, since good connections within the organization and team help prevent burnout.
Another cognitive bias, which is related to functional fixedness, is called the not-invented-here syndrome. It’s self-explanatory: many leaders have an antipathy toward practices not invented within their organization. They reject external best practices as not fitting their particular culture, style, or needs, even when adopting such practices would be much better for their own stated goals.
Defeating cognitive biases to return to the office successfully and thrive in the future of work requires the use of research-based best practices. It means creating a culture that focuses on better work/life boundaries by setting appropriate work expectations for remote employees. This best-practice setup will translate to diverse benefits: optimization of innovation and collaboration, retention of top talent, and the creation of flexible company culture, systems, and processes. Of course, it also helps with burnout recovery and protection.
Facilitate Burnout Recovery and Protection for Remote and Hybrid Teams
After Dave and I spoke, he began to put my advice into action. He first collected evaluation reports from all team leaders who were working with the staff on a day-to-day basis to find out ground realities. These reports consisted of input from the staff themselves, including their complaints, issues, and challenges.
He presented these results to the C-suite members and pointed out that it was time to take meaningful actions. They eventually accepted that pre-pandemic practices could not be transposed on virtual work and expected to be effective. The company had to devise a plan of action to adopt the best practices of remote and hybrid work to address these complaints and challenges.
The staff members were then called in for a meeting to share the leadership team’s recognition of the challenges, and commitment to address the problems. Doing so helped clear the air and improve transparency, providing a boost in morale and buy-in for the change management required to try out best practices for hybrid and remote work.
Per my advice, the leadership team proposed a limited number of collaboration tools to avoid overwhelming employees. They also suggested that each team lead sets boundaries and expectations of standard working hours for all group members. These designated hours dictate the time during which team members work and respond to message requests. Sending messages that request responses outside of these set work hours would be discouraged.
Of course, team leaders and staff members must fulfil certain expectations they have from each other that can make the work environment much more collaborative. For instance, given that many team members who are working from home might be working on flexible schedules, there should also be a set expectation on how long a team member can take to respond to a message request; i.e under 6 hours during work time.
To avoid the drain of a typical Zoom meeting, the leadership team proposed taking ten minutes physical and mental breaks every hour to replenish and refresh their minds. A practical method to employ this was to end meetings ten minutes before the hour to facilitate breaks and transitions. That’s based on research showing that taking small breaks between meetings is important to improve our brain’s ability to focus and engage in thinking. This reset also allows for the brain to release the cumulative buildup of stress that occurs during a meeting. After all, most often a meeting that needs an hour can be completed in 50 minutes or a half-hour meeting in 25 minutes if you utilize your time efficiently. This can be achieved by giving a social cue at the 40th-minute mark to notify the team leader that there’s limited time left in the meeting.
The meeting led to a general consensus for the need to adopt the best practice of providing employees hybrid and remote mentoring to integrate junior employees. One of the biggest problems of hybrid and remote work is how to get recently-hired staff into the organizational culture and team dynamics, and such mentoring helps address this problem.
Teams also agreed to integrate virtual coworking, a strategy that simulates an in-person office experience virtually. It involves team members getting on a video conference call and spending an hour or two per day coworking digitally with their teammates when they are not in the office. With their mics turned off, each person works on their own tasks but can ask questions if needed, and get instant clarifications. The benefit of virtual coworking is to provide junior team members with on-the-job learning, and to help build a sense of team cohesion. It works well for remote teams on all days, and for hybrid teams on the days they’re not in the office.
Another major shift involved the implementation of a deliverables-based performance evaluation from the company’s prior evaluation based on time logged on. After all, if someone can get their tasks done, what does the specific time they spent matter, or the location whether they did their tasks? As part of doing so, team leaders scheduled weekly performance evaluation meetings with group members to inquire about any issues they might be facing. Among other benefits, this weekly meeting allows supervisors to check in on the mental health and work-life balance of their supervisees, which is more challenging to do in hybrid and remote settings than in the office.
Team leaders were also encouraged to be more empathetic to any employee who requests schedule changes. The company also decided that it would be best to discourage managers from adopting a hardline approach on flexibility and refrain from forcing employees to come into office unless their presence was necessary. Some fully-remote working employees were also given the liberty to choose their working hours as long as they worked during a certain set of shared “common hours” and were easily accessible by others at that time.
Focusing on Employee Mental Health in the Post Pandemic Future of Work
The employees responded positively to the proposed options at the meeting. These moves eased the tensions and made sure that the entire company, including the managers and senior executives, had come to a mutual understanding of a need for change.
The turn of events proved to be a game-changer, with many employees feeling like they had finally been heard, and were valued members of the company. This was a crucial step to improve communication and collaboration amongst all levels of staff. Given the positive results after the roll-out of the options, many employees who were on the verge of quitting decided that it was in their best interest to stay.
Team leaders soon reported to managers that they saw a swift adaptation to the new practices given that many of them were in line with the employee’s and team leaders’ demands and best interests. Team leaders regularly scheduled evaluation meetings with their staff members to find out any problems they were facing. If any problem arose that could not be resolved easily, it was aptly forwarded to the manager who passed down specific instructions to help the situation.
Any employee that felt themselves burning out, or finding themselves under mental distress was encouraged to report their feelings to their supervisors. The company took a clear stance on emphasizing mental health. It provided additional support to anyone who needed it in the form of professional help.
Employees also reported that they did not feel like they were spending the entire day in Zoom meetings. That’s because leaders cut back on meeting times and focused on time efficiency, which meant that meetings became more structured and productive. The shorter meetings and breaks between meetings protected employees from feeling mentally exhausted in the latter part of the day in particular. Aware that the meeting would last for a limited amount of time, team leaders, and team members alike, came into meetings fully prepared with the agenda points to discuss.
When Dave last spoke to me, he told me that he had noticed a significant boost in employee morale, retention, and productivity by successfully reducing burnout. Dave told me how glad he and the C-suite members were that they had adapted to best practices for remote and hybrid work especially during the Omicron surge. It also left the company well prepared to mitigate any abrupt circumstances arising from subsequent variant wave outbreaks.
The dynamics of remote and hybrid work are vastly different from the pre-pandemic environment of working in a shared office space. Understandably, problems such as Zoom fatigue were not common in the pre-pandemic world. Burnout recovery and protection requires companies to adopt the best practices of remote and hybrid work to ensure workplace productivity remains at the required standards without compromising on the mental and physical health of employees. Team leaders must set boundaries and communicate clear work expectations for remote and hybrid working employees to ensure a better work-life balance.
Questions to Consider (please share your answers below)
What measures have you taken to preserve employee mental health during the pandemic?
How do you plan to improve burnout recovery in the remote and hybrid future of work?
What steps will you take based on this article to set up work boundaries for employees?
Image credit: Mikhail Nilov
Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a world-renowned thought leader in future-proofing, decision making, and cognitive bias risk management in the future of work. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-proofing consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, which specializes in helping forward-looking leaders avoid dangerous threats and missed opportunities. A best-selling author, he wrote Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019), The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships (New Harbinger, 2020), and Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage (Intentional Insights, 2021). His writing was translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, French, and other languages. He was featured in over 550 articles and 450 interviews in prominent venues. These include Fortune, USA Today, Inc. Magazine, CBS News, Business Insider, Government Executive, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Time, Fast Company, and elsewhere. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for mid-size and large organizations ranging from Aflac to Xerox. It also comes from over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist, including 7 as a professor at Ohio State University. You can contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, LinkedIn, Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Medium @dr_gleb_tsipursky, and gain free access to his “Assessment on Dangerous Judgment Errors in the Workplace” and his “Wise Decision Maker Course” with 8 video-based modules at https://disasteravoidanceexperts.com/subscribe/.