For people whose jobs require little more than a computer and an internet connection, the current pandemic has made kitchen tables, home offices and recliners the new workplace. Long commutes, office attire and packed lunches have been replaced with walking into another room, day-time pajamas and continuous snacking.
The structure and shape of the workday has also been impacted. Prior to the disruption of COVID-19, office working hours were generally set to follow a 9-to-5 schedule, with flexibility and accommodations sprinkled in depending on personal circumstances. Now, working environments shared with spouses, children and/or pets frequently require further adjustments when homeschooling or midday dog walks are also involved.
Many organizations and leaders have shown great understanding in providing the means for employees to adapt and manage through these changes, which goes a long way toward building trust and engagement. Others are less accommodating, with demands that are more or less unchanged from the expectations in place prior to the pandemic. What this response (or lack thereof) means for their brands and employee value propositions has yet to be seen.
In both cases, though, employees are largely left alone to figure out how to manage their time and energy when disruptions pepper their days. For many, there is no break time or pause button, and with no child care, many remote workers are “on” at all hours, working or not. Routines existing prior to COVID-19 are gone, and workdays often go from early in the morning to late at night, with burnout emerging as a legitimate concern.
To make matters worse, some employees are burdened by their organization’s excessive monitoring, with employer-provided computers taking pictures and screenshots of the work at 10-minute intervals, intrusively surveilling productivity and creating a climate of fear and distrust.
From this extreme to the less obvious (but equally stressful) practice of early-morning video team meetings to ensure everyone is up, dressed and logged in, many remote workers worry about being furloughed, laid off or outright fired for not working as much as possible, regardless of the hour. Some are expected to be ready at the drop of a hat for impromptu video check-in calls. This elevated level of pressure is hardly conducive to productivity. Worse, it can overtax the ability to function effectively and lay the groundwork for levels of stress that correlate with burnout.
When workers stretch themselves beyond all reason to meet work demands while juggling multiple priorities, it behooves leaders to be proactive in ensuring that employees are set up for success, with the resources to manage their time and energy, along with conversations that create space to talk openly about ongoing challenges.
Here are several considerations to help leaders manage remote employees’ workloads and create the conditions for agreed-upon levels of productivity, with explicit times to disconnect:
1. Start in the Right Place
Every conversation with an employee benefits from preparation before speaking the first word. Prior to the call, consider the purpose of the conversation and what you want to accomplish, as well as how you want the employee to experience it. Also, consider how you will set the hierarchy aside and connect person-to-person: Ask how things are going generally, and tell them that what is most of value, regardless of circumstances, are the employee’s well-being and the health of his or her family and loved ones.
2. Be Curious
Gather information on the lived experience of each employee. A single parent in a small apartment will have different needs than a person living alone with access to outdoor space and a separate in-home office. Consider a fact-finding conversation that surfaces answers to questions such as:
- Given our current situation and your needs, are current goals and objectives reasonable?
- Where might we make adjustments?
- What challenges — if any — are you facing working from home (e.g., child care, a small space with two adults making conference calls)? Can we help you work around them?
As you learn what is (and isn’t) working for your employee, express your desire for him or her to have a healthy balance between work and other priorities. Work together to design and agree on a workday structure and set of tasks. Working from home as a previously-negotiated arrangement is different from being at home during a pandemic and trying to work with concurrent demands and constraints. Be compassionate and realistic, and create the conditions for the employee to make headway when circumstances are out of his or her control. Finally, agree on “office hours”: If you send emails at midnight, let your employee know that there is no expectation to respond until those agreed-upon hours.
Show your belief that employees are doing the best they can under unprecedented circumstances. Recognize the progress they make, and offer your availability to address any emerging issues.
Effective leaders know that every time they speak with an employee or a team is a time to clarify expectations, check for understanding and demonstrate trust. If you leave conversations with muddied or conflicting messages and fail to confirm your belief in the people who work to meet your objectives, you are contributing to the strain and overwhelm your employees already feel and communicating that it’s never a good idea to log off. Also know that if you provide little to no access to resources or end conversations with a “joke” that implies the employee is streaming movies instead of working, you are actively, if unconsciously, getting in the way of the results you claim you need.
Finally, check in at regular intervals to adjust agreements as days go by and work progresses. If you sense signs of burnout, raise your concerns immediately, address workload, and insist on a break or a logging-off time. Everything you do — or don’t do — is the filter through which your employees will gauge how to spend their days.
As the saying (commonly attributed to Maya Angelou) goes, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”