The past two years have seen a workplace shift unlike anything since farm laborers migrated from fields to factories during the Industrial Revolution. We’re talking, of course, about the millions of office employees who started working remotely due to the pandemic.
Since then, many employees have come to love (and expect) the option of a “flexible workspace.” In fact, it has become a bargaining chip in the retention and recruitment of top talent, with 82% of U.S. workers hoping to work remotely at least part-time after the pandemic and nearly 20% hoping to work from home exclusively.1
However, 69% of those who are working from home also say they’re experiencing burnout, which can be a catalyst for change, leading workers to seek greener pastures.2
The question is: Why? And what can leaders do about it?
Offering flexibility isn’t enough
According to Patrick Gallagher, director of research for Truist Leadership Institute, forward-thinking leaders are realizing it’s not enough to offer flexible options to attract employees.
“If you want to help workers stay healthy and engaged, you have to guide them in how to operate in these conditions, just as you would if you were rolling out new software or machinery,” he says.
“Most of the discussion I hear from leaders and HR departments these days is about what flexible options they should offer, but that’s only part of the story,” Gallagher adds. “You can give employees the flexible work arrangement they want, but that doesn’t help them find balance between work and home life and manage the stress that can result from this relatively new lifestyle.”
Prevent burnout by setting boundaries
Gallagher believes that the key to managing hybrid work successfully is helping employees set boundaries between their work and nonwork life.
Unfortunately, half of all remote employees say they struggle to set boundaries when working from home, according to a recent article in Harvard Business Review.3
Here are some stress-busting strategies to get you started.
Be clear about office hours. It’s great that people can drive their kids to school or take Dad to the doctor, but if the team isn’t clear on what’s OK, those who stick to an old-school schedule might get resentful. Put expectations in writing in the employee handbook and job descriptions to make it official.
“It doesn’t have to be, ‘Everybody has to work from 9 to 5,’” says Gallagher. In fact, “office hours” may differ by department or even by team.
Nix off-hours notifications. According to Gallagher, this might be the number-one example of blurred boundaries: text and email notifications going off in the evenings and on weekends. This takes them away from their personal time and can make them feel that they never really get a break.
Create a boundaries agreement. Include details on how to prioritize work—and work schedules should be aligned to allow for productive asynchronous work, as well as effective collaboration in small or large groups.
Also, there should be clear guidance on what (if anything) counts as “urgent” and justifies breaking the boundaries, as well as who to contact in an emergency and by what means (email, text, etc.).
Model the behavior you expect. It’s important that leaders set a good example for remote workers by establishing and respecting their own work/nonwork boundaries. This includes not sending emails or texts or making phone calls to their team late at night or during agreed-upon off-work hours.
Build community with communication
Working from home can leave employees feeling disconnected from the company and their coworkers, making it even more vital that leaders communicate effectively.
In a survey conducted by MIT Sloan Management Review, almost half (47%) of employees said that effective communication was critical to remote work success.4
The survey results indicated that for communication to be most effective, it should be frequent, consistent, transparent, easy to navigate, and part of a two-way dialogue.
Here are four communication tips to hone your approach and prevent burnout.
Choose the right method. For example, know when an email should be a video meeting and vice versa. Consider surveying your team about their preferences.
Make it matter. Video meetings (or in-person ones) should be valuable, relevant, and action-oriented. Inviting team members to meetings that don’t benefit them or require their input is a surefire way to encourage those who check in to zone out.
Plan regular team huddles. Working remotely can boost employee productivity on stand-alone tasks that require minimal coordination with co-workers, but it can decrease productivity when strategic, creative, or logistical collaboration is needed.
Ensure full inclusion. When some meeting attendees are on-site, and some are remote, remote attendees can be left out. Set meeting norms that regularly check for remote attendees’ input.
The survey indicated that frequent, short meetings were more likely to boost employees’ productivity. In particular, daily team scrums helped them stay more focused and engaged.
Provide mental, physical, and digital support
Nearly one-third (29%) of surveyed employees praised the steps their employers took to foster mental wellness and help them cope with social isolation.
Get the word out about wellness. Be sure remote employees know about any wellness programs and benefits offered by your company. Consider revising your offerings—say, by offering money toward a gym membership if the gyms at your offices aren’t seeing much use. Also consider offering regular virtual social activities like lunch-and-learn sessions, coffee breaks, and happy hours, but only when “virtual fatigue” is at a minimum.
Make sure vacation days are taken. Tell employees you want them to take their time off and actually unplug from their work devices. Remember to walk the walk: Take some time off to recharge your own batteries, and don’t check emails or do work during that time. That may show your team you’re serious about their leisure time.
Provide the right technology for the job. Some employers are directly providing or subsidizing the purchase of technology devices (such as a laptop, second monitor, printer, and mobile device), collaboration and communication platforms (like Microsoft Teams and Webex), home Wi-Fi and a booster or router, and home-office furniture. The cost of these subsidies could be offset if you’re reducing your real estate footprint.
Regularly reassess how remote work is working
Successfully adapting to the new remote and hybrid work model will require ongoing flexibility and adaptation by businesses and employees. To continue to prevent burnout in off-site workers, as well as those who come in one or more days a week, you’ll need to regularly take the pulse of your policies. By showing you’re always willing to revisit the way you approach remote work, you can create a company culture that helps retain existing talent and attracts new hires.