In Part 1 of this series, I talked about how I helped Matt, the CEO of an insurance company with a staff of 1,300, navigate through a widespread work-from-home burnout crisis in his company. I advised Matt that what he needs to do in order to defeat work-from-home burnout is to stop thinking of COVID as an emergency situation to be handled via operational tactics.
Companies need to approach COVID and the post-COVID world as our new abnormal reality, and use a strategic approach to survive and thrive in this new world. That includes a strategic re-evaluation of your internal structure, culture, and norms for a much more virtual environment for the foreseeable future. One cornerstone, and the crucial first step, of this re-evaluation is to be able to identify key issues that could lead to work-from-home burnout.
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In the case of Matt’s company, as with many other businesses as well, the issues ranged from those that stemmed from an individual’s personal circumstances to those that originate from the workplace itself.
The most significant problems I’ve identified include the deprivation of our basic human needs for meaning, purpose, connection, and the chance to build trust with workmates. Working from home also deprives employees of the chance to be mentored by senior colleagues.
Then, there’s the “Zoom fatigue” brought on by the stress and feeling of drain due to technology failing to get our basic need for connection met. This issue is true for the formal and official aspects of work as well as the informal ones, such as when companies use videoconferencing for happy hours and other virtual social gatherings.
There are also other important pieces, such as employees’ lack of skills in effective communication, collaboration, and technology tools in virtual work. Employees may also be affected by pandemic-related mental health challenges, subpar work-from-home environments, poor work/life boundaries, as well as other COVID-related pragmatic challenges.
To efficiently address these issues, I urged Matt to take 21 steps that organizations can use to defeat work-from-home burnout and Zoom fatigue.
A Strategic Approach to Defeat Work-From-Home Burnout and Zoom Fatigue
The first step to fixing these problems involves a commitment to a strategic shift. You’ll need to reframe your company culture – and policies – from “emergency mode” of working from home to remote work being the new normal. That includes not only the many, many months of the pandemic, but after the pandemic as well, with many staff working full-time remotely while others work in the office a couple of days a week.
Start by stepping away from your existing structure of, your culture around, and your assumptions about, remote work. People have a tendency to stick to their pre-existing beliefs based on their initial information and first impressions, even when strong new evidence shows that these beliefs are erroneous, such as how we set up remote work. Behavioral economists and cognitive neuroscientists call this mental blind spot anchoring. Anchoring is one of many dangerous judgment errors, or cognitive biases, that harm the decision-making process in business and every area of life. Doing so has caused many bad decisions during the pandemic, and you want to avoid such anchoring as you re-envision working from home.
Here are the specific steps I suggested for Matt’s company and the other companies who I helped strategically realign their culture around a much more virtual work environment, both in the pandemic and the post-pandemic world:
Implementing the Strategic Shift to Virtual Work
We started the strategic shift to virtual work in Matt’s company by using an internal survey conducted in mid-October 2020 to develop a baseline for virtual work improvements and determine the biggest challenges facing employees. Not surprisingly, work/life boundaries emerged as the top issue. Deteriorating teamwork proved the second biggest challenge; on a related note, the third was a decrease in mutual trust. So we implemented interventions in that order.
After running some focus groups to get buy-in and feedback from lower-level staff, the company announced a strategic virtual work initiative. That included offering most staff the flexibility to stay virtual full-time even after the pandemic, and only come in for a quarterly conference once the pandemic was over; a new policy of hiring employees for most positions across the country, not only in the region around the office, as long as they were willing to attend the quarterly get-togethers after the pandemic; downsizing office space and hot-desking for those who still wanted or needed to come in occasionally once it’s safe; and a budget for home office improvements and/or coworking space payments.
Next, the company scheduled training to educate employees about the deprivations of needs. Then, HR rolled out policies encouraging stronger work/life boundaries and advocating for appropriate time off. After that, the company addressed teamwork challenges through professional development in virtual collaboration, as well as having leaders focus on improvements in peer-to-peer accountability. The next step involved rebuilding trust through virtual coworking and via establishing “Morning Updates” and “Life Stuff” channels in the company’s Slack collaboration software for each team.
Other improvements followed in the order that responded most to the needs of employees and the company’s situation. The HR department ran internal surveys monthly, adjusting the implementation as needed to address challenges. For instance, the senior leadership had to reinforce to mid- and lower-level managers, several times, the importance of work/life balance and time off; HR ended up having to provide training to and monitoring of a number of managers to improve compliance with this policy.
By the time my engagement with Matt’s company ended in January 2021, survey results showed that employee satisfaction with virtual work improved by 27%, their comfort with work/life boundaries grew by 32%, and confidence in their team members rose by 18%. More importantly, bottom-line figures improved as well: employee retention grew by 17%, and customer complaints dropped by 14%, while healthcare costs dropped by 8%, and productivity increased by 9%.
The latter figure proved surprising for many mid- and lower-level managers, and even some senior executives. Many thought that productivity would drop due to more time off and better work/life boundaries. They felt skeptical of my claims about the extensive research on the benefits of work/life boundaries, breaks, and time off for productivity and health. It’s a frequent tendency I observed: many managers, especially older and more experienced ones, feel extensive research on best practices shown effective elsewhere for some reason doesn’t apply to their context. However, once the findings from their own workplace bear out the research, the skepticism eventually dissipates, as it did here.
From a qualitative standpoint, while Matt’s company wasn’t able to retain some of their key talent due to these problems, they were able to save many major accounts due to the efficient turnaround. Matt also told me privately that the increased trust and transparency in their workplace empowered the executive team to make better-informed decisions and roll out more appropriate initiatives, which he felt would attract key talent and clients in the long run.
Work-from-home burnout is a serious issue that needs to be addressed strategically. You need to reframe your company culture and policies from remote work as an emergency mindset to remote work being the new normal, and support your employees in this strategic shift.
Protect your company from the disastrous effects of work-from-home burnout and Zoom fatigue by a strategic shift toward virtual work being the new normal rather than an emergency measure
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