The loneliness of the long-distance worker

How do you avoid burning out your remote staff? Don’t merely tell them what to do—tell them what not to do.

Deborah Golden, who leads the U.S Cyber & Strategic Risk practice at Deloitte has a rule that any staff videoconferences held on a Friday must proceed with cameras off. Giving people permission not to apply makeup or put on a dress shirt is one small way of taking pressure off her remote workforce.

“I’ve worked to find as many ways as I can to help relieve stress for colleagues and clients—and myself, candidly—and my ‘no video call Friday’ approach is among the most widely appreciated,” she said.

The past year has taught us a lot about working remotely, both its joys and challenges. The good news is that, by all accounts, the forced work-at-home environment has turned out pretty well: a PwC survey early this year found that 83% of employers and 71% of employees characterize the shift as successful.

But stress levels also climbed during lockdowns. A survey conducted by the anonymous professional network Blind in April 2020 found that 73% of the nearly 7,000 respondents said they were burned out, up from 61% in February.

While most employers expect to reopen offices by the middle of this year, the majority also plan to continue at least partial work-from-home arrangements, PwC found. They need to be aware of the unique risks that remote workers face.

Lots of people work alone by choice: There are 23 million sole proprietors in the U.S. The difference is that those arrangements are usually voluntary. Office workers, in contrast, are expected to participate in teams, making connections an essential part of their success.

Home-based workers suffer the risk of “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome. People in offices are presumed to be working, but home-based employees have none of the non-verbal cues that tell them they’re getting the job done.

As a consequence, they tend to push themselves harder than their office-bound peers. A Robert Half survey conducted last summer found that more than two-thirds of people who had been forced to shelter in place said they routinely worked on weekends, and 45% regularly put in more than eight hours per day.

Executives at financial software provider Finastra initially worried last year that they had no way to ensure that the 10,000 employees who moved to home offices last year were actually working. “What we found very quickly was the exact opposite was a concern,” CIO Russ Soper told an Everbridge symposium. The bigger problem “was how to stop them from working 16- or 18-hour days.”

People in isolated settings have a greater risk of burnout than others. While the common perception is that burnout results from working too hard, there are many possible causes, including isolation, lack of control, vague job expectations, and lack of social support. The World Health Organization recently classified burnout as a legitimate mental health problem, saying it can lead to loss of energy, negativity, and a sense of worthlessness. That’s not good for anyone.

You can prevent remote workers from falling victim to burnout with a few basic tactics. Set clear expectations, including what you expect them to do and also what they should not do. Recommend hard stop times for the workday and encourage frequent breaks. Limit the length of video calls.

The Blind survey found that poor work/life balance was the number one cause of remote-work stress. You can help by introducing your own family on video calls with your staff. At Land O’Lakes, staff members allocate time for kids to show off artwork and Lego creations. Many companies have had success with informal, remote lunch-and-learns, video happy hours, and meditation classes that force people to knock off work for a while.

Finastra used cloud software to track how much time employees were spending at their computers and urged over-achievers to take a break. Some companies have even bought their employees subscriptions to meditation apps like Headspace and Calm.

The most important thing managers can do, though, is set an example. Post your own schedule, including times when you’ll be disconnected and unavailable. Don’t respond to late-night emails or, better yet, declare that no message received after a certain time will be read until the next day.

And remember that language counts. With up to half of the white-collar workforce expected to telecommute at least part-time for the foreseeable future, it’s important that they not feel out of sight and out of mind. Avoid phrases like “going back to work” in favor of “going back to the workplace” and ensure that remote workers get the same recognition and plaudits as everybody else.

And while you’re at it, shut off that camera on Fridays.

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Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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