Why Are Remote Workers Facing Burnout?

Employee fatigue and burnout was a wellbeing concern for many employers before the pandemic, but eight months in, the problem seems to have been exacerbated by granting people the very thing they coveted the most: unlimited flexibility.

Are we experiencing the unintended consequences of working remotely?

The hype told us that working remotely was all good – less commuting, more family time, greener planet. And the valley of despair told us it was lonely, stopped “water cooler” moments, and killed culture.

Iyas AlQasem

After the hype, comes the disillusionment. Some people are losing faith with remote work.

Employee fatigue and burnout was a wellbeing concern for many employers before the pandemic. Eight months in, the problem seems to have been exacerbated by granting people the very thing they coveted the most: unlimited flexibility.

Are we experiencing the unintended consequences of what was a sudden shift to working remotely?

Data from Gallup reveals something that’s never been seen before: fully remote workers are now experiencing more burnout than on-site workers. Before the pandemic, the perks of working remotely — either part of the time or all the time — resulted in lower levels of burnout compared with employees who were on-site 100% of the time. The situation has flipped.

On one hand, we shouldn’t panic. Let’s remember we are taking part in a massive unplanned experiment in remote work at scale and the use of technology in the workplace. Even the very best planned experiments go wrong. This was never going to work at our first attempt. We are going to learn some things do not work well at all, but we are also going to find many that do.

So let’s accept that working life has changed for good, regardless of if and when COVID-19 will be brought under control. We’ll never go back to the way we were and our focus should shift to what the minimum office looks like and how best employers can support best practices around it.

As Michael Y. Lee and Koen Veltman write , the Covid-19 pandemic is perhaps the greatest threat to team connectedness we have ever seen. However their research indicates a workplace divide between those thriving and those burning out. They find that 45% of people said their team’s level of connectedness had declined since Covid-19, but nearly one-third said it had improved. Only about one in five reported no change. The pandemic, far from having a consistent effect observable across the sample, had created a divide. Teams that seemed better adjusted to the “new normal” were becoming more connected as a result, while those that adapted less saw the quality of their relationships decline. They conclude that harnessing the power of new technologies, designing new interaction rituals and leveraging the pandemic as an opportunity to show compassion and care are good places to start.

This diversity of experience presents both a problem and an opportunity. As Leisa Reichelt writes for Atlassian everyone is experiencing working from home entirely differently, and she surmises that its based on three basic factors:

  1. Household complexity – The magnitude of care duties people have responsibility for, as well as the density of their household, affects their remote working experience.
  2. Role complexity – The complexity of an employee’s workflow, and the level of social interaction they depend on to be successful in their role, influences their job success & satisfaction.
  3. Network quality – People’s access to personal and workplace communities contributes to a person’s sense of belonging, and support.

These are important factors that we need to address on an individual level rather than with one-size-fits-no-one wellbeing initiatives.

There are a couple of other emerging problems:

The Problem With Management:

Little has changed in the fundamental way we work. We’ve lifted and shifted legacy office ways of working to the home. We’ve not changed enough other stuff. Much management coordination activity continues to be focussed on replicating pre-existing processes, methods and rituals, but using digital tools, which is even easier when remote and there’s zero commute time. This means working hours have increased, some suggest by 10 hours a week.

Additionally we’re spending more time than ever reporting, trying to make our work visible to those around us. This spike in ‘work about work’ is at best self-indulgent and at worst, a complete waste of people’s time.

Obsessing about the visibility of work and making sure your team are seen to be active is the new form of presenteeism.

The Problem With Personal Planning:

A lot of office workers have never really had to think about planning and productivity. The 9-5 , for all its many flaws, has provided a monotonous but convenient template for us all to follow for generations.

You get up, you shower, you put on work clothes, and you commute to work. You put a shift in and you leave. Rinse and repeat.

The demarcation line between work and personal life has disappeared entirely. In addition, given the ease with which digital tools lend themselves to constant communication means we can exist in a constant state of distraction where deep work becomes impossible.

This is my real fear – that we focus on low grade menial ‘tasks’ and work about work rather than deep work solving the problems that truly matter.

Let’s go back to how I opened. This is an experiment. We don’t have to beat ourselves up – yet.

However , eight months in we need to pick apart what works and what doesn’t pretty damn quickly. When running innovation experiments you have to iterate very quickly before erroneous results form into established behaviours.

As our experiment goes on longer the more it becomes a normal way of working. 18 months in and we’ll find our new way of working becomes impossible to change.

The time to call out the problems and test some solutions is now. Let’s look at the third of people who are thriving in a remote work environment. What are they doing that works and how can we build upon that?

A series of radical experiments with your team would be a far better use of that 10 hours extra a week we are working than yet another Teams/Zoom Doom session.


Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Why Do So Many People Want Us Back In The Office?

After the sudden and miraculous shift to remote work – the office fightback has well and truly begun.

After the sudden and miraculous shift to remote work in March – the office fightback has well and truly begun.

Four months ago I wrote that – surprisingly- there was no fightback from technophobe hold-outs barricading themselves into their offices. They simply packed up their laptop and went home with the rest of us. How premature I was.

If you thought that 2020 couldn’t get any crazier – it seems some people really are suggesting that businesses should alter their workplace strategies in order to save…sandwich shops.

OK, I’m exaggerating for effect. But there really has been a hand brake applied to the move to remote/hybrid working , or my favoured term, minimum office in recent weeks.

An article in the Daily Telegraph suggested that employees who continue to work at home will be more vulnerable to redundancy, with bosses finding it far easier get rid of people they don’t physically see.

Kirstie Allsopp led the anti-remote work charge on Twitter, suggesting that if your job can be done from home, it can be done from anywhere in the world. Who would have thought that a couple of months of working in shorts and a T-Shirt has made us more susceptible to being replaced by less expensive folk in India, Myanmar and China?

A debate that is framed around saving sandwich shops and an already dying high street isn’t helpful or progressive. Cynically I might suggest the real subtext here is about propping up commercial property investment portfolios. Realistically though, we won’t see anything like a return to the same number of offices, and although few will shed tears for commercial real estate investors many small businesses will suffer a big hit and go out of business unless they can pivot very rapidly.

Clearly there are two groups emerging, those who are desperate for the pandemic to be viewed as a temporary event before everything returns to ‘normal’ and those embracing the true long term disruption that is occurring.

Thank heavens then for more balanced thinkers like Tom Cheesewright who has an uncanny ability to pan back and take the long view. Writing on his website about the current over-confidence in the possibilities for remote working he says:

“There is something different about being there, in person, with all of your senses engaged. It’s what I called a few years ago, ‘the unbeatable bandwidth of being there‘. What gets transmitted and received through the screen and headset, mediated by a million miles of fibre optic cable, is not the full experience of meeting. Nor does it allow for all the things that happen around those meetings. I’ve talked at length about the need for peer support, the subtler parts of staff training, and the mutual inspiration that happens when you’re sharing a physical space.”

I’m a remote working, or at least a minimum office, enthusiast. I’ve written on this site for years about the worst aspects of office life and the most popular post on here applauds its impending doom. Six years on though I’d admit it’s a deeply flawed argument. The idea that constant interruptions and back to back meetings were a symptom of being in a corporate building has been well and truly busted by…Microsoft Teams.

In truth the problem with work is not the tools or the physical location, but the obsession with leadership , an undue focus on work about work, an overbearing hierarchy and the lack of true digitisation of the enterprise. Deeper, more complex problems.

It’s ironic that it has taken a pandemic to reveal what was good about the office. “The things that happen between meetings” that Tom writes about reveal our innate desire for human contact – the need to get our senses fully engaged. Wasteful? Quite often. But we dismiss this at our peril. It may seem logical that workplace chatter stifles productivity, but studies show the opposite to be true.

A narrow focus on efficiency in the workplace and a flawed view of what makes people productive is similarly regressive and likely to drag people back to the old normal. As Stowe Boyd writes the backlash against minimum office is in full flow , as detailed in Companies Start to Think Remote Work Isn’t So Great After All, as executives want to get people back in the office:

An increasing number of executives now say that remote work, while necessary for safety much of this year, is not their preferred long-term solution once the coronavirus crisis passes.

“There’s sort of an emerging sense behind the scenes of executives saying, ‘This is not going to be sustainable,’” said Laszlo Bock, chief executive of human-resources startup Humu and the former HR chief at Google. No CEO should be surprised that the early productivity gains companies witnessed as remote work took hold have peaked and leveled off, he adds, because workers left offices in March armed with laptops and a sense of doom.”

Perhaps it’s simply we haven’t yet matched our colleagues roles, and their specific work preferences, within our existing organisational design never mind considered a future state. Working from home (managed and supported appropriately) can be more productive than going into the office.

A HBR study published in August contrasted surveys of knowledge workers from 2013 and 2020, found that remote working was in fact helping address long-held frustrations about the rhythm of office work.

  1. Lockdown helps us focus on the work that really matters. We are spending 12% less time drawn into large meetings and 9% more time interacting with customers and external partners.
  2. Lockdown helps us take responsibility for our own schedules. We do 50% more activities through personal choice — because we see them as important — and half as many because someone else asked us to.
  3. During lockdown, we view our work as more worthwhile.  We rate the things we do as valuable to our employer and to ourselves. The number of tasks rated as tiresome drops from 27% to 12%, and the number we could readily offload to others drops from 41% to 27%.

The key phrase here is: managed and supported appropriately. Certainly managers need to reinvent themselves as mentors to this style of working and then – forgive me – get the hell out of the way.

The office as the default way of working is dead. But the office itself isn’t dead. With working from home, what we gain in work-life balance we might lose in innovation and creativity. There are people who could directly challenge that sentence but I suspect they will come from highly mature companies who have fully mastered the remote working learning curve. Many of us are still at the stage of doing what we did in the office , just remotely. The timorous amongst us may use the lack of productivity net gains as a reason to regress rather than push through the ‘pain barrier’ as Matt Mullenweg describes it.

We can do so much better, for ourselves, our customers and society if we stop being so frightened or so certain of the future.

We are going to have fewer offices and spend more time at home.

Our efforts would be a lot better spent improving the experience and outcomes of both rather than arguing about preserving a status quo whose time has truly run out.

The office versus remote work? It’s not a binary choice we need to make.

The best thing you can do in any period of change is to bet on neither black or white. The future will be made up instead of shades of grey where few things are certain and the best you can do to prepare is to be endlessly adaptable.


Photo by Benjamin Child on Unsplash

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