As leader of an international business in the technology sector, I am accustomed to managing remote teams. Recently, of course, the degree to which people are solely working from home without the usual interactions of attending the office, traveling to events, or meeting with customers has increased. The changes precipitated by the global pandemic put extra stress and strain on most teams, and there have been other issues to deal with, such as the need for team members to home-school children or provide care for elderly relatives.
For employers, burnout is always a concern, and it is particularly important at the moment to think about how to prevent it, whether that is asking employees to plan and take vacation, encouraging them to set boundaries to their work time, or trying to ensure the whole team is clear on the objectives they are working toward. Here are my tips.
1. Encourage people to plan and take vacation.
In many organizations, particularly in North America, it is quite common for people not to take all of their PTO, even in normal times before the pandemic. In recent years, some companies have pursued a policy of unlimited PTO – but for many, that simply compounds the issue, as there is no agreed-upon standard of how much they should take.
I am a believer in giving people a reasonable allowance of time and encouraging them to schedule and take it. At the moment, I feel that is an even more important message than usual. Individuals and families need a change of scenery and some time out more than ever.
Those exotic trips to faraway places that we might have dreamed of at the start of the year may be out of the question, but in most parts of the world, driving trips are still possible. A week of dozing in a rocking chair on the deck of a country house could be just what the doctor ordered for people who have been through a period of high stress.
From a management point of view, encouraging people to take their summer break also reduces stress. Managers don't usually want to see their entire team disappear all at once at the end of the year. It is much better to encourage people to schedule their vacations early on.
2. Encourage reasonable boundaries while keeping communication lines open.
Because everyone is at home, rather than traveling to meet with clients or commuting to the office, they might feel they should be available and at their desk all of the time. If people replace the hours they spent commuting with more work time, they can end up feeling as if they are sleeping in the office rather than working from home. I would encourage people to set reasonable boundaries and not to feel as if they have to respond to every communication immediately.
Give everyone some flexibility when it comes to virtual meetings. We are all getting used to seeing children running in and out of meetings, dogs barking in the background, and so on. Many people are at home with kids, taking care of loved ones. Most teams are understanding about that, but there may be times when the other demands an employee has to deal with are not compatible with concentrating on a meeting. It will help if it is generally easy to alter start times to better adjust to everyone's schedules.
It may not suit every member of staff to put in the same hours right now. For example, some working parents find the early morning the most peaceful and quiet time to get their tasks done. Trust your people to manage their time, and focus on the outcomes rather than constantly checking up on people.
Also resist the temptation to counteract the distance of remote work by inviting everyone and their dog to every meeting. It can be exhausting to do hours of back-to-back Zoom calls. Keep the attendee list to a minimum, considering who needs to be there at that time. There's a tendency for meetings to proliferate, which is counterproductive.
Meetings that may have automatically been scheduled for an hour in the office could perhaps be reduced to 45 minutes, freeing up time for everyone to take a screen break before the start of the next hour. But when you do have those meetings, take a few minutes for general human-to-human chats. Sometimes, people launch straight into the PowerPoint when the meeting is online. Try to find time to check in with each other and have a bit of human contact. When people are working remotely, they might feel more anxious than usual about what's going on at work, and some chatting time may allow them to share what's on their mind.
3. Encourage people to prioritize effectively.
I have always liked a quote from business thinker Peter Drucker: "There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all." People generally find it difficult to prioritize – there is always a need to balance the urgent and the important, and we all sometimes find ourselves swamped with unimportant but urgent tasks while important ones languish in the must-do pile. Effective prioritization is even harder with a remote team.
It is a misconception that most people are lazy. People naturally find things to keep themselves busy. If you aren't clear about what you want someone to do, they will still be busy, just not with what you want them to prioritize. They might end up feeling that work never ends, which adds to the risk of burnout – but there may be some things in that tray that are not worth doing right now.
Set clear expectations and timelines. Keep the horizons reasonably near. For example, many technology companies use agile management techniques, which involve working in short sprints, delivering value in the space of a week or two, and planning, replanning and iterating.
When everyone feels clear on what they are working toward as a team, what their own contribution is within that, and what they have undertaken to deliver, it becomes much easier for people to focus on the right things, make decisions and feel a sense of progress.
Daily standups – short, focused team meetings – help teams to clarify their progress toward objectives, but also how what they are doing affects others. If one person doesn't do what they committed to do by a certain time, that can impact the whole team's ability to deliver its objectives.
In conclusion, encouraging employees to plan and take their vacation time, set reasonable boundaries, and focus on clear objectives contributes to better work-life balance. Feeling like part of a strong team and working toward shared goals is engaging and motivating. It also makes it easier for team members to help each other – if one person drops the ball, another can pick it up. That sense of mutual support is an important defense against burnout.