Talent [R]evolution

Effectively managing remote teams to counter burnout

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The end of the pandemic seems to be in sight. As we all know too well, this health crisis has ushered in a new paradigm of working. With all staff abruptly relocated to the home office, all levels of management have had to reprise their approach. For many, this was met with some trepidation; after all, managing remote teams has a chequered history. For example, when Yahoo experimented with a hybrid on- and off-site model back in 2013, CEO Marissa Mayer concluded the test-run with the statement, “We need to become one Yahoo again”.

These downsides to the hybrid model arise from the conditions that underpin organisational culture and employee performance. Ways of working, behaviour, relationships and interactions are essential to cultivating a sense of a common goal. For many managers, this social cohesion and shared trust nurtured by in-person working were seen as indispensable. However, as the pandemic unfolded, many were surprised by what they found.  

Employees were more productive, dynamic and less stressed. With the drudgery of the morning commute gone and the opportunity for more flexibility, many were thriving. According to statistics published by The New York Times, since the second quarter of 2020, labour productivity – the amount of output per hour of work – rose by 3.8% compared with just 1.4% from 2005 to 2019. This trend persisted through spring, with a 2.3% rate of productivity growth in the second quarter.

This new model demonstrates the potential to create a happier and more productive workforce, not to mention greater access to talent and lower costs. It also potentially offers a solution to one of the most significant productivity barriers of the contemporary moment – burnout. According to a survey conducted by consulting giants Deloitte, 77% of employees experienced burnout at their current job.

Now is the time to reimagine the organisation post-pandemic. However, the move to hybrid needs to be executed properly. To avoid a Yahoo scenario, managing remote teams needs to be executed with the right tools. Getting this right will take finesse – ultimately, the benefits of working remotely aren’t reaped by magic. Here, we examine the burnout phenomenon, propose a hybrid model as a potential solution, and share some key tips on how it’s done.

The burnout phenomenon

Burnout is a very contemporary condition. Google’s ‘Use over time’ metrics indicate that the word only came into use around 1950. It’s perhaps unsurprising that its usage has recently peaked. In 2019, the World Health Organization saw fit to publish a definition of ‘burnout’. According to their description, burnout is “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” 

This definition is elaborated via three dimensions: exhaustion; feelings of negativity or cynicism towards one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy. Burnout can also trigger physical responses such as high blood pressure, a lowered immune system, and insomnia. As indicated by Deloitte’s research this condition is on the rise, particularly amongst younger generations. Compared to 77% of total respondents, 84% of millennials say they have experienced burnout at their current job.

Interestingly, the study found that this wasn’t necessarily related to job satisfaction. Of the surveyed professionals, 87% said they had a passion for their current job, yet meanwhile, 64% said they frequently felt stressed, dispelling the myth that those that are happy in their work are immune to stress or burnout. So, what’s driving this explosion in burnout?

The survey suggests that management has a lot to answer for. The main driver of burnout cited was lack of support or recognition from leadership, indicating the important role that management plays in setting the tone. On top of this, nearly 70% of those surveyed felt their employers were not doing enough to prevent or alleviate burnout.

So what can management do to ensure they’re not creating an environment that propagates burnout? The hybrid work model may hold the key – let’s take a closer look at the justification.

The case for remote working

The move to remote during the pandemic undoubtedly saw an uptick in productivity, but what about happiness? Pre-pandemic studies suggested that employees who regularly work remotely are happier and stay with their companies longer. Post-pandemic, the trend is continuing; an Ipsos survey for the World Economic Forum among 12,500 employed people in 29 countries found that two-thirds want flexible working hours to become the norm. Further to this, just a third of these employees complained of burnout – a fraction of the proportion of respondents in the Deloitte study. 

So what’s driving this increase in workplace well-being? Of course, the evidence remains largely anecdotal, but many cited the lack of a time-consuming and stressful commute as a driver. Others say a better work-life balance and flexibility was what really made the difference. In a Flexjobs survey, 79% of employees said they would be more loyal to a business that offered more flexibility. It seems that the job itself is only part of the happiness equation; the other is how the job fits into someone’s life.

Finding the balance

However, the flip side is what we have dubbed “the Yahoo scenario”. There are many valuable outcomes to working together, which is something Mayer recognised in 2013. She commented, “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together,” having the “hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings” that build social cohesion and authentic workplace culture.

Other companies that experimented with managing remote teams pre-pandemic had similar experiences. For example, children’s game developer GoNoodle tried a part-remote, part-onsite model pre-pandemic. In an interview with The New York Times, one GoNoodle employee lamented the loss of the office atmosphere: “We had this killer sound system,” he said. “You know—we’re drinking coffee, or maybe, ‘Hey, want to take a walk?’ I miss that.”

Or, as opposed to there being no organisational culture, another obstacle is the possibility of two parallel cultures emerging. Take an unnamed company cited in a discussion of the issue published by McKinsey&Co. This company was divided into two business units: one smaller remote group spread out all over the world and another larger group concentrated in Chicago. When a new global CEO arrived prior to the pandemic, she based herself in Chicago alongside the in-person group.

As the pandemic began, the new leader abruptly formed a crisis nerve centre on-site in Chicago. Meanwhile, remote workers in other cities quickly lost visibility into the new workflows and resources – even though that on-site group was now working virtually too. Newly created and highly sought-after assignments (which were part of the business unit’s crisis response) went to members of the formerly on-site group, while the original remote unit was overlooked. Within a matter of months, key employees in the smaller, distributed group were unhappy and underperforming.

So the question remains: if remote working has clear benefits – and indeed, has the potential to be an antidote to burnout – how do we stop a Yahoo scenario from unfolding? How can an organisation reap the rewards of a hybrid team, while ensuring a cohesive company culture? In short, it’s down to an effective approach to managing remote teams. Our five key tips are as follows.

The 5 keys to managing remote teams

  1. Mentor, don’t monitor

The prospect of managing remote workers may leave some leaders feeling anxious. How can I be sure that employees aren’t shirking their responsibilities? How do I make sure targets are being met? This can lead to the temptation to constantly monitor remote employees, whether it be via incessant emailing or more invasive screen monitoring methods.

When it comes to employee happiness, these strategies should be avoided at all costs. It actually harks back to a time-honoured Agile strategyempowers employees to work autonomously, make mistakes, and ultimately they’ll be more dynamic. Instead of a monitor, be a mentor. Guide and coach employees and provide them with the resources they need. This emphasis on personal development over targets will ultimately lead to more motivated remote teams, as they feel more supported.

  1. Focus on final results rather than activity

This next point links in with the move away from being a disciplinarian to a genuinely supportive boss – whether the employee is on-site or off. Instead of focussing on team members’ activity (the hours they’re working, where they are, etc.), focus on the results. If an employee delivers a show-stopping presentation or comes up with an innovative new idea, what difference does it make to you if they went to the gym at 3 pm? Or spent some time with their kids? 

The reality is, absolutely none. They did their job and they did it well. Praising results over activity is a key tool in preventing burnout. Staff will feel valued, acknowledged, and like they can deliver the results the management is looking for without jeopardizing their mental health. In the long term, the outcome can only be positive for everyone.

  1. Provide after-work support or resources

A working environment underpinned by mentoring and mutual support is well supplemented by acknowledging that there’s life outside work. This is particularly the case if you’re managing remote teams, where the lines between the home and the workplace will be even more blurred. A good way to do this is to actively provide after-work support – this won’t only help your employees feel valued and seen, it’ll also provide a good toolkit against burnout. 

This could be as simple as cultivating an open-door policy, whether this is in a literal or virtual sense. Or, it could be something more concrete like ensuring the perks available to on-site staff are available to all. For instance, if on-site workers have access to a fitness centre, you could offer a stipend for gym memberships to remote workers. Or, for bigger corporations, another meaningful approach is offering mental health services as part of employee health insurance packages.

  1. Schedule team meetings/activities

Preventing silos of on- and off-site staff is essential to cultivating a healthy corporate culture. This means you have to actively work to facilitate the social interactions that are key to developing this working environment. As we emerge from the pandemic, this doesn’t just mean Zoom happy hour – in fact, we would hazard to say that many employees would rather never attend Zoom drinks again in their life. 

Instead, if you have work-from-home and on-site employees in the same city, make the effort to organise an in-person social. Or, if you’re managing remote teams spread all over the globe, make sure that measures are taken to make them feel valued. Yes, Zoom socials are an option – but when there’s a time difference, these can be more inconvenient than enjoyable. 

Therefore, when it comes to managing remote teams, it’s often the smaller gestures that will really count. Make sure that on-site staff are well acquainted with who these people are: their names, location, perhaps their hobbies, etc. By encouraging more personable relationships between on-site staff and remote workers, you help the remote team feel valued and visible.

  1. Show flexibility

Creating cohesion between remote and on-site workers isn’t only about making sure that remote workers feel included. It’s also about making sure on-site workers feel like there’s a level playing field. Therefore, you should afford some of the benefits that go with remote working to on-site employees; namely, flexibility. Flexibility is absolutely key to banishing the spectre of burnout and should be wholly embraced.

Here are some very simple examples to illustrate the point. If an employee is feeling stressed or anxious, what’s the harm in them going for a walk to get some fresh air? Or, if they have to leave early to pick up their kids from school because their childcare has fallen through, what’s really the big deal? Or what if after a demanding project, they could really do with an ad-hoc day off? If they’re delivering, what difference does it make?

An employee that has stress and anxiety hanging over them is unlikely to do their best work. To hark back to the results-not-activity approach posited above, an employee that feels supported, seen and mentored is far more likely to excel than one that’s experiencing burnout. Of course, it’s a judgement call – but managers have to think seriously about what’s the real case for sticking to antiquated work structures.

Reenvisioning organisations for the future  

Burnout looms large over the businesses of today. Sure enough, the pandemic has added yet more pressures on top of those that we were already experiencing in the contemporary workplace. However, something positive can come out of this crisis, and indeed, it could be the well-managed hybrid model. 

Managing remote teams comes with its challenges, but undoubtedly, there are benefits to be had. The key is the focus on the ties that bind your people together. Create a mutually supportive environment where staff feel appreciated, visible, and included, no matter their location. This is best executed by acknowledging team members’ needs and being flexible.

As we emerge from the pandemic the opportunity is to fashion a hybrid working model that fits your company is there for the taking. With the right approach, it can usher in a new shared culture that provides stability, social cohesion and belonging, whether your team is working remotely, on the premises, or a combination of both.

Seasoned marketing professional with 13 years of international experience working in hospitality, financial, technology, retail industries and consumer brands.

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