There was a time years ago when there were clear lines that were easy to avoid crossing when it came to work and personal life. It was possible to leave work at the office.
That’s partly because the items I needed to do my work were physically tied to the space in which I worked. My computer was a big, nonportable box that was attached to the wall by an electrical cord. Information synced through a phone line with a slow, audible connection. But over time, those lines have disappeared. Computers became smaller and smaller and more and more mobile which meant there were no physical ties to access information. Soon, most everything I needed to do my work could be taken home.
But before the pandemic and the dramatic shift to remote work, there were still separations between the office and my personal life. I went to work every Monday and walked through the hard lines of a doorway into a physical space where there were no children wanting attention, no dogs needing to be let out, no clothes to throw in the laundry. I love my kids, my dog and having clean clothes, but the office was separated from those personal parts of my life. It was a space dedicated to work where I knew that work was a priority. And when I left there to go home, I understood that my personal life was a priority there.
No more hard lines.
With the shift to remote work, there is a blurring of work and home, office and house, personal and professional. My minicomputer, now known as a cell phone, fits in my pocket which means that work is only a text alert away, every minute, of every day.
When companies across the country made a giant COVID-19 induced leap into the world of virtual work, it was seen in part as a positive move to allow for a flexible work environment. And most agree, remote work is here to stay. But at the same time, it can all be a bit much.
Burnout on the Rise.
This mingling of personal and professional has contributed to employees feeling overwhelmed and an increase in employee burnout. An article by Jennifer Moss in Harvard Business Review presented some rather shocking research regarding burnout:
- 89% of respondents said their work life was getting worse
- 85% said their well-being had declined
- 56% said their job demands had increased
- 55% didn’t feel they had been able to balance their home and work life
How did the convenience and flexibility of working from home go so wrong for so many? Researchers often cite exhaustion as a main contributor to burnout. Is anyone surprised that so many are exhausted right now and unable to relax? When our office is in the same place where our families mingle and engage in activities? When we can comfort a crying child one moment and send a crucial work text seconds later? When some us can never, ever truly escape work?
Our hopes are that the vaccine will at least somewhat control the pandemic and less restrictions will reduce some of these issues. But with the new acceptance of virtual work as a way of life, there needs to be a long-term approach to reducing burnout as it relates to a hybrid of life and work.
START BY CREATING SOME BOUNDARIES
Even though the lines are no longer visible, new boundaries are needed in the current workspace to help reduce the stress of easy access.
Understand your employees’ challenges.
Talk to your employees and ask real questions about how they are handling their work schedules. Ask the following:
- How are they managing their workload and what new challenges are they facing because of changes in the work environment?
- Has their time commitment to work increased, decreased or stayed the same since the pandemic?
- Do they believe the current demands of time and work are fair? (Fairness is a topic I return to again and again because it is tied tightly to turnover)
As an employer, your hope should be that flexibility and lack of daily commutes have given your employees more personal time, not a greater dedication of time to work. If any of your employees are sharing contrary thoughts or concerns about time constraints, this is your chance to address those issues. If they believe they are being unfairly treated, that is a red flag that you may have an employee that is experiencing resentment in addition to exhaustion.
Redefine your vocabulary.
There is a constant barrage of data showing how valued flexibility is in the new virtual workspace. Our own survey indicated that flexibility was the top reason for liking remote work. At the same time, 50% also believe they are too accessible and take phone calls or answer text at all hours of the day or night. Somewhere along the line, flexibility became synonymous with being accessible at all times.
Yes, employees may prefer to work non-traditional hours or need flexibility because they are assisting their 5 year old with a Zoom class (heaven help them), but flexibility is not the same as taking calls at all hours of the day.
Flexibility is about the ability to bend and not hold rigid to strict rules. It does not mean that flexibility eliminates all rules. Review standard policies that may be blurred due to any remote work. if an employee’s child is sick and they would normally not work that day, then a day off is a day off. It doesn’t mean taking a call while rocking a fevered child or making up work at 11 pm that evening.
Discuss with your employees how they define the flexibility of their job and how you view it as the manager.
Draw some virtual lines.
While continuing to offer flexibility, establish new boundaries to help destress the new demands created by a shift to virtual work. One thing a formal office environment offers is a defined space for work. Do that virtually through defining expectations and re-establishing lines. Help your employees create mental space that gives their minds break that removes either their accessibility to managers or at least the expectation of that accessibility.