One of the most interesting things that happened in 2020, has been the way that COVID-19 pushed most of us to work from home. On January 1st of 2020, most company leaders would have said that working from home and managing remote teams is too cumbersome. But now, by July 1st, more than 50 percent of knowledge workers are working from home and every day more company leaders realize that they’re not just going to come back to the office willingly.
Working remotely works—but keeping remote workers engaged works a little differently.
When you examine all the research on keeping remote workers engaged, it turns out that it’s not too hard to keep employees working. In fact, the bigger challenge is keeping employees from working too hard. The bigger task is helping them fight the burnout that would turn a short-term productivity gain into a long-term drain on everyone.
So, in this article, we’re going to cover four ways that you can manage burnout on your team. But a quick note first. These suggestions aren’t directed at your team—they are directed at you. If you’re not making a deliberate effort to limit distractions, then your people aren’t going to either. If you’re sending emails at all hours, they’ll feel that you expect them too as well. So, model the way first, help them find it second.
Set “Business” Hours
These don’t need to be normal business hours of 9-5. There were very real benefits to working in a world where everyone was together for only set hours, and little could be accomplished outside of those hours. (That was, at least, until everyone got a smartphone and foolishly setup their work email on it.) But while technology ruined that for even traditional office workers, the most productive workers developed the discipline to bring it back. If you want to stay focused at work and avoid working too much, you need to develop a set schedule of when you’re working and when you’re not. You may need the flexibility to build large breaks into the schedule—but that’s not a reason not to build a schedule and stick to it. Without these established hours, what’s to prevent you from having an idea in the middle of watching a movie and firing up the laptop to working on it for the next 3 hours? Instead, do whatever you would do to capture the idea so you can return to it when your office “opens” the following day. You might still get pings and notifications outside of your “work hours” but having a set routine will make it more likely you let them pass and respond next time you’re “at work.” In the same vein, make sure you know the schedules of everyone else on your team so you can respect their personal business hours as well.
Develop An After-Work Ritual
Sometimes in addition to setting established hours, you need to establish a good ritual to signal that it’s time to end the day. That could be clearing out your email inbox (good luck with that one) or scheduling when you’re going to tackle outstanding tasks tomorrow. Or it could be a special phrase or affirmation. My friend and the brilliant writer Cal Newport has a great one. At the end of each work day, he reviews his task list and schedule for the next two weeks to make sure there’s a plan to accomplish each task, then he shuts off his computer and utters the magic words: “schedule shutdown….complete.” For Newport, the phrase created a rule in his mind: “After I’ve uttered the magic phrase, if a work-related worry pops to mind, I always answer it with the following thought process: I said the termination phrase. I wouldn’t have said this phrase if I hadn’t checked over all of my tasks, my calendar, and my weekly plan and decided that everything was captured and I was on top of everything. Therefore, there is no need to worry.” That peace of mind is ultimately the point of an after-work ritual—even if it sounds as silly as Newport’s mantra.
Change Devices When You Change Modes
In my first real job out of college, I was issued a company laptop. It was sluggish, heavy, and there were always rumors about being “watched” through various, nefarious programs. But since I still had my notebook from college, I just kept using it for all my personal tasks. Having to switch devices at the end of the day wasn’t a burden, it was a blessing. I still keep that blessing going with mobile devices. I have a smartphone with work-related emails and applications installed and a tablet with just personal social media and entertainment loaded on it. My after-work ritual is walking upstairs to our charging station and switching devices. I could always go back to work by switching back but having to walk into another room creates just the right amount of friction to keep me from doing it (most of the time). If you work from your personal computer and don’t want a second one, then consider setting up a different username in the operating system. Then just log out of Me@Work and log into Me@NotWork.
When you take breaks, or during your nonwork hours, make sure your take the time to get outside and into however much nature is available near your workspace. Research is consistently showing that the most restorative break you can take is a nature break, which not only leaves you more restored but feeling happier as well. There’s something about getting close to trees, plants, rivers, or any other body of water that has a powerful effect on the minds ability to rest. Taking a walk outside might sound like the opposite of what you want to do when you’re tired, but a quick walk through your backyard or a nearby park will leave you feeling much better afterwards than plopping on the couch watching an episode of Friends for the seventh time. In fact, if you still don’t believe me, that’s okay. One recent study even showed that people systematically underestimated how much happier they’d be after taking a quick walk through any nearby nature. So, when you feel your stress level rising or your energy draining, don’t grab more coffee. Grab a few minutes of fresh air.
Whether you adopt these specific practices into your routine or develop your own in the same spirit as these, the important thing to remember is that it’s about saying when enough is enough and when it’s time to refocus on other elements of your life. Working from home makes it all too easy for work to become your life. But time away from work makes work better and sometimes deliberately not working is the most productive thing you can do for yourself long-term.
If you want to learn even more about the future of remote work and how to lead your team from wherever you are, check out my new book Leading From Anywhere at the links below.