How to manage remote teams effectively and avoid burnout during coronavirus

Author
Kye Parkin
Communications Executive | Business West
22nd April 2020

In light of coronavirus social distancing laws and recommendations, more and more of us are working from home, more frequently and for longer hours than before.

For organisations where there is little or no fundamental requirement for the physical colocation of staff to remain operational, the transition to homeworking will have been relatively smooth.

Whilst some organisations will have been better placed than others in terms of adjusting to homeworking over the last 2 weeks, in the medium to long-term adapting to the ‘new normal’ of the so-called lockdown economy will no doubt start to throw up certain people management challenges.

Moving meetings online and mastering the etiquette of video conferencing at this early stage of the pandemic is one thing, keeping employees motivated and productive for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic could prove something else.

Whilst some managers will have experience of working as part of or managing virtual teams, the scope of tasks now being carried out by employees working from home may require managers to adjust their approach somewhat.

To continue to manage people effectively with vastly reduced physical ‘facetime’ and at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is causing disruption on a scale that few of us have experienced previously, managers will need to promote healthy working practices and norms to avoid their teams succumbing to negative psychological factors such as mental distancing, burnout and fatigue.

Considering this, this blog outlines 5 potentially negative working practices or qualities of homeworking at this moment in time that managers need to be mindful of to be able to continue to manage their teams effectively.

Work extensification – working too many hours

For some workers, working from home means working more hours than normal. In other words, extending the working day and disrupting a sense of work life balance.

There are several common reasons why working from home could lead to work extensification.

When working from home it is easy to roll out of bed and start the working day off early by plonking yourself at your laptop and catching up on some emails over breakfast.

Employees also report that they can lose track of time working from home, becoming immersed in their work due to the comparative lack of distractions to working in the office environment.

The rhythms of a normal working day are also disrupted when working from home, meaning working more hours. For example, if we typically use our lunch break to catch up with a colleague or browse round the shops, a lack of routine may lead us to skipping lunch and working through.

It is also true that a lack of direct managerial supervision can lead to a sort of remote presenteeism. Employees may feel under pressure to demonstrate to their superiors that they are working hard and being productive by making themselves available outside of usual working hours.

When working from home, some of us may also be time shifting, which can inadvertently lead to an extension of the working day.

Blurring of the boundaries of work and home life

Whilst under the current set of circumstances there is no easy way to totally separate between work and home, as many of us are finding, it is important to try and create a physical or psychological barrier between work and home life.

For those with free or unused space at home, demarcating between work and non-working time and activities by setting up an office or workspace area is a boon. This could potentially help to reduce stress and avoid burnout by setting clear boundaries between work time and downtime – avoiding a situation whereby workers feel they are trapped in a relentless cycle of work.

Managers can help to facilitate this by reimbursing reasonable expenses, for a desk, VDU or ergonomic office chair.

Whilst this might be a costly outlay initially, particularly at a time when a lot of private sector businesses are struggling, it is a move that will help to enable employees to be happier and more productive over time.

There are other ways managers can try to encourage employees to try and stick to regular or healthier office hours during the lockdown to avoid blurring the boundaries. For example, Siemens famously shut down telecommunications systems out of hours to prevent employees at evenings and weekends and many other organisations followed suit.

Managers could also consider allowing employees to work less hours, switching focus to job outcomes rather than hours worked to help strike a healthy balance.

Employees can potentially maximise their working output by working lesser hours using the Pomodoro technique, which purports to increase productivity in a shorter timeframe through intensely focused bursts of work activity.

Whilst some employees might be happy at being spared the drudgery of the daily commute right now, research has shown that commuting actually has some psychological (and therefore productivity) benefits. For some employees, the time spent travelling between home and the workplace helps focus the mind on what needs to be achieved during the working day, enabling them to ‘snap into gear’ if you will.

Commuting time for much of the white-collar workforce today is typically as long as it takes to roll out of bed and to the dining room table or desk, but this focusing time could be recreated by taking a short walk around the garden for example. 

The intensification of working pressures and demands 

Closely related to work extensification is the notion of work intensification, which describes the negative perception that work is becoming more demanding or pressured somehow.

In our regular daily lives, work intensification can result from short-term pressures such as a tight deadline for instance, or due to longer term factors, such as technological and organisational changes.

The coronavirus pandemic has severely disrupted the way many of us work, what is expected of us and the day to day operations of the organisations we work for.

Few global events have had such a direct impact on our working lives like this before. That being so, the added pressures to cope with during this current period leaves employees prone to work intensification, which in turn could lead to stress, burnout and even illnesses.

Adjusting to remote working, filling in for an absent colleague and job insecurities are all relevant examples of the pressures stemming from the coronavirus pandemic that could lead to work intensification.

Regarding the latter, research has shown a direct link between perceived job insecurities and over-compensating at work or working much harder than usual.

Economist Francis Green describes this as a situation whereby employees “devote above the-norm effort levels either to help support their employers’ business or to move themselves toward the back of the redundancy queue”.

Given the general uncertainty a lot of workers are feeling right now, managers would do well to be upfront as possible on the issue of job security, so that employees are discouraged from overcompensating and putting themselves at risk of burnout.

More broadly, where there are factors outside a manager’s control that could leave employees feeling unable to cope, such as a family illness for example, it cannot hurt to be as empathetic and flexible as possible to try and minimise the burden and pressures.

Role expansion by necessity or design

Many organisations have been required to respond to the coronavirus pandemic quickly, as a result of the government enforced shutdown or a sudden lack of financial resources for example.

Whereas some sectors may have experienced an upsurge in demand for their products and services (lawyers, accountants, supermarkets and delivery companies), others have seen demand tailing off dramatically.

The pace of change has made planning and allocation of resources and tasks difficult.

For employees where this has occurred asymmetrically, their workload may be too much or too little.

Some employees may have suddenly become overburdened due to lack of resources or the pace of organisational responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

Then there are others whose diaries have gone from jampacked to disconcertingly empty almost overnight. Without a clear sense of direction at a confusing time for most organisations, some employees may be simply making their job up as they go along.

Both situations can be damaging in terms of an organisation’s operations and to employee wellbeing. Whereas a heavy workload can be overwhelming and leave employees feeling that they lack control, too much task discretion can make us feel directionless or out of our depth.

Accordingly, managers need to maintain open dialogue with their employees, monitor their workload and outputs carefully and where appropriate help them to prioritise key tasks.

With the government lockdown in place for at least another three weeks, these are just some of the issues that managers need to pay attention to as their organisations adjust to the new normal of working from home.

Beyond the day to day of managing their teams, managers with more specific queries regarding mental health and the wellbeing of their staff should check out the Mind website, where they will find a wealth of information to help organisations and employees cope at this time.

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