The year 2020 irrevocably transformed how we live and work. While increasing numbers of workplaces seem ready to continue embracing remote work—either entirely or partially—as an option, the old theme of achieving work-life balance has been again thrown into vivid relief in the emerging remote work era.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the dividing line between a person’s life on the job and their personal and family life was much more distinct than it is now for many professionals. And working from home, which in early 2020 sounded like a welcome respite for anyone fortunate enough to be able to do it, now has a burnout syndrome of its own.
Over the past year, it’s become common to hear people in a range of jobs express their struggles as work and life blur and “bleed” into one another. By now, most of us have been there for some version of the following: a barking dog, a kettle boiling over, a spouse interrupting a video conference, a child’s cry of distress from the other room shattering the focus of a Zoom meeting.
The stress for two-job work-from-home families can be particularly acute, with the activities of each partner’s job bumping up against those of the other as they try to share the duties of caring for and educating children from home.
For many working from home, your office becomes your home and your home becomes your office, which can lead to the feeling that you can never really step away from work at all.
A recent study conducted by Telus International discovered that more than 50 percent of remote employees surveyed had not asked for a mental health day off since they began working under pandemic conditions, even though almost all of the respondents said it’s important to take vacations while working from home. Meanwhile, another recent study found that less than a quarter of telecommuters rated their work-life balance as “very good.”
Helping remote employees develop healthy work schedules, habits, and boundaries can make working from home easier, fairer, and less stressful—and now the onus is on employers to make sure this happens.
Experienced executives, human resources experts, and industrial psychologists have begun weighing in with insights like these:
Unplug by example
If employers don’t step in, their employees’ workdays can start stretching into expectations that they are available or “on-call” 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So many major employers have started asking their team members to take sufficient time off. These companies also record the time and track the metrics to ensure that no one falls through the cracks.
Understand that employees take their cues about what’s expected from their managers. Bosses should avoid sending anything other than the most urgent e-mails on an employee’s time off. One tech sector leader interviewed on this topic tries to lead by example, noting that no one should have to work under the impression that they need to be constantly checking in. Some managers use scheduling functions to write e-mails when it is convenient and set them to send at a later time.
A-synchronize your watches
Give employees the flexibility to discontinue trying to keep a traditional 9-to-5 schedule if it isn’t working for them. An asynchronous work schedule, as long as an employee is completing tasks properly and on time, can be in everyone’s best interest. But how to maintain the team’s momentum if everyone is working on pieces of a project at staggered times of the day?
CEO of Ally.io Vetri Vellore told Inc. magazine that “macro-managing” is the answer. Instead of “micro-managing” every facet of an employee’s interaction with their team, keep everyone’s focus on the overall goals.[AB1] Remind staff of their roles in a project and the trajectory of milestones that need to be achieved without getting overly caught up in procedures, lists, and timelines (unless those minutiae are integral to the project’s success). Teams can also benefit from a limited number of key milestone check-ins with the whole group.
Build routines based on flexibility and communication
Set aside blocks of time in each team’s daily or weekly itinerary when there will be no scheduled meetings or other time-sensitive tasks. This gives employees uninterrupted time to devote to a project and step back for short breaks to relax or take care of any family issues that may arise during the day. Scheduling these “off-peak” blocks of time by team, rather than by company, allows individual managers to determine what works best for their teams.
It’s also imperative to communicate expectations about tasks, priorities, and job roles. Communication should flow from top leadership to front-line managers to employees and back again. Establish fair expectations for communication channels, patterns, and response times to ensure that everyone has the information they need to do their jobs.
Create a virtual water cooler
Establish a “break room” where employees can, when they wish, hang out together informally online, just as they used to when they worked in the same physical space. Sharing regular chats and virtual breaks keeps a sense of camaraderie alive and renews bonds of connection that may have become frayed if everyone was suddenly catapulted into remote work.
Take remote work on the road
Don’t create an atmosphere in which employees feel they are tethered to their computers and can never leave the house—this situation can quickly become a productivity-killer, not to mention a mental health problem. Instead of requiring an endless series of Zoom meetings, schedule walking meetings with individuals or teams by phone. Everyone gets a chance to stretch their legs and take a break from work, plus everyone gets more physical exercise, which in itself boosts health and well-being while sharpening memory and concentration.
When everyone’s face shows up as a tiny square in a Zoom meeting, it’s easy to lose track of employees as individual human beings. Focus on recognizing and rewarding achievement and finding ways to increase a sense of connectedness and morale. Managers can also provide regular feedback in a ratio of five positives for every one negative, a proportion that promotes optimum productivity, according to Harvard Business Review.
Understand that many employees are facing previously unimagined personal, family, and professional challenges, and that many will struggle to maintain optimum levels of balance among their various responsibilities. Provide ample support for employees learning to engage with remote work. Offer opportunities for them to express concerns, fears, and challenges in a safe environment, with peers or with trusted mental health professionals.
One simple but effective way of addressing these needs is to have a check-in period at the beginning of each meeting. Take this time to ask how everyone is feeling and give them ample opportunity to share and support one another.