The pandemic has verified quite a few things as far as our individual and team ways of working are concerned. I’d say that the most disturbing observation, however, is that for some people, “remote work” simply means “more (work)load”.
When sharing my remote manager (and remote worker) experience with peers, the most common question I get is how to find the right balance between asynchronous and synchronous collaboration in a flex, hybrid workplace. They also wonder how to mitigate the increased workload many of us experience since the start of the pandemic.
I believe that, with the lines between work and free time beginning to blur, companies must first and foremost realize that overload in its three basic forms: physical, emotional, and cognitive will continue to rise unless tackled with due attention. Ideally, they should be addressed based on company-specific, collaboration patterns data. I will dive into how to go about this below.
As pointed out above, there are three main types of overload that we experience at work, even more so, in a remote or hybrid collaboration mode. All three of them: information/cognitive, physical, and emotional are closely intertwined.
A mix of cognitive and mental load, it is the most widely known workload dimension resulting from a multitude of stimuli and distractions experienced at work. Jumping between topics and projects has already been widely researched as a key productivity waste to be avoided (with around 23 minutes needed to get back to the same attention level every time you let a distraction get you off track).
In a remote setting, you are reachable through an increasing number of communication channels – email, Slack, calendar meetings, project boards, intranet platforms... Not to mention that the size of your network online is much larger than that existent in a traditional, office setting. And so, the number of distractions grows exponentially, translating into cognitive, physical, and emotional workload of unprecedented magnitude.
I’ve experienced this remote work trap first-hand very painfully at one of my previous companies where I worked in a Head level role. I can vividly recall a day when I received about 100 messages within around 4 hours on Slack – all from people expecting me to be responsive. I needed to learn the hard way how to manage responsiveness expectations to avoid disappointment of both parties and reduce my own workload.
First and foremost, in a remote environment, you need to communicate and exchange information and knowledge wisely. There are three tiers of communication you need to design and make sure it is strictly followed all the way down from the C level:
The above can be achieved by:
The more hours you spend on work per day, the more you’ll be able to actually sense it in your eyes, bones, joints and muscles. Not only will you feel the direct effects of screen and desk time, such as eye strain or neck pains, but you’ll also witness lowered cognitive abilities and psychosomatic symptoms (which I discuss next).
There are two elements both employees themselves and leadership should take care of.
Ensure recharging routines and work ergonomy. This comes down not just to good light, chair, or desk (ideally, a sit-to-stand desk). It’s about other things, too – do people rest between meetings and have the time to stretch their legs? Are their breaks long enough for them to have lunch? Last, but not least, do they finish work at a time that allows them to unplug for long enough to unwind and recharge?
Your organization can take an active part in making sure employees understand the short- and long-term impact and are enabled to retain good work hygiene. For example, you can introduce lunch breaks at a set time daily, which the entire team (or, ideally, company) needs to observe. Perhaps, this might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how rarely those low-hanging fruits, the micro changes that have macro effects are considered.
Emotional workload results from work-related pressure and a Covid time induced, compassion fatigue. It is directly linked with the physical and cognitive workload, with one type likely to aggravate the other. More and more organizations focus their attention to solve this challenge through not just dedicated well-being programs, but also through very thoughtful ways of embedding wellbeing into everyday work.
There are a few things you can do at a team and individual level, such as:
Practicing self-reflection on your individual and your team’s work patterns and emotional triggers. You won’t be able to solve issues without understanding their sources. Let’s assume you’ve noticed that the team has recently become more irascible and less open to new ideas.
What is the trigger?
Is it really an issue with your project, or, rather, has to do with some draining collaboration routines. For instance, is there too much time being spent in cross-team meetings? Or perhaps, have you and your team members been working such long days that it does not compensate for the daily work schedule flexibility you have?
This is where collaboration pattern insights prove invaluable. They are captured by organization network analysis tools such as Network Perspective, and used by companies wishing to address the new ways of working in an evidence-based way. They allow team leaders to analyze and correct their team’s patterns of collaboration and mitigate or even preempt undesired cognitive, physical and emotional workload. And this is precisely where working on embedded well-being originates.
Learn how to talk about and manage emotions at work. Collaboration insights and reviewed collaboration patterns are a starting point. Education and continuous improvement need to follow.
Understanding your own emotions coming from work pressures and learning what it takes to navigate them and to be emotionally resilient are critical to the future of work.
That being said, investing in honing emotional intelligence and resilience is clearly worthwhile.
The art of discussing emotions is even more relevant now while working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic as we are constantly exposed to negative news, witness an increase in compassion fatigue, on top of the regular and hybrid work-induced workload.
Make sure that your company rituals and agenda provide regular doses of positivity. For example, consider sharing the highlight of the week or some new work-life harmony best practice that turned out to work great for you.
At a company I know, the Founder has made a tradition of sharing a ‘meme-of-the-day’ from Reddit, which has proven to help put a smile on employees’ faces and recharge them during the workday.
These are just a few examples of valuable, low-hanging fruits every company would surely benefit from.
With all of the challenges of the Covid and post Covid reality, you might be wondering what would be the best way for your organization to start a workload-related dialogue. It is my belief that any improvement plans need to start with access to the right workload analysis and insights such as the number of meetings, time for deep work, cross-team interactions, and many others. Without it, it’s hard to identify any issues and get the rest of the organization on board in the first place. So, what’s the solution?
Understand the three types of workload in your company’s context and introduce the low-hanging fruits first (see examples given above), and then consider piloting an ONA tool like Network Perspective to ensure your team has the right collaboration insights. This way, you will be able to improve their work-life balance, deep work time, and other elements of collaboration design. While allowing you to take a deep dive into your organization’s statistics, Network Perspective respects people's privacy by providing you with anonymized, team-level insights on employee interactions.
Reach out if you’d like to learn more on how we can help you address all of the workload types I discussed in this piece.