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Remote burnout: what leaders need to know about engaging remote staff

Managing a company remotely can be challenging. Even more so during a global pandemic, an economic downturn and national emergency and lockdowns. As companies across the world transition to a remote-work environment amid COVID-19, understanding what leaders need to know to manage remotely is a matter of survival.

Recent surveys about remote-work have highlighted the challenges of remote-workers engagement and burnout.: 75% of remote workers have experienced burnout at work since the pandemic, with 40% saying they’ve experienced burnout during the pandemic specifically and 37% are currently working longer hours than usual since the pandemic started, according to a July 2020 survey by FlexJobs and Mental Health America (MHA).

An August 2020 CBDistillery study found that 67% of those working remotely feel pressured to be available at all hours of the day, 65% admitting to working longer hours than ever before, 6 in 10 respondents fear that their job would be at risk if they didn’t go above and beyond by working overtime and 63% agree that time off is generally discouraged by their employer.

A few years ago, VitalSmarts surveyed 1,100 professionals and found that remote workers felt shunned and left out . Results showed that the remote cohort was more likely to feel unrepresented, and ganged up against by colleagues. In its 2019 State of Remote Work report (source below), Buffer identified that remote workers biggest struggles included: Unplugging after work (22%), Loneliness (19%), Collaborating, and/or communication (17%).

Longer work days with no boundary between work time and personal time, a constant fear of job loss, anxiety about taking time off due to a concern a job loss, back-to-back video conferences, the lack of casual encounters around the coffee machine are often reported as culprits by remote workers as factors in their remote burnout and disengagement. The impact of employee remote burnout is lower employee engagement and a significant decrease in productivity. In a downturn and a global pandemic, employee engagement and productivity are a matter of business survival. So what do leaders need to know about engaging remote staff? How exactly can leaders engage and motivate employees in remote-work?

1) Find time for small talk

When leading remote teams, it is convenient to only talk about what needs to get done and jump off your call. However, if that is all you do at all time, you will be missing out on a critical part of leadership. You must build rapport with every team member. Rapport will help you work through difficulties each employee has, it will give them trust they can come to you with important things, and it will give you the benefit of the doubt when you make a mistake. Rapport comes from getting to know your employees as a complete person. Ask your team members what they are interested in, about their friends, and their family. Demonstrating that you care about them is important to them and critical for you to really understand their motivations. Taking the time to do so this will also make them like working for you more. Tools such as Lighthouse can help you keep track of creating rapport with your team. Professional leadership development training, such as Inspired Human inclusive leadership training course, can teach you how to become an inclusive leader and boost employee engagement and productivity in remote work.

2) Have extended one on ones

Since you no longer have those coffee catch-up moments in the office to build rapport, make up for it by setting aside more time for your one on ones. It is time to acknowledge that your “open door policy” is failing in remote-work. If you forget to update your availability on Skype, Teams, Slack, etc, your remote employees have no idea when your door is actually “open.” The best way to handle this is to give remote employees a full hour every week for one on ones. This ensures you have enough time to cover a wide range of topics and dive into challenges that you might not be aware of. Here are some great remote-specific 1 on 1 questions for you to ask:

  • What is one thing I could do to better support remote staff like you?

  • Which of your colleagues do you wish you had more time with? How would that help you?

  • What’s your daily routine like for working?

  • What’s your favorite/least favorite part about working remote?

3) Never cancel a one on one

One of the fastest ways to build discontent in your team is regularly canceling one on ones. Your employees will probably agree, however that is more about the authority you have as their manager. Remember that remote employees miss out on a lot and they also miss out on the kinds of information that would naturally come across in an office. One on ones provide an opportunity to make up for that as well as handle all the little things that build up over the course of a week. If you absolutely have to, reschedule it, but never cancel it.

4) Prioritise their career paths

With distance bias at play, it is easy to forget about your employees goals and hopes for their future. Remember that your remote employees have aspirations. Ensuring they make progress on their goals for growth and understanding the career paths avoids frustration. If you follow through on the recommendation to have an hour for one on ones with your remote employees, you will have plenty of time to talk about their career development. Professional training on how to become an inclusive leader remotely such as Inspired Human inclusive leadership training programme can help you create habits to prioritise employees career paths and boost employee engagement and productivity in remote work.

5) Make adding people on calls the new normal

In remote-work, it is easy not to add a colleague into a discussion as it can be perceived as not worth the hassle. However, as a leader, set the example. When such situations arise, you should go out of your way to get the remote person into the conference call. If you would have interrupted someone in the office, then it’s worth bringing them in, even in a conference call. When you convey that it doesn’t matter to loop in your remote team members, the rest of your team will follow your lead.

6) Send swag to your remote employees and their household

Everyone loves branded t-shirts, jumpers or caps and it is easy to forget about how little swag your remote employees have. Send company swag to all your remote employees to make them feel more connected to the team and not forgotten. You will get extra bonus points for sending the right sizes and sending some for their husbands, wives, partners, kids and anyone else in their households. Chances are their household will wear them and share pictures on social media, showing off your company’s brand.

7) Make sure their remote workspace is set up well

If your employees work from home all the time, you must take time to ask them if they are comfortable and are well set-up at home. Especially if your employees are in a small studio apartment, or they have a spouse, partner, kids in quarantine with them, it can be hard to find a working space. You might consider the following scenarios:

  • Parents with kids taking shifts for childcare : One might work mornings, the other one might work afternoons;

  • Bookshelf standing desk: In tight quarters, a bookshelf standing desk is a better alternative to sitting on your bed

  • Office furniture: After a few days of discomfort, some people have bought inexpensive office furniture for themselves

8) Avoid micromanaging and trust your employees

Remote employees need space to get work done without a manager monitoring their every login, slack status, etc… As a leader, you need to place some trust in your remote employees to do the job in their own way. Give your remote workers the space to embrace risk in trying new things. Managing remote employees will include taking some risks. Let your remote-team innovate on the best ways to connect and get work done.

In summary:

Remote-employee burnout is a real problem that leaders need to address to boost productivity. Employee disengagement in remote-work significantly decreases productivity and is a key factor in the downfall of organisations. Remote teams should feel supported, valued and connected to their team and manager. Professional training on how to become an inclusive leader remotely and how to create a culture of inclusion such as Inspired Human training courses can significantly help leaders boost employee engagement and productivity in remote work. When remote teams are supported by leaders who support them, their engagement and productivity soar and they perform well over the long term.

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