Rewind to January 2020, Alex, a director of an IT company, arrives at the office at 7.30am, ready for several hours of productivity, known as his “golden” hours; valuable time to be creative, energised, interactive and to perform at his best. His tightly-packed calendar doesn’t overrun and he can prepare conversations and materials in advance. He runs into different people in the corridors between meetings; these water cooler chats are social in nature but can also pick up unofficial news. Alex catches up with a team member for their 1:1 at a local coffee shop for a change of scene. Less urgent work follows with a 4pm finish, using the office gym before heading home. Family life is the evening focus and he hasn’t any issues sleeping.
Today: Sipping his third coffee of the day, Alex glances at the clock. Almost 7am, but work started early at 5.30am, and he reflects he doesn’t miss the forty-minute commute into work. The kids will be awake in another hour and he’ll need to help out and be there for them. Then, he’ll attempt to work through three back-to-back video calls. The meetings are often organised by the team, recently each one has overrun and it seems hard to get everyone to contribute equally. Yesterday’s meeting at 10.30am felt like a rerun of the meeting at 9am, with the same issues raised and no real decisions made. He senses a lack of control and now he’s worried by the noticeable irritation of some of the team. Alex has pages full of notes from yesterday’s meetings but he’s not sure when he’ll get to more deeply reflect on the issues that were raised. Concerned that challenges and firefighting are taking a toll, he needs time to think and prepare, but time flies by and working at home has its own set of challenges. Alex takes over childcare and the kid’s meal preparation around lunchtime, so his wife can focus on her work for a couple of hours, but she’s frustrated that she can’t deliver what she needs to. There is another lengthy video call in the afternoon that includes a large group. He turns off his camera so he can read through a document whilst also trying to listen in. He is still responding to emails into the evening, trying to catch up on the work he feels he’s missed during childcare. Alex finds his sleeping patterns are disrupted and sleep quality is poor.
What’s becoming apparent is that there is a danger of what we’re calling a ‘stacking effect’. It’s the cumulative negative impact resulting from having to juggle a range of factors relating to home working:
- The relentless nature of back-to-back video calls
- A lack of reflection or deep thinking time
- An absence of variety as interactions switch in large part to video calls
- The blurred lines of the working day are stretching to start earlier in the morning and extend later into the night
- The need to balance domestic commitments and family priorities
We found evidence of this stacking of factors in our recent research (due to be published soon). Although restrictions are easing globally and many are beginning to return to their workplaces, these issues are likely to remain as remote working becomes more common. Later you’ll find a helpful checklist so you can seek to avoid overwhelm, minimise any negative impact and make improvements to how you work. It’s important not only to notice this in yourself, but also in your colleagues and co-workers as well as your direct reports, and then of course, take some corrective actions.
Engagement vs. Satisfaction
We still want to achieve our work goals, that hasn’t changed. However, what can suffer in times of change and uncertainty are levels of engagement in relation to our roles, our team and the wider organisation (or a combination of these factors). We’ve all experienced some less than productive virtual meetings for a whole host of reasons: communication breakdowns, lost time to faulty technology, people talking over one another and not hearing valuable opinions being voiced.
Satisfaction is an attitudinal outcome, like loyalty or pride, and it doesn’t always relate to performance. We can often feel annoyed but still plough on and deliver. Engagement is different; it is deeper and more emotional than satisfaction.
Engagement may suffer when the stacking of factors that negatively impact us tips the balance from effective to ineffective. Mindsets change and wellbeing can be adversely affected.
Take stock, review and adapt
So, the question is – how can we guide our teams and colleagues to process and address the issues that may be having a negative impact?
As a leader, you may be missing out on cues because working remotely means it’s harder to observe behaviour and the day-to-day conversations that bring up these issues are simply not happening. If you have a team set up with greater autonomy it may be even harder to spot derailers and concerns.
You may not have the time and resources to continually check in with your team, but consider some of these ways to tune in to how they are feeling and thinking:
- Provide role clarity and accountability through consistent and ongoing communication. This ultimately helps the team to focus as individuals and as a team. Review role expectations and work with the team to align these to the newer ways of working virtually.
- Create an honesty session and organise for it to be externally facilitated. Sit as a member of the team, not as the leader.
- Pinpoint areas of slow decision-making or blurred lines of communication; the core factors that stifle productivity and hinder team responsiveness and agility. Then create an action plan for the whole team to work on.
- Build in time before and after meetings to allow for preparation and processing next steps. This is often missed if jumping into another meeting immediately.
- Informal recognition is important – your team still need to know they are doing well. Give praise. Let people know when they ask a good question or offer great advice. Praise gestures of goodwill, and spotlight strengths as people use them. It makes a difference and reinforces the behaviour you seek in a high-performing team. Appropriate praise boosts emotional wellbeing.
‘Praise gestures of goodwill, and spotlight strengths as people use them. It makes a difference and reinforces the behaviour you seek in a high-performing team.’
It’s critical for you to evaluate how these issues are stacking up for you too. Our workbook on Avoiding Overwhelm is a powerful tool that will allow you to consider the challenges you are facing and the preferences that might help to mitigate the negative impact. You can ask yourself: as an individual, how can I stop myself from becoming overwhelmed by these factors? What do I need to help resolve those beyond my control? You can also use this workbook with individuals within your team for them to reflect on factors that may be acting as stressors.