Jane’s always on!
Jane is a remote-working, highly ambitious, and driven career woman. Living in a hyper-digitized world, her day is extensively intertwined with her usage of tech tools- her always-buzzing smartphone, the sleek laptop that she carries everywhere, and the myriad apps that crowd her devices. From waking to her calendar notifications for the day to falling asleep beside an open email on her laptop, Jane is a quintessential example of someone that’s, by default, “always-on”. At first glance, Jane seems to be powering through her life – she stays on top of her agenda and has all her tasks handled through her non-stop tech usage. However, on closer look, Jane is exhausted, there is hardly even a fuzzy boundary between her personal and professional life, and over time she has become less engaged and productive and more battered by her never-ending workday.
What is the problem?
Jane represents most remote workers today. The pandemic-enforced remote working conditions elicited an initial response of increased productivity, more time for life, per se, and a boost in engagement and happiness indices. However, these benefits of remote work are being undermined due to the prevalence of the “always-on” work culture, where employees are increasingly unable to unplug from work, as the boundary between work and life becomes more and more blurry. Research shows that remote workers are working 15 hours longer than what they did in an office, and this increased workload has led to increasing stress levels, worsening sleep habits, and concerning engagement and productivity indices (Ref).
Business leaders, managers, and employees have to take a hard look at this trend of staying plugged into work and make conscious efforts to restore balance to this spiraling. Let’s start with understanding why this trend is so common before we address some possible solutions:
Why are remote workers constantly plugged in?
There are many reasons why remote workers tend to stay plugged into work. Understanding these reasons opens a door to exploring ways to help them meaningfully disconnect from work.
The perils of makeshift home-office spaces
Most remote workers are ill-equipped to switch off work at home. The issue ranges from cramped home spaces that are shared by the family to not having dedicated home offices. Most commonly, remote workers end up using their bedrooms or a living room couch as a makeshift workspace. As a result, there is no physical distinction between work and life which cascades into a blurred mental distinction between the two. Remote employees live their work lives with no opportunity to go home.
One of the largest concerns of remote teams is the problem of visibility. As employees struggle to showcase their hard work and managers grapple with gaining a viewpoint into individual contributions and efforts, most remote workers tend to stay on at all times to show their peers and the management that they are indeed working.
Stay at home
For the majority of the workforce, the shift to remote work was brought on by the stay-at-home conditions of the pandemic, most remote workers didn’t have an option of venturing out of their homes. People adapted to this reality of staying in one location by adopting work practices that crept into all parts of their day, including their downtime.
Disconnecting from work through digital unplugging
Digital unplugging is the intentional winding down from a day’s work. It involves a period of downtime from work, a disconnect from technology, a ritual of recharging, and a process of recovering from the stresses of a workday. When managers enforce digital unplugs, it often involves stipulating chunks of a day to be used for activities outside of work, where any and all work-related activities are paused.
Scores of data points and research evidence consistently show that the greatest boost to productivity comes from regular and intentional downtimes. The ways in which people disconnect from work – vacations, mini breaks, making time for healthy lifestyle habits, hobbies, and family or alone time, etc., have a tremendous impact on how people perform at work. The benefits that stand out most are:
Increased productivity and engagement
Employees bring better versions of themselves to their work after a scheduled break. People are more likely to make better decisions, collaborate more effectively, and perform more optimally after a period of rest. Even small breaks such as a thoughtful lunch break can lead to better employee engagement, as shown by a survey by Tork.
Mental well-being and happiness
Happy and healthy individuals make excellent employees and teammates. We cannot deny that human beings are made of a complex network of emotions and feelings that pervade all aspects of life. To ensure that employees enjoy their jobs, perform their best, and grow in their careers, it’s important to ensure that they are taken care of emotionally and physically.
When people come back to work from breaks or unplug sessions, there is an increased bout of creativity. A rested and recharged mind is a goldmine of ideas, whereas a tired brain doesn’t contribute to creative thinking.
Lower chances of burnout
Hard work inevitably causes stress to employees. Deadlines, mounting workloads, and the pressures of adapting to a new normal cause socio-emotional stress that can lead to burnout. Destressing through following digital well-being practices – from going offline to reducing the number of virtual meetings can lead to better recovery and reduced chances of burning out. (More on burnout here)
Communicate about working and living conditions
Good managers communicate extensively about boundaries between work and personal life with their employees – be it through async communication or through dedicated 1:1 meetings. Managers must stay mindful of the working environment and life circumstances of their employees and offer solutions of flexibility and accessibility to their best ability.
When company policy and budget allow it, managers can ensure that employees are equipped with physical spaces that can function as home offices. At other times, managers can adopt a policy of flexibility to allow space for employees to tailor their work-from-home avatars – simple steps such as making video calls optional, or allowing time for competing priorities can go a long way in helping employees mentally “leave work” even when it’s physically not possible.
Discuss goals, metrics, and job security
Addressing the problem of visibility can help ease the job security anxieties of employees. This will allow them time to unplug from work without worrying about not showcasing their work and contributions.
As a leader, communicate and sincerely uphold fair and transparent performance assessment and management practices. Stay aware of personal or organizational biases and adopt management processes centered around data-driven decision-making. Set clear goals, communicate strategies and evaluation criteria, allow conversation and questions, and ensure data-facilitated performance management. When employees believe in fair leadership processes, they become more trusting of their employers to duly recognize their efforts.
Encourage mini-breaks and vacations
Encourage employees to take time off to recharge and rejuvenate. Promote healthy lifestyle habits, enforce no-work weekends, facilitate physical mobility within a day of prolonged sitting, dedicated time for self-care, and family or social engagement. Even when elaborate vacations haven’t found a place in the new normal, encourage a rethink of vacations as a time to completely unplug from work and encourage using time for recreation and recuperation.
Provide space for hobbies, learning, and growth
Create an environment of learning and growth that need not directly correspond to an employee’s job. Encourage your employees to pick up hobbies and habits that involve lesser screen time or that utilize other facets of their capabilities such as learning a new language or developing a new skill. Intentionally switching off the parts of the brain that work on work tasks and using other parts of the brain will nurture the employee as a well-rounded person.
Model work-life balance
Adopting a balanced work-life routine can be a trickle-down effect. As a leader, set an example by prioritizing your work-life boundaries. Take breaks, don’t write emails post-work-hours, and showcase that success within your team doesn’t depend on overworking. Modeling the behavior will make it easier for your team to emulate it.
Encourage cognitive and emotional disconnect
A remote workplace is a deadline-oriented workplace. In this environment, it’s harder for employees to cognitively disconnect since there aren’t stipulated working hours, and success is measured in terms of outcomes. Similarly, as newer entrants to remote working practices, employees are navigating less structured work arrangements, leaving little chance to emotionally disconnect from work. Good managers are able to encourage employees to disconnect cognitively and emotionally by using data-driven communication. Thoughtful and fact-driven communication can be used to establish goals, set reasonable deadlines, and facilitate conversations about difficult subjects and bottlenecks.
Use data to manage workloads
A data-driven approach to visibility and workload management can help employees balance work and personal life. When a leader has a data-backed vantage point to derive insights into how her team is dealing with work stress, workloads, bottlenecks, etc, it allows structuring of work to make space for other aspects of life. A data viewpoint into post-work-hour meetings or engagement, an early indicator of anomalies in terms of productivity slumps, or an alert to well-being or burnout metrics can provide managers with information to ensure teams are equipped to unplug and disconnect.
In a world where technology pervades all aspects of life and staying always-on seems to be trendy, managers and business leaders must pioneer and model a life of work-life balance to ensure the long-term success of their remote and hybrid teams.
💡 Hatica’s work insights platform provides unprecedented data-driven visibility into people, processes, and technology. Engineering leaders are using Hatica to rethink workload management, preempt burnout and improve employee experience. Discover how Hatica can help your hybrid teams thrive.