Brett Knowles, Head of Innovation at Hirebook
Brett is a long-time thought leader in the Strategy Execution space for high-tech organizations, beginning in the late 80’s while teaching at Harvard and being involved in the initial Balanced Scorecard research and books. His client work has been published in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fortune and countless other business publications.
Pub: March 29 2021
. Upd: October 18 2021
In this article, we are primarily focused on the aspects of our new ways of working (web meetings, WFH, etc.) related to the organization and personal performance.
Part 1 of our 3-part Work from Home Fatigue series.
Our life-in-our-COVID-19-bubbles and remote working have changed the lives of ourselves, our co-workers, and employees. We are stressed and overworked, with soul-draining back-to-back web meetings, boundaryless workdays, constantly shifting, priority-less to-do lists, and the bad behaviors incubated by online communications.
There are already countless articles on overall "zoom fatigue", but these same stressors, when surfaced through conversations around performance (and hence Maslow's Hierarchy) create an accentuated and unique set of issues above and beyond "zoom fatigue" within the rest of your day.
Individuals’ personal capacities are reduced by the unspoken tensions in the ways we have suddenly been forced to do our work, interact with our colleagues and serve our customers. These interactions create stress when they generate additional work or reduce our ability to do what we already have on our plates. We are just too tired at work...
Our emotional reserves are being drained.
The negative feelings caused by our lack of control both in and out of our working lives are augmented by the worry for people we care about, uncertainty over the impact of our actions, fear of repercussions, or simply feeling de-energized by certain types of interactions
The values with which we have lived our lives are now challenged.
Most of us like to think that we have a clear set of values and an identity that guide our actions, at work and at home. When those values are not validated in our working lives and interactions that routinely create friction with those values or challenge our sense of self, we become emotionally exhausted.
The underlying issue is that the way of work has changed since February 2020, and may never return to where it was. The change has been instant, global, and relentless. And the pressures all focus on “performance”, whether that be our performance as family members, members of society, or performance within our jobs and the performance of our organizations. These are all highly emotional and critical topics - after all, they are all elements of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
We believe that adding strategic structure and clarity to our organizations solves the “work” part of these pressures. The best practice for providing strategic structure and cascading it down to teams and individuals are Objectives and Key Results (OKRs).
This article is part one of this series. Over the course of these articles, we will take you on the journey from “What are we solving for?” (i.e. what is your organization experiencing), through “What does the research say?” (i.e. the academic diagnosis and statistics), and finally “How do we solve it?” (with ideas on specific actions to take.)
The Seven Elements of Performance-Related "Work From Home Fatigue"
A year has gone by with the struggle of organizations weathering COVID-19. A deep dive into the psychological research on work, team cohesion, distributed team collaboration, and the impacts of previous pandemics like SARS (and the early research on COVID), indicates that teams experience overwhelming stress results from seven primary constituents. We call these “constituents” because if any one of these elements is present, the organization will significantly degrade employee engagement and the organization's ability to execute its strategy.
1. Low Psychological Safety
When obstacles come up in our team’s work, we’re unable to have candid conversations to resolve the impediment. Issues we might have been able to work through together before the pandemic are impossible now: the team is under so much pressure to deliver that interruptions aren’t tolerated. Employees feel like if they speak up, it’s like they’re wrong for raising the issue.
Since they can’t challenge the plan without risking being embarrassed or punished, they usually stay quiet. When somebody feels forced to bring up a problem, it often results in an argument that leaves everyone feeling lousy. So employees don’t tell anyone much about what they’re doing. They need this job, so they just keep their head down and don’t rock the boat. This takes a huge toll on our employees’ mental health.
2. No Reliable Opportunity to Talk through Challenges
Employees may feel like they get along fine with their teammates, but they don’t have regular times set aside to talk through their biggest obstacles. Everybody is tired of working and overwhelmed with their own work, so when someone needs help, no one is really available. When they do happen to have a team meeting, it's usually either status reports or some kind of fire drill, not a chance to calmly work through impediments. All they can try to control is their individual work queue, so they soldier on and try to chip away at their backlog alone.
3. The Workday Never Ends
It’s normal nowadays to feel that workdays blur into the night, one day blurs into the next, and remote workers find themselves drained and tired of working all the time, getting Slack messages and emails around the clock, calendar’s full of back-to-back Zoom video meetings. Apparently, this is the new normal. Plus there’s no setting boundaries between work life and family life, there's no work-life balance - the only difference is whom we’re responding to at the moment, it could be any hour of the day or night, and every message from the office feels urgent.
WFH was supposed to give employees more freedom, but now we feel there’s never a break except maybe when we’re asleep. And since we’re just down the hall with no dedicated workspace, our family thinks we’re available 24/7 too. We’re constantly doing triage at work and at home, so our attention is scattered.
4. No Team Relaxed Time
Now that we're all physically separate, it seems impossible to connect with our coworkers in a way that’s relaxed and informal. In the old days, we counted on coffee breaks, lunch, or waiting for a meeting to start to catch up on family stories, sports, or joking that lightened up a day full of demanding problem-solving. We didn’t think about it much, but that informal time was part of our rhythm, connection with teammates, and stress release!
Now that we are remote workers, work is mostly all work and no play - we only talk when there’s a work item to tackle. And video conferencing is no replacement for hanging out in the break room: silence on Zoom is awkward. With no end in sight, with the business contemplating shuttering our office for good, is this disconnect from our teammates going to be permanent?
5. No One Helps Me
These days we’re more on our own than ever. We used to just turn to the person sitting next to us and ask them for advice. Now even with constant electronic messaging - Slack, Zoom, emails - we can’t count on getting timely support from our teammates. Because everybody’s trying to keep their heads above water at work and at home. If we’re not solving work problems, we’re solving home problems. There’s no break to the demands on us so we don’t take breaks either, so it rarely occurs to us to ask if anybody else needs our help. It’s not that our teammates don’t want to help us, or us them...but it’s like we’re living on different planets. Unfortunately, it seems like we’re all individual contributors now.
6. All Talking and No Listening
The quality of our communication has tanked since COVID started. Nobody is really taking the time to listen to each other. When we present our problems to our teammates, they don't ask good clarifying questions: either they don’t respond at all, or they jump to quick fixes without really understanding the problem.
It might sound like a contradiction since it feels like we’re in nonstop Zoom calls all day, but never really communicate. Despite all the screen time and talking, we never get to the root causes of our problems. Feels like we’re in triage mode all the time, without really gauging the impacts of our fixes. It’s worrying to think if this will come back to haunt us in the future…
7. Unclear Priorities
Having everyone working from their homes can lead to team members not having their priorities or tasks properly assigned, which in turn leads to double work and even friction among coworkers. We’re all too encapsulated in our isolation and afraid of double-checking with our managers because we might be interrupting something important or we’re simply afraid of looking dumb or exposing our lack of attention.
What do you think? Do you relate to these situations? These are our observations on what we have seen across hundreds of clients around the elements of organizational performance-related "remote work fatigue".
In our second article of this series, we present the research that explains the root cause and/or underpinning psychology for these observed symptoms, click here to read! In our third article in this series, we will talk about how effective OKR implementations can address each and every one of these issues to help you stay healthy, and improve performance and employee engagement.