Don’t Let Returning to the Office Burn Out Your Team
Burnout and anxiety are running high as employees return to the office after the Covid pandemic. After a year and a half of shock, change, and isolation, the regular life of the physical workplace itself can be overwhelming. The author, a digital anthropologist, suggests implementing a period of reintegration to help employees ease back in. She suggests five interventions to implement during that time: Easing slowly into socialization, establishing team rituals, reining in scope creep around jobs, creating space for uninterrupted work, and creating recovery time.
As Covid-19 restrictions slowly ease, leaders are keen for their staff to return to the office. Despite the eagerness to bring teams together in person, however, rushing headlong back to work might create more harm than good. With psychologists recommending a slow easing back into our social lives, how can leaders apply the same advice to workplaces as well?
According to McKinsey, one out of every three employees surveyed said their return to the workplace had a negative impact on their mental health, citing feelings of anxiety, depression, or general distress. Others are anxious about social interactions. In addition to the real human toll, this stress has implications for productivity, engagement, and retention. For example, nearly 40% of workers would consider quitting if forced to return to their offices full-time, many of them younger workers.
Stress around the return to work compounds the other mental health struggles employees have faced over the past year and a half. According to the U.S. Census Bureau 42% of people surveyed in 2020 reported symptoms of anxiety and depression, an 11% increase from the previous year. The CDC reported a rise in substance abuse, emergency room visits, and calls to helplines. Meanwhile 76% of American workers are suffering burnout, with more than half naming Covid-19 as major contributing factor, though it was on the rise even before the pandemic.
My experience as a digital anthropologist and advisor helping organizations build innovative and creative cultures — and my research leading up to my recent book Hustle and Float — suggest that the answer is not putting off the return to work, but managing the anxiety it provokes with a period of reintegration. Managed well, this time gives teams a chance to ease back into routines and adjust to evolving pandemic norms.
This article is one in a series on “The Human Imperative,” the theme of the 13th Global Peter Drucker Forum. See the conference program here.
Here are five ways to manage a period of reintegration that leaves your people more energized and productive:
Ease into Socialization Slowly
Workplaces welcoming people back might be tempted to make up for lost time by scheduling a slew of gatherings and social activities. But psychologists who have observed how people reacted to isolation make a compelling case for pacing ourselves. If you’ve been isolating or sticking to a small bubble, you might feel out of practice socializing with a bigger group of colleagues, especially with changing Covid etiquette around handshakes, masks and indoor dining. “You might find it physically and emotionally exhausting to relearn all those little social graces you haven’t actively practiced during the pandemic,” explains clinical psychologist Dawn Potter.
A client who works at a big technology firm with thousands of employees recounted the story of “Welcome Back” departmental party held for over 300 employees. The experience left him feeling anxious about safety and the socializing was exhausting. He told me it took him nearly a week to fully recover, and he considers himself an extrovert. Instead, he wished his company had initiated smaller gatherings, before building up to a departmental wide event.
To avoid this kind of fatigue, start off by scheduling smaller group meetups before getting the entire company together and factor time to recover between in-person events that call heavily for people’s social skills.
To avoid the anxieties that come with Covid specifically, ask employees to share their boundaries and design experiences that respect them. For example, if people are uncomfortable with indoor dining, hold gatherings that don’t revolve around food and drink.
Luckily, this is only a temporary challenge. As we relearn to socialize, we’ll find new comfort levels again.
Establish Team Rituals
Post-traumatic growth is a mindset in which an individual who has experience trauma can attribute meaning to their experiences, enabling them to move forward in a positive way.
As employees are still reeling from the shock and disruption of the pandemic, organizations can offer support by creating opportunities for workers to share their experiences and reflect on the past several months. This also creates a sense of community and connectedness. Prioritizing time for people to reflect can help improve morale and increase trust in teams. Don’t just do this once as you come back: Keep it going on a monthly or quarterly schedule.
For example, ZenDesk started holding “empathy circles,” facilitator-led gatherings where employees have the opportunity to share their experiences, listen, and come together as a community. Ninety-five percent of employees who participated rated the event as a positive experience that increased their sense of safety at work.
Rein in Scope Creep
Burnout during the return to work can also simply be the result of overwork. During the pandemic, many roles shifted and workers reported taking on increased responsibilities on the job. This was particularly true in the retail and e-commerce sectors, where 93% of retail and e-commerce workers experienced job creep. Now, as we head back to offices, the fear that tasks that seemed temporary may in fact be turning permanent could be the final straw for some employees.
For example, a woman who worked as a chief procurement officer and project manager at a swimming pool company in Chicago found her responsibilities ballooning during the first lockdown. The additional administrative duties had her working until midnight, a regular occurrence even after restrictions eased. After several months, she left the job for a competing offer.
To avoid burnout or employee flight, conduct an audit to reassess your team’s current roles. Ask employees to compare their day-to-day tasks now to their role pre-pandemic to identify the level of creep. Then work with them to decide which pandemic-related responsibilities were temporary and which ones are permanent. After a thorough audit, you will be able to assess changing organizational needs, identify emerging new skillsets, and retain high-value talent by updating compensation and titles.
Create Space for Uninterrupted Deep Work
The pandemic forced workers to rely on digital communications more than ever, increasing the sources of distractions. According to an analysis of 3.1 million employee emails from 16 global cities, the average worker added nearly an hour to their workday and spent more time answering emails and in meetings than they did before the pandemic. On average, an office worker is interrupted every three minutes, and can take up to 23 minutes to get back on task. Analysts estimate that interruptions cost the U.S. economy $588 billion a year.
As we return, introduce specific policies that explicitly prioritize periods of uninterrupted work for your staff so they can focus on their strategic priorities. Companies like Facebook, AirBnB, and Asana have implemented “no-meeting Wednesdays,” while Citi opted for “Zoom-Free Fridays.” Atlassian workers can declare a “Get S#!t done day” where they are excused from answering emails, calls, or attending meetings.
A meeting-free day won’t work if the following day your employees are bombarded with double the calendar invites, so auditing your meeting culture can also be a helpful way to free up more time. Are all scheduled meetings necessary? Is everyone who is invited essential to the meeting?
Create More Recovery Time
Sometimes more drastic measures are needed to prevent burnout. Some organizations are offering company-wide paid time off to provide a much-needed break. LinkedIn gave all 16,000 employees an entire week of vacation. Mozilla introduced monthly paid days off, and eventually gave their workers a global week off as well. (The benefits of companywide time off is that no one feels guilty for not working.) Other companies who have done the same include Hootsuite, Bumble, Nike, Water & Wall, and IPG Media Brands.
While firms may be hesitant to take this step, the evidence suggests that the long-term impacts of burnout outweigh the short-term costs of giving workers more time off. According to new research from Deloitte, for example, workers who don’t take sufficient time off suffer diminished capacity for learning, critical thinking skills, and empathy skills that affect their performance.
A few months ago I suggested a company-wide week off to one of my clients, TRG, a medium-sized consulting firm focused on the arts sector. They had fall quotas to meet, but workers were experiencing deep fatigue. An internal survey revealed that 57% of their staff felt drained in their current environment, compared to 14% before the pandemic. Morale and productivity were both low. After the week away (for all employees, including executives), staff returned more energized, creative, and productive according to a post-break internal survey that included both self-reporting and executives’ observations of their staffs. Many respondents wrote that the time off helped them recenter fully in a way they hadn’t been able to do during the pandemic. Meanwhile companies like Bumble have been so happy with the results of taking a week off to combat burnout that they are planning to double down on the program in the future.
While a number of these interventions are particularly important now as we begin to put the worst of the pandemic behind us, they all address mental health challenges that are now chronic in the global workforce — burnout, stress, anxiety. We’ve become so obsessed with non-stop busyness that any time not spent being productive is seen as a failure to optimize ourselves, but high performance requires regular periods of deep, restorative recovery. By experimenting with these counterbalancing efforts now you can determine which you’ll want to keep around in some form in the long term as well — for the well-being of your people as well as your organization.