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Don’t Let Returning to the Office Burn Out Your Team

Updated: Mar 16, 2022

Though Covid-19 restrictions are easing, hurrying head-first back into work may not be a good idea. According to McKinsey, one out of every three employees surveyed said their return to the workplace adversely affected their psychological wellness, 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. Just like everything else in our lives, we have to ease into the process, so as to not provide a shock to any of our systems. Here Harvard Business Review has listed some measures that should be taken into account amidst the changes.

1. Ease into Socialization Slowly

It is tempting for workplaces to schedule various gatherings and social activities to make up for lost time without personal contact. However, after months of isolation or sticking to a small bubble, this will be overwhelming. 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.


2. Establish Team Rituals

While constantly adapting to sudden changes, employees can easily feel lethargic and demotivated. Therefore, establish a routine with the team in order to make them feel a sense of community and connectedness. Don't do it just once or twice, make it a weekly schedule where the team can ease their mind by looking forward to doing something familiar every week.

3. 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. 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.

4. 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. 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?

5. 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.

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.

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