It was mid-June, three months after the Covid-19 crisis had forced the top executives in a fast-growing tech startup to leave their offices and work from home. Executives had believed this “work from home thing” would last a few weeks, one of the company’s vice presidents told me, so they treated it like a brief emergency that required all hands-on deck, all the time.
It was only when the vice president sent an email at midnight and got detailed comments from two colleagues within 15 minutes that he realized: This work from home thing wasn’t going away anytime soon, and things needed to change.
Every boss of a newly remote team whom I know admits that, like this vice president, they’ve been pushing themselves and their teams harder. A study conducted by one 350-person team at Microsoft Corp. found that in the four months after the team moved to remote work in March, employees worked an average of four more hours a week, attended more (albeit shorter) meetings, and spent about 10% more time in meetings. Fragmented “Swiss cheese” days became common as people struggled to care for and teach their children, and to meet other personal obligations. A “night shift” emerged: Employees sent 52% more instant messages between 6 p.m. and midnight. They worked more hours on weekends.
But while remote work isn’t going away anytime soon, such a crisis schedule must. Wise leaders know it is time to figure out how they and their teams can work remotely and productively over the long haul while protecting everybody from burnout. They need to acknowledge that teams must work in different ways with different tools, that there are new workday rhythms and new norms of behavior that need to be established and recognized, and that it’s important to ease the stresses on people that come with remote work.
As the CEO of a nonprofit told me: “At first, I viewed it as a sprint, then a marathon, then a 100-mile ultramarathon. Now I see it as a hard way of life.”
Here’s a closer look at how managers can run that ultramarathon without exhausting either themselves or their employees.
Out with the old norms, in with the new
The Covid-19 crisis has rendered many old expectations about good and bad behavior in the workplace obsolete or incomplete. Many of these norms are so established that most workplaces don’t give them a second thought. When should people show up at the office? How long should a meeting last? What time should you call somebody at home?
It’s a good time to put such norms under the microscope in this new remote world. Which are still useful, which are getting in the way, and which new behaviors ought to become routine? Many studies show that when co-workers understand, agree with and follow workplace norms, they work more efficiently and experience less confusion, stress and conflict about what to do and how to do it.
The problem is that the knowing smiles, dirty looks, body language, side conversations and cold silences that people use to communicate and enforce norms during face-to-face encounters are harder or impossible on email, Slack and Zoom, says Tsedal Neeley, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of the coming book “Remote Work Revolution.”
Dr. Neeley urges teams that switch to virtual collaboration to make their often unspoken and subtle expectations more explicit than in the past. Members need to discuss their norms, write them down, praise members who follow them and (gently) call out those who don’t.
As part of such a relaunch, most remote teams would benefit from a charter or “prenup”—a document that group members write together to spell out expectations and boundaries. One way to develop such a prenup for an existing group is to have a facilitator first ask people to list the key (if unspoken) team norms. Next, people discuss which “shalts” and “shalt nots” ought to be kept, subtracted and added. Then they select and commit to six or seven core agreements (long lists are hard to remember and become oppressive).
For example, many companies are adopting a norm for shorter meetings. After I spoke about prenups, an engineer in my class convinced her newly virtual team to write one. They decided their old one-hour meeting norm was fueling Zoom fatigue, so they changed it to 45 minutes.
Teams also need different norms to accommodate those “Swiss cheese” schedules and other constraints on employees who now must work from home. Dr. Neeley advises teams to abandon old fixed work schedules. She finds that smart leaders and teams enable people to “be experts in their own lives,” and trust them more than ever to self-direct, to decide when to work and when to “walk the dog or teach the kids.”
Similarly, smart leaders should let remote employees choose which tools are best for them rather than requiring uniformity. For instance, Dr. Neeley says that employees who lack private work spaces at home and have limited bandwidth struggle with video meetings. But many thrive by using a blend of audio calls and tools that enable “asynchronous” collaboration such as email, instant messaging, Slack and shared documents.
Teams also ought to discuss and agree on which topics are all right to talk about openly, which can only be discussed in discreet “backstage” conversations, and when and how to raise sensitive issues.
Use rituals to reinforce change
Smart teams use rituals to communicate and reinforce new norms, routines and responsibilities. As Kursat Ozenc and Margaret Hagan write in “Rituals for Work,” people often struggle to abandon ingrained habits. The right scripted experience can help people accept it is time to let go.
Remote teams can adapt other rituals described in the book to help people accept change. A Zoom call might start with a eulogy from the boss, for example, for a bygone norm that it was all right to turn off your video during meetings. Each member might then tell a story or a joke about how much they will miss answering emails and texts, shopping for groceries or reading news while “attending” meetings.
Create shared rhythms
In the sea of craziness that comes with a prolonged crisis, people—especially on remote teams—struggle to figure out when to start and stop work, and when to work alone and together.
To solve that problem, bosses need to create new rhythms for their teams.
A software developer explained to me how his team’s cadence of stand-up meetings helped them make the shift to working from home. Much as when they worked in the same room, every morning at 9 a.m., each member stands in front of their laptop, describes their goals for that day and solicits advice. At 4:30 p.m., they gather online again, stand up, show teammates what they accomplished and ask for more advice.
These daily rituals help them coordinate their work with teammates, know what to work on each day, and when their time is constrained and when it is flexible. And because each developer had a deadline every afternoon at 4:30 p.m., most stopped work for the day after they showed their work to their colleagues. ”
Other useful rituals occur on weekly, monthly or yearly rhythms. In their book, Mr. Ozenc and Ms. Hagan propose “airplane mode afternoon.” Perhaps once a week, each team member selects a solo task to focus on for an hour or two. The host goes around the (now virtual) room and asks people to turn off their Wi-Fi. Then there is no communication for the set time.
Research by Harvard Business School’s Leslie Perlow demonstrates the virtues of such collective silence. Dr. Perlow studied an engineering team that interrupted each other so much that members routinely had to work nights and weekends to complete projects. Dr. Perlow suggested that they set aside “quiet time” until noon three mornings a week. It worked. They launched a product on time for the first time in the division’s history.
Communicate a lot, or not at all
Shared rhythms help people get work done and avoid exhaustion because they know when to collaborate and when to work alone. This lesson is reinforced by an experiment by Christoph Riedl of Northeastern University and Anita Williams Woolley of Carnegie Mellon University. The researchers randomly assigned 260 software workers from 50 countries to 52 virtual teams to create an algorithm. Cash prizes didn’t improve performance. But “bursty” communication did. The best teams exchanged lots of messages for short periods and then returned to solo work for long periods. The worst teams communicated constantly but with slower response times.
Weaker teams also tried to cover more topics in their messages, rather than focusing on one at a time in a particular message.
The implication is that, as Drs. Riedl and Woolley say, smart bosses make clear when it’s time for “rapid bursts of back-and-forth exchange, in which ideas are discussed and blocks to productivity are removed.” And they make explicit when to end each burst.
Dr. Neeley observes that people in remote teams benefit even more from such stretches of solo work than people in face-to-face teams. In particular, employees who worked in open offices, with little protection from interruptions and distractions, report being more productive than ever since they began working from home—because it is so much easier to concentrate.
Take care of yourself, so you can take care of others
Unfortunately, it has been tough for many teams to develop a cadence during the Covid-19 pandemic given the onslaught of ugly surprises. And people often can’t resist the temptation to monitor their gizmos and communicate at all hours of the day and night, and to treat every little thing as something that must be dealt with right now. In other words, people new to remote work often have no idea when to stop. The risk of exhaustion, despair and burnout is high.
Leaders can lower such risks by putting their own physical and mental health first. And by not treating life as one long emergency. Doing so equips them with the stamina to navigate the long road ahead—and provides the right role model for others.
My friend Lenny Mendonca provides a cautionary tale for beleaguered bosses. After decades as a senior partner at McKinsey & Co., Mr. Mendonca became the chief economic and business adviser to California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom and director of the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development. He threw himself into this demanding job. And when the Covid-19 crisis hit in March, he cranked up the pace. As Mr. Mendonca wrote in Calmatters: “At the time, I told myself and my team that we all have to operate at 120%. For me, this meant 80-hour workweeks and barely sleeping.”
It was too much. Mr. Mendonca says he “felt like a 350-pound lineman had slammed me to the ground.” He was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety. His doctor told him if didn’t hit the reset button, he wouldn’t live to see his grandchildren grow up. He resigned on April 10.
After a hospital stay, therapy, much support from his family and a lot of exercise, he is on the road to recovery. Mr. Mendonca is now urging leaders to slow down and take care of themselves and others, and to “speak up about their own anxiety and depression and prioritize tangible mental health care support for employees and staff.”
So, dear bosses, please don’t be like the old Lenny Mendonca. Don’t burn yourself out and be a lousy role model as this long crisis persists. Listen to the wiser, new Lenny. You will live longer. The people you lead will be healthier and do better work. And the people in your life who love you will appreciate it most.
Dr. Sutton is a professor in the department of management science and engineering at Stanford University and co-author of “Scaling Up Excellence.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a great week,
Business Coach & the Prophet of Profits
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