“What is a weekend?” This retort from Downton Abbey’s dowager countess captured the gentry’s lack of empathy toward working folk of a bygone era. These days, it is employees who must deal with an ambiguation of time.
Rather than quarterly earnings and retail seasons, businesses find themselves tethered to an erratic coronavirus juggernaut.
While employees take refuge remotely, communicators are working overtime to help them stay motivated and healthy.
Rituals of work
In 2019, the World Health Organization recognized “burnout” as a syndrome arising from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” As the rituals of work continue to evolve at warp speed, diligent time management is not only good for business — it can save lives.
In virtual work settings, there are three time traps where communicators can support employees for better health outcomes.
1. Circadian rhythm
Waking up later, avoiding a long commute, and tailoring work hours are the bright sides to working remotely. Unfamiliar schedules, however, can also lead to unhealthy trade-offs.
It’s no surprise that Google Trends reported a surge in searches about sleeplessness in April, just as quarantines drove communities indoors. Gripped by fear, people were also coping with abrupt changes in routines that disrupted their circadian rhythm, the body’s 24-hour internal cycle of sleeping and waking.
“The actions that we’re taking to protect ourselves can not only precipitate problems with sleep, but lead to chronic problems with sleep,” said sleep expert Dr. Donn Posner in an online forum by Harvard School of Public Health.
- Respect boundaries. Advise managers and employees to clearly state agreed work hours when scheduling assignments. They should also avoid “scope creep,” or adding extra tasks without obtaining prior consent.
- Ditch the dark. Encourage employees to take regular breaks and walk outside. Working outdoors or near a window are other ways for them to be energized by daylight.
- Don’t get clocked. As standard time nears to turn clocks back on November 1, offer cautions about health complications tied to twice-yearly time changes. The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine published study findings indicating the time shifts “incur significant public health and safety risks, including increased risk of adverse cardiovascular events, mood disorders, and motor vehicle crashes.”
2. Work-life balance
Many workplaces are still regulated by the five-day, 40-hour week that kept Henry Ford’s assembly lines humming during the Second Industrial Age.
Aspiring to achieve “work-life balance” no longer makes sense. In this outdated exercise, the goal was to maneuver a seesaw with two countervailing forces into staying level and motionless.
But worlds are now colliding, not staying still. Households, offices, and classrooms are vying for attention all at once, on screens in kitchens, bedrooms, and other makeshift offices.
- Go with the flow. Instead of balancing a seesaw, help employees embrace the “flow” of their blended experiences. Like a windmill that catches rushing air, parts can work together to harness turbulence for good.
- Open windows. If possible, give employees more flexibility to meet obligations within an extended window such as 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. This reframes their efforts around other criteria for success while ensuring that deadlines colleagues depend on aren’t compromised.
- Keep KPIs (add extra compassion). Thoughtfully reset some standards for evaluating employee work. Google announced in March that it would suspend all performance reviews and promotions for six months. “To cultivate healthy returns from a healthy — if remote and distributed — workforce requires leaders to treat data and analytics as nutrients for people, not just fuel for economic growth,” wrote Michael Schrage, a research fellow at the MIT Sloan School of Management, in an article published by MIT.
Disparate teams are staffed with remote work natives, or “digital nomads,” collaborating with temporary telecommuters. As they adjust to an environment low on real-time and in-person interactions, employees can miss cues that are essential to relationship-building.
Communication gaps are rife in asynchronous teamwork. These range from time zone differences to misunderstandings due to rushed thinking. Nuanced personal expression — body language, attire choices, or the use of irony – can become a lost art.
Surprisingly, virtual work teams are communicating with retro-style media formats to strengthen bonds.
- Internal email auto-replies. By sharing when they will be actively engaged in work, employees set healthy boundaries and manage their coworkers’ expectations. Instead of sticking to dry facts, adding uplifting or lighthearted touches to in-house auto-replies can ease uncertainty.
- Phone calls. Less intrusive than a video meeting, audio calls restore a sorely missed human dimension. According to the New York Times, phone calls are rising in popularity. Verizon reported an average volume of 800 million wireless calls per weekday — more than twice the calls made on Mother’s Day, a peak event.
- Voicemail messages. Just as podcasts signaled a revival of passive listening, voice mail is turning into its brief, personalized equivalent at work. Employees can record their spoken words instead of sending text-only or emoji-flecked messages.
Yes, one workday can be wildly different from the next, as employees do their part to mitigate risk for themselves, coworkers, employers, and customers.
Although the public health crisis is still defining work experiences — it is never too late to communicate with compassion.