What’s next for WFH: Tackling techie burnout

There are growing indicators that tech employees face a higher risk of work-from-home burnout. So how do we apply what we’ve learned over the past six months to make WFH work better, for both staff and bosses? Here are some recommendations for the months ahead.

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Dealing with WFH burnout during COVID

Forgive my language, but WFH entails some degree of WTF.

During this pandemic, millions of people have been in work-from-home (WFH) mode, and it hasn’t all been a piece of cake. The glitchy home Wi-Fi. The cat walking into your team video meeting. The passwords you keep forgetting for three different collaboration apps.

As COVID-19 infection rates rise again in many parts of the world (Israel just instituted its second national lockdown, for example), WFH will continue to be a major workforce trend for the foreseeable future.

So how do we adapt WFH so it really, truly works for us over the long haul?

The WFH struggle

Some fascinating research has been done throughout the pandemic to gauge how workers and their employers are coping with WFH. One of the most comprehensive pieces is a study of 3,634 software developers in the U.S.—all Microsoft employees—who worked from home in March and April.

Although 36 per cent of the employees felt more productive during WFH, more than a third (32 per cent) said WFH made them “less” or “significantly less” productive. The WFH challenges that hurt productivity the most were:

  • more distractions and interruptions at home
  • lack of motivation
  • poor home work environment
  • less time to complete work at home
  • difficulty communicating with colleagues remotely

The biggest WFH problems faced by staff overall (beyond just productivity) were:

  • home Internet connectivity and bandwidth
  • distractions and demands from family and pets
  • communicating remotely with coworkers
  • poor WFH setup (desk, chair, equipment)
  • less physical activity (not walking to transit, work, lunch or home)
  • lack of work/life balance

We get a more recent look at the impact of WFH from a global survey of nearly 350 IT pros released earlier this month. The top remote work challenges for IT pros so far are:

  • longer work hours due to stretched teams (29%)
  • more responsibility (28%)
  • more decision-making requirements (28%)
  • a general increase in job-related stress (22%)

In addition, one quarter of IT pros said they’re still waiting to receive training for new skills they now require due to the COVID-19 situation.

Where we go from here

Some of the WFH challenges mentioned above are technical ones involving technology; others are physical, situational, environmental or interpersonal—the growing pains of adapting to unexpected and evolving circumstances.

How do we apply what we’ve learned over the past six months to make WFH work better, for both staff and bosses? Here are some recommendations that came out of that study of thousands of Microsoft employees, ranked in order of importance:

  • provide more/better hardware for home (such as more screens and more powerful laptops)
  • improve connectivity and reimburse employees for faster Internet (resulting in fewer VPN drops)
  • provide a stipend for improving the WFH environment
  • improve communication tools
  • provide guidance for successfully working from home (such as online meeting etiquette)
  • improve and encourage team socialization virtually
  • be more understanding of WFH scenarios beyond COVID-19
  • minimize the number of meetings
  • give guidance to management on how to manage WFH employees

Protecting IT pros

Protecting workers from burnout during COVID-era WFH

The study we just highlighted focused on IT workers, and there are growing indicators tech employees face a higher risk of WFH burnout. The Global IT Burnout Index (a free, open data tool for tech workers to assess their stress levels) rose 17 per cent in March, and that was only the first month of widespread lockdowns.

As COVID-19 drags on, tech professionals are at increasing danger of wearing out, according to a blog post by Brien Posey, a former CIO and network admin who is now training to be an astronaut.

“It’s one thing to work 18-hour days in the midst of a crisis. It’s quite another thing to work those kind of hours on an indefinite basis, with no relief in sight. This is especially concerning because the IT industry has a long-held reputation for turning techies into workaholics,” writes Posey.

One way to tackle IT burnout is to track it. The Global IT Burnout Index mentioned above is a quick online survey tech workers can take to measure their own risk of burning out.

More than 100,000 tech pros around the world have taken the survey, which asks them to respond to 10 statements like “I feel run down and drained of physical or emotional energy” and “I feel less and less connected and engaged with the work I do.”

The survey generates a score for burnout risk, suggests areas of concern to self-monitor and recommends seeking professional help to those who score high on the risk scale.

For team managers

Yerbo, the company behind the Global IT Burnout Index, also has a tool for IT teams called Talkit, which counts Uber, Stripe and Spotify among its clients.

Each week, the members of an IT team anonymously answer the same burnout index survey described above. Talkit sends a weekly dashboard report to the team leader, indicating the risk of burnout on their team and specific areas of concern that require attention.

Beyond technology

The initial focus of COVID-era WFH was getting remote technologies to work well. Now that’s shifting to a realization that in order for people to work well from home, they have to be well. Giving workers the equipment to do their jobs remotely is one thing; keeping them motivated, engaged and productive as human beings is quite another.

“It went from people working from home feeling isolated and needing support, to now the burnout and stress people are feeling. Organizations are trying to figure out how to help their people navigate that,” Aaron Hurst tells me on the phone from Seattle.

He’s the CEO of Imperative, which calls itself “the first fully automated peer coaching technology platform.” It works like this: two co-workers are paired up to meet weekly for a peer coaching session where they have a one-hour conversation over video. About what? The platform determines the topics, which can vary depending on the workplace and its circumstances. But Hurst says all the coaching topics revolve around three main themes: relationships, impact and growth.

“What are you doing to care for your relationships and build new ones? Are you making the impact you want or that is meaningful to you? Are you growing as a person or a professional, and where do you want to stretch yourself more?” he says.

Read more:

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Why SD-WAN could be the antidote for WFH woes
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Peers work through their topic (and any issues arising from them) during their weekly one-hour video conversations. To keep each other accountable and motivated, they set goals to complete before their next session. About 80 per cent of peers actually follow through on their stated goals to make some sort of behavioural change, Hurst says.

“It’s coaching versus consulting or training,” he explains. “Training is about telling you how to do things. People have the answers, they just need the space to reflect and have the courage to act on them. The No. 1 skills gap is not technical, it’s interpersonal.”

Although Imperative launched in 2013, it now seems like a prescient, timely technology platform in 2020. Customers and venture capitalists seem to agree: Imperative’s user numbers jumped 400 per cent during the first three months of the pandemic, and the company raised $3 million in VC in April.

“We’re seeing burnout and turnover because if people aren’t in the right mental state they can’t adapt,” Hurst says of the ongoing WFH trend. “People are shutting down. Social media’s made it so much worse. What we need is to spend time with human beings and get to know them as people.”

Images: filadendron/iStock; DNY59/iStock

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