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4 ways to help your teams combat burnout during the pandemic

Humu CEO and former Google exec Laszlo Bock: “The odds have never been higher that your people will soon start to feel overwhelmed and stretched thin.”

4 ways to help your teams combat burnout during the pandemic
[Photo: Elina Krima/Pexels]

Your team has never been more at risk of burning out.

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The sudden switch to remote work means some of your employees have been completely isolated for weeks. Others are struggling to balance work with learning to homeschool their children. More and more are helping a spouse who has just been laid off, or grieving the loss of a loved one. And you can no longer catch someone in the hallways or notice from their body language how they’re doing. One executive told me, “I feel like I’ve lost one of my senses.”

With so much change and uncertainty, the odds have never been higher that your people will soon start to feel overwhelmed and stretched thin—if they don’t already. Indeed, it’s in the highest performing organizations where the risk is greatest. I spoke to one top tier consulting firm executive who told me, “Our people are doing ok for now because they are type A personalities and focused on the work. But underneath that is tremendous strain and stress that’s going to make them crash hard if this continues much longer.”

So how can you best support your team through these difficult times? The COVID-19 crisis has shown us just how much of an impact individual actions—washing your hands, staying home—can have on society as a whole. Science shows the same is true within teams: it’s through seemingly small gestures and actions that managers can have the biggest impact on how their people feel.


Related: Your engagement survey is destroying your company’s culture


At Humu, we’ve built a solution that automates preventing burnout and building resilience on a large scale, but any manager can take the following steps to ensure their team members are better able to avoid the emotional exhaustion, detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness that lead to chronic burnout.

Rebuild casual connections on your team

With remote teams, Stony Brook University professor Karen Sobel-Lojeski identified three types of virtual distance: Physical distance, which centers around time-zone or geographical differences; Operational distance, or everything that gets in the way of collaboration—whether that’s a bad VC connection or written miscommunication; and Affinity distance, or the strength of the connection among coworkers.

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While we’re all getting a handle on the physical and operational distance, affinity distance is the hardest to bridge and has the greatest impact on team performance and innovation. So how can you better reconnect your team? One of the most powerful nudges we’ve delivered is also one of the simplest: setting up a “virtual water cooler.” Create a three-month-long standing calendar event that contains a video-chat link, and invite the entire team, so anyone can pop in when they need support. Or encourage your people to think about a recent moment when they were grateful for a coworker’s support—and to then reach out via email or Slack to thank that person.

Check in on priorities and workloads at the team level

Without the regular rhythms of an office, it’s hard to sense how much work each person can handle—especially if they’re dealing with stressful new personal responsibilities. Science suggests that when teams continuously reevaluate their workload, they’re able to accomplish much more without anyone burning out. Make it a point to do a team capacity check-in every week or two. Bring everyone together to talk it through: Who has extra bandwidth? Who’s feeling overwhelmed? Rebalance responsibilities as needed. In Humu’s early days, we’d ask team members to answer two questions: At what percentage of maximum capacity am I? Is anything or anyone blocking me from getting my work done?

Put the spotlight on learning

With in-person training programs on hold, we’ve had several customers ask us how to continue helping their people develop. And with good reason: the science shows that one of the best ways to combat burnout is to get excited about learning something new. At Humu, we know that the best way to learn is through timely and relatively simple nudges to turn intention into action. For managers, that means focusing conversations in one-on-ones on development rather than on performance goals. This week, try asking members of your team: “What new skill or information can you aim to learn over the next week?”

A particularly useful learning-related nudge we’ve delivered encourages managers to bring teams together to reflect on the changes they’ve made in the past few weeks. As a group, talk through what worked well, what didn’t work at all, and what people would like to keep doing. Reviewing how you’ve navigated change as a team promotes learning and growth—and reinforces the idea that you can emerge from difficult times stronger than ever.

Prioritize empathy

People who are scared are not going to be productive or move in any kind of cohesive direction. Right now, showing empathy is the most important thing you can do to help your team combat burnout. Showing empathy starts with “releasing your agenda.” At the start of every interaction, don’t dive into action items. Just listen. The kind thing, the human thing, is to start every conversation with the simple question: “How are you? I want to check in on you.”

You should also be understanding of nonwork demands and explicitly offer flexibility. At Humu, we set a norm that no one is allowed to apologize for having a kid or pet enter a video call, or needing to answer the door for a delivery—that’s the new normal. If you haven’t already, make it a priority to bring your team together to brainstorm and set new communication norms. What hours of the day is everyone expected to be available? What kind of flexibility does each person need? How will team members track progress and update each other throughout the week?

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In crisis, managers have both a business imperative—and an opportunity—to engage their teams, to lead with empathy, and to emerge stronger on the other side. Everything you do today for your teams is an investment in their loyalty and performance for when we, together, emerge from this crisis.


Laszlo Bock is CEO of Humu, a company that nudges people toward better work habits, unlocking the potential of individuals, teams, and organizations. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Work Rules! and was SVP of People Operations and a member of Google’s management team from 2006 to 2016.

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