In a recent Financial Times article accompanied by the headline: “‘Big Brother’ managers should turn the lens on themselves”, Rana Foroohar, the newspaper’s Global Business Columnist, made a compelling argument for why the increased surveillance of workers is not the answer within our increasingly hybrid working world.
Stats such as the 13.5% increase in the number of meetings attended by employees during the pandemic speaks of industries and sectors ill at ease in affording workers more autonomy and trust, especially in settings where ‘clocking in, clocking out’ has been a core routine for decades or longer.
The remote work disconnect
Survey results from Microsoft, published back in September, pinpointed this friction, highlighting that while 87% of participants felt they were “as, or more” productive when working from home, a staggering 80% of managers disagreed with the very same statement. Speaking to the BBC, the company’s chief executive, Satya Nadella, urged companies to look beyond what he termed the “productivity paranoia” and seek real and practical solutions to fix this “disconnect”.
The number of companies using data surveillance software to track employee activities has doubled since the beginning of the pandemic, and Foroohar’s column put forward three challenges in response. Not only are workers more stressed and resentful of being monitored closely, but creative activities – vital in so many organisations – are much harder to quantify and reflect accurately by metrics alone. In addition, research showing that 70% of meetings actually keep employees from doing more productive work puts the onus on managers and our organisational leaders alike to do better.
The inner CEO
And that is where the work and insight of Jeremy Blain, Chief Executive of PerformanceWorks International, is worth considering. Backing up the long-held belief that workers tend to leave managers rather than companies when they switch roles, Jeremy’s excellent book “The Inner CEO: Unleashing leaders at all Levels” was one topic that came up during our broad-ranging conversation on the 1% Podcast.
Distribution of leadership
Jeremy advocates that developing leaders across all levels of a business is the most effective response for any organisation experiencing significant and fundamental change. In reality, he’s talking about the vast majority of companies right now as they not only embrace digital transformation but also try to address the enormous organisational shifts brought about by blended workplaces, remote working, the so-called ‘Great Resignation”, and our teams being more diverse in nature than ever before.
Business leaders trying to ensure the consistent implementation of a strategy – simply – are unlikely to have both the capacity and expertise to be the only ones to provide relevant guidance through the cultural changes required to embed these same plans. Why does that mean in plain English? It takes a group effort to sustain change. That alone requires honesty and self-reflection at the highest level within management but is also why empowering “inner CEOs” and focusing on utilising talent with a small ‘t’ helps to deliver ongoing and more permanent buy-in from employees.
Speaking to the 1% Podcast, Jeremy explained: “The scope and scale of transformational shift that leaders are dealing with is something I call ‘The Triple Now’. It’s a digital transformation that is happening, a workforce shift, and a piece in the middle of those that is about connectivity, new ways of working, and eco systems.
“All of these mean a leader can be stretched in areas that they potentially have zero capability in. And this is already a reason to include a sense of ‘how do we distribute leadership in a better way’ so that organisations can use the expertise and experience of people in their organisation in more strategic ways.”
Reverse mentoring was one example given during the podcast episode. It has been used to impressive effect by Citibank where millennials have been invited into the boardroom to share their insights around technology and social media, which has the dual consequence of giving younger workers greater buy-in and a feeling of making an important contribution.
Jeremy went on: “There is also a demand from employees for more human-centred leadership – more empathy-driven, more collective, and more empowering leadership. Employees are ready to help and want to be part of the solution. They don’t want to be told what to do all of the time.
“Saying that, leaders do need time. They are navigating uncertain futures right now so by empowering more people to think about what the next two or three years might hold, all this together allows for empowerment (of employees) to flourish.”
Jeremy’s book, The Inner CEO, includes specific tools, frameworks, and templates while providing a strong foundation for any leader looking for practical supports through the implementation of sustainable change in their organisation.
In creating a new sense of ownership, involvement, and trust within an organisation, such an environment will also serve as a motivational tool for its employees. Workers that feel part of the tribe will naturally have a vested interest beyond their specific duties, while the business will feel the benefit of being closer to clients, customers, industry trends, early warning signs, and potential opportunities alike.
In a pre-pandemic world, employees would often show their dedication to the job by being the first one in the office, the last one to leave, and rarely taking breaks. Busyness was a sign of the high achiever. Now, with hybrid working conditions of both remote and in-person, the method might not be the same, but the mindset is still prevalent. The ideal employee is one who is always ‘on’.
For an executive, the need to be busy might look like an inability to shut off, constantly checking emails on the weekends, or refusing to delegate work. But this is not sustainable. The cultural obsession with productivity has led to an epidemic of burnout and stress in the workplace, and it’s impacting quality of life as well as businesses.
What are the signs of burnout? And why should leaders care about the well-being of their employees and themselves?
The World Health Organisation classifies burnout as a ‘syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’. It lists the three characteristics of burnout as:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
- reduced professional efficacy (WHO, May 2019)
In a study by Personio, 38% of employees in the UK and Ireland are looking to change roles due to toxic workplace culture, bad work-life balance, and a lack of career progression. This turnover rate could cost businesses nearly €17 million. In fact, companies in the States are seeing a similar trend with a ‘record number’ of employees quitting their jobs. McKinsey & Co. refers to it as ‘The Great Attrition’. Burnout always existed, but the pandemic has exacerbated its effects.
Employee burnout is a huge problem that affects not only the employee themselves, but the business, the leaders, and the broader culture. And it’s costing millions.
Busyness can lead to burnout because of the ‘tunnelling’ effect. According to a Harvard Business Review article, researchers describe this phenomenon as the inability to focus on anything but the immediate task at hand. In this state, there’s no bandwidth to focus on long-term goals or strategic planning. It’s exhausting. The first step to breaking free of this cycle is to recognize the signs of burnout and admit that something needs to change.
As burnout and stress are cumulative and chronic, a few ‘bad’ days in a row should not be ignored. Nutrition, sleep, and physical exercise play a huge role in overall well-being. It’s important to get a minimum of seven hours of sleep a night, eat a well-balanced diet, and move the body regularly. Meditation and mindfulness are also proven to improve the effects of stress when practised consistently.
Another way to combat burnout, which on the surface may seem counterintuitive, is scheduling downtown and relaxation into the workday. A Scientific American article explains that ‘downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to achieve our highest levels of performance’. Downtime can include a meditation practice, but it can also be taking a midday nap or a walk outside.
For a company culture to drastically change, leaders need to create new models for productivity and success. Perhaps the ideal employee is one who prioritises their mental health and physical well-being while getting the job done. Leaders can also encourage their employees to create personal boundaries. There will be times when an executive or manager sends an email at 9 p.m., but it does not mean that they require an immediate response.
Lastly, burnout is often a symptom of an underlying issue. There are simple ways to combat burnout, such as proper diet and nutrition, sleep, and setting boundaries, but there could also be another cause that requires deeper reflection.
In a study on how the most successful people conquer burnout, Bismarck Lepe, CEO, talks about the importance of mission in relation to burnout:
‘I don’t believe “burnout” is a function of the amount or intensity of work one takes on. Rather, feeling burned out is usually caused by a misalignment between the individual and their daily tasks’.Bismarck Lepe, CEO Wizeline
Stability, benefits, and healthcare are all important aspects of a job, but if a person hates their work, it can also have an array of negative health impacts. The solution to burnout might be less about finding work-life balance and more about finding work that is fulfilling.
Burnout may be leading to a million-dollar loss for businesses, but the price on quality of life is equally bad, if not worse. If leaders can address burnout and stress and create better working conditions, there will be more attraction and retention rather than attrition. Change needs to start from the top-down for the culture to shift.