In the last year, working from home has become the new normal for many. Almost everyone I talk to feels they are working harder than ever, trapped at their desks, in back-to-back, virtual meetings, which they find exhausting. In this article, I explore the deeper causes of these patterns and offer suggestions on how to shift them by re-evaluating our assumptions and making different choices.
What are the Causes?
Broadly, I believe there are 3 causes behind this sense of overwork and exhaustion:
- Continuous virtual working has a different energetic impact, than real, face-to-face time.
- A lack of resilience in our business models, means people stretching to pick-up the shortfall.
- The assumptions we hold about ourselves, our colleagues, and our work, which limit our capacity for change.
Continuous Virtual Working
Some of this exhaustion comes from the peculiarities of continuous virtual meetings. We are more sedentary, not even walking between meeting rooms or to/from workplaces, which saps energy. Also, we do not get the same emotional connection as when we are in a shared physical space. We are all embodied beings who naturally get energy through physical presence and contact (limbic resonance). This is not fully replaced by seeing and listening to people on a screen.
There are limits to what we can do to change this while working through the pandemic. One thing we can do is choose to better manage our time by creating breaks in the day. This means revisiting our assumptions, which I explore in my third point below.
Lack of Resilience in Our Business Models
The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief how businesses have progressively driven efficiencies by reducing numbers of people. Most managers, professionals and knowledge workers were already expected to work beyond their contracted hours to deliver for the business. Any system working close to its capacity will have problems when grappling with substantial change and disruption. There has been a general expectation that people will stretch even further to meet the new demands. This comes from within people and through the culture and expectations of peers and managers across the business.
As leaders, we have a responsibility to look anew at how we are working, what we prioritise in the business and how we care for our colleagues. I have seen many examples of good leaders stepping up to address these challenges. It requires fundamental changes in how organisations are structured, how processes work and the explicit or implicit demands we make of each other. Such changes in culture will take time to work through, but we can all start with our own choices and actions as leaders.
The Assumptions We Hold
I notice many people feeling a victim of their diaries rather than taking responsibility for their own time and energy. Addressing this is not about time-management tactics but understanding the assumptions we hold about ourselves, our work and how others see us. My encouragement is to fully explore some questions, such as:
- Who and what is most important in my life? Are my choices in the use of my time and energy reflecting this? Honestly? Would others agree?
- Why do I find it harder to say yes or no to some people than others? What does this say about how I value myself? And see them? What do I fear in how they might see me?
- When have I contributed at my very best? What might I do differently to ensure this happens more often? What is stopping me? Is it about others or me?
- Am I focused on things that connect to what matters for the organisation and its customers/clients/people? In this context, what’s the 10% least useful activity I do each week? How might I better use this time? Why don’t I start now?
Only when we have honestly addressed such questions can we take advantage of the various tactics for better managing our time and energy. Hence, we give our best to our organisation as well as family and friends.
Tactics that work for me in using my time to best effect
Be clear about the big things that need to be done and why. Start with the personal and then add the business priorities, rather than fit the person around the business agenda. If you and yours are not OK, then you will not give your best to the business. Focus on what you do and do what you focus on. It’s OK not to do everything that might be done. It does not make you a bad person, just a person.
Work with your energy. What is best tackled when? Manage your diary so that you use your day/week to your best advantage. For instance, I am better at thinking and generating output in the morning. Afternoons are good for talking, connecting and sorting things. It’s not an iron rule, but I shape my days to work with this pattern largely. I like to get at least one substantive thing done each morning, and at the end of the day, I will clarify the next day’s priority action/outcome.
The power of “Yes……and…“
You have to fit with other people’s diaries, and they also have to fit with yours. This includes getting the breaks you need. Don’t undervalue yourself and your time. It is OK to push back and say what will work for you and hear what is important for others and why. It is not uncooperative to be honest and open in meeting competing needs.
Create the restorative spaces.
We all have our own ways of re-energising through the day and the week. It is vital to make time for exercise, even if it is just a walk or stretch. Many one-to-one discussions can be done on the phone rather than on the computer, freeing you to walk and talk. Build short, sharp breaks into the day, between meetings, to stretch the limbs and re-energise. Please don’t allow this to be an option; make it essential.
Working virtually has been a great enabler for the continuance of work in extraordinary circumstances. No doubt the experiences of the last few months will change work patterns in future. There are constraints in our organisations around resources, structures, process, and culture, which will take time to shift. We can start with owning our own choices about what we do, how, and when. This means looking more deeply at our assumptions, needs, drivers and fears. Only then can we find the tactics that will enable us to manage our time and energy to meet our needs and give our best to the organisation and others in our lives.
We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.Gandhi