Over the last several months, we’ve seen a push and pull between executives wanting their employees back in the office, and workers either staunchly preferring remote work or, at a minimum, accepting some form of hybrid work. But with employee burnout still hovering at record highs, workplace leaders need to be cautious moving forward with their future-of-work plans — however configured — so as to not make the problem worse.
Understanding the Root Cause of Burnout
The return to office is definitely proceeding. May 2022 numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show
that 7.4% of employed persons were teleworking because of the pandemic at some point in the four weeks preceding the survey, down from 7.7% in the prior month’s report. As Axios reported
, this marks a significant drop from the pandemic high of 35% who worked remotely, whether due to the pandemic or for other reasons.
However, even as workers return to the office, the employee burnout crisis and Great Resignation rages on. Just as workplace leaders should take the time now to rethink their overall workplace strategy in case of a recession
, they also need to take a moment to step back and see how they can positively influence the employee experience, addressing employee burnout in the process.
To understand how workplace changes might impact the employee experience, workplace leaders need to first ask themselves a basic question: Why are employees burnt out in the first place?
Those in the “Work-from-home-(WFH)-forever” camp will point to some companies’ struggles to bring employees back into the office, or moments when the hybrid work experience has been cumbersome, as an indication that in-person working is outdated. And return-to-office advocates have not always made their case as effectively as they could; Elon Musk
and other CEOs’ vehemently support for in-person work only, has been condemned as tone-deaf. But is the problem with in-person work itself, or is this more a problem with how hybrid work is rolled out and how workplaces message their larger future-of-work plans?
In a recent Psychology Today article
, Allison E McWilliams, assistant VP of mentoring and alumni personal & career development for Wake Forest University, argued that burnout has less to do with where we work than how we work:
After all, the idea that we’re figuring out how to “bring people back to work” in itself conflates the act of working with the location. People didn’t stop working over the past three years. If anything, lots of people worked even more. They just did that work from a different place.
McWilliams goes on to say that burnout culture is largely due to how we tie our identity to work. As employees work harder and longer, they look for more purpose and meaning in their job, only to be left wanting (or burnt out) when it doesn’t materialize. She added that while remote work can be an option for how/where employees work, it doesn’t address the root cause of burnout and the unhealthy view many employees have of work itself.
Workplace Clarity, Flexibility, Connectivity: Essential for the Future of Work
This argument does seem to track the realities of the last several years. Productivity spiked during COVID, and so did burnout. And if remote work was a remedy for employee burnout, why didn’t we see even slight overall improvements to employee mental health, given the amount of remote work that was happening? Also, consider the fact that Gallup found
two-thirds of employees felt some level of burnout in 2019, a year when remote work was only marginally on the rise.
Many employees experienced isolation and a general sense of disconnect from their workplace with remote work. In a survey of 2,000 employees, OnePoll and Volley found
70% of employees felt more isolated while working remotely, and 63% felt less connected to their team. Despite this, many workers still prefer at least some remote work. In fact, risk management firm WTW found
that of over 9,600 employees surveyed, 58% preferred a strong remote work component (36% preferred remote always or most of the time, and 22% preferred a split between in-office and remote work).
As a solution to burnout, McWilliams suggested that managers think about the individual as a person first and an employee second, meaning a focus on talking to and understanding their employees and being flexible — but realistic — on where and how work gets done. The need for workplace flexibility
(from spaces to schedules) has been a major theme of this year, as shared in numerous employee surveys. Another way managers can address burnout is by setting “clear expectations for success” and “uphold accountability towards meeting those expectations,” she added.
While McWilliams doesn’t explicitly address the modern office in her article, these ideas seem essential for making hybrid work and return-to-office a success. Whether rolling out a return-to-office strategy or retooling their current hybrid work approach, workplace leaders need to detail their plan and expectations to employees clearly, and they need to be vigilant in ensuring that they don't create more stress for employees. To ensure a future-of-work strategy meets the needs of employees, workplace leaders will also need to find ways to listen to employees and incorporate that feedback into their workplace strategies.
HR, IT, and Facilities Coming Together to Tackle Burnout
While workplace leaders have little control of the larger societal factors contributing to employee burnout, they are at the frontlines of making sure employees have a great workplace experience, and they directly influence the decisions that will ultimately impact how workers view their jobs. And with many workplaces opting for a version of hybrid work, workplace leaders in HR, IT, facility, and other departments need to use their expertise and resources to do this in a way that improves the employee experience and not exacerbate employee burnout.
The heart of today’s workplace is technology, and IT teams across the globe have worked tirelessly to find the right mix of communication and collaboration tools to keep workplaces humming and employees connected through challenging times. However, often new technology can create workplace problems and can cause stress for employees. In a 2021 survey of over 4,900 workers, Gartner found
that 60% found new software occasionally or frequently frustrating, and 56% wished management would revert back to the old system.
A full-blown discussion and program for technology adoption
and change management can make a big difference, but at minimum, IT teams will need to listen intently to their users and find ways to ensure that the technology is actually improving how they do their job. This also provides an opportunity for HR and IT professionals to work together and survey employees about new technology, which can be helpful in identifying areas to provide more training. Additionally, periodic employee surveys can be a great tool to get a sense of how the current working model is doing, and how a workplace strategy might be further retooled to meet the employees’ needs.
Technology and HR policies aside, facility management professionals will have a major role in making offices fit for hybrid work. Many hybrid workplaces focus on activity-based working
, and facility management professionals will be crucial to setting up those spaces, ensuring an optimal experience for employees through proper space design and acoustics. Facility management professionals will also need to keep tabs on space utilization by using real-time occupancy management (RTOM) tools, as was shared in this Facility Executive article
. RTOM tools will also be helpful to identify where crowds are forming (a tool to ensure social distancing policies are being adhered to), and employees can use the software to reserve spaces, preventing rooms from being overbooked, the article added. Many of the space utilization tools also rely on Internet of Things (IoT) devices, which will create an opportunity for facility management and IT to work closely together.
As enterprises continue to move towards their version of the future of work, this cross-department collaboration will be essential to not only enabling the hybrid workplace but also in addressing employee burnout. As McWilliams suggested, managers (and by extension workplaces) need to listen to employees, provide workplace flexibility (that is realistic and meaningful), and communicate work expectations clearly. Without paying close attention to these areas, workplace leaders run the risk of creating undue stress for employees and continuing the cycle of burnout.