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A Psychologist’s Guide to Reconstructing Work for a Virtual Future World

In a large-scale study of almost 16,000 global leaders conducted by DDI in February 2021, only 1 in 5 rated themselves as effective in leading virtual teams, with the report stating “23% of leaders say they aren’t effective at all at leading virtual teams”. However, a recent survey on 30,000 global workers by Microsoft shows as many as 46% of employees are now looking to leave their current role to work more remotely, with 70% of workers wanting flexible remote workplaces to remain in place. In other words, the drive is there to have virtual workplaces, but great uncertainty about how best to create it and lead within it persists. It is important to note however, that the same Microsoft study also reveals that as many as 65% of employees are currently “craving” time in-person with their teams.

Evidently, we are at a ‘world of work’ crossroads without a clear roadmap. We are looking ahead to the desired highly functional virtual and hybrid organisations of a future post-pandemic world, whilst simultaneously questioning how best to satisfy our basic need for authentic human connection and belonging. We can see the new, shiny and brightly lit yellow brick road to rapidly advancing AI technology, but frequently missing the side roads leading to optimum psychological health and wellbeing. However, it is imperative that instead of making quick, impulsive journeys using the shortest and most obvious route, we pause to fully investigate all major paths to the workplace of the future, understanding that employee psychological health and wellbeing should be our ultimate destination.

As the Microsoft report states ‘the data is clear, extreme flexibility and hybrid work will define the post-pandemic workplace’, so we need to get this right if people, businesses and organisations are to thrive. There is clearly much more clarity needed on how best to support employees in the post-pandemic workplace.

Further findings from the DDI and Microsoft studies highlight the following:

  • Nearly 60% of leaders reported they felt ‘used up’ at the end of the workday - suggesting they were close to experiencing ‘burnout’. The Microsoft study further states that high productivity is masking this exhaustion with 54% stating they were ‘overworked’ and 39% ‘feeling exhausted’. They further report that “trillions of productivity signals from Microsoft 365 quantify the precise digital exhaustion workers are feeling”.
  • Approximately 44% of the DDI group of leaders who felt used up by the end of the workday expected to change companies in order to advance; 26% expected to leave within the next year.
  • Only 20% of surveyed DDI group leaders believed they were effective at leading virtually.

If these results are representative of the global workforce, it follows that in most workplaces many leaders are still unclear how to best lead in a remote virtual landscape: although clearly they want it and so do their teams. It is likely that many more than appear on the surface are feeling utterly exhausted, overwhelmed and close to burnout; with high volumes looking to leave their current organisation.

So what is behind these worrisome statistics, why is this happening and, most importantly, what can organisations who genuinely care about their employees’ psychological welfare do to mitigate the risks? Let’s begin with the blindingly obvious fact that human beings are social creatures who require connection and a sense of belonging. Of course, how much the workplace provides this for us will vary depending on, amongst other things, the type of work we engage in, our personality, what current life stage we are in, and what we do outside of work. However, whatever work represents for us, authentic connection and belonging will always be essential for human beings. If this is missing for a sustained period, the outcome will be manifested in psychological distress.

I predict the question of how we authentically connect on a human level in a virtual work world will be the hot topic for debate as we move into 2022 and beyond. Furthermore, I believe we will start to hear the terms ‘digital exhaustion’ and ‘digital wellbeing practices and policies’ being used much more frequently as we move to the workplace of the future.

Craving social connection

Organisational psychologists have known for many decades that minimising negative relationships at work is critical not only for the psychological well being of people at work, but also for ultimate organisational success. It is not as simple as creating ‘Fun Friday’ events or offering free lunches on neon-coloured sofas with a good coffee machine on tap. Enabling an authentic people-focused culture requires well thought out people-centric systems and processes, as well as a desire to embed healthy habits and practices within the organisational framework. If done well it will support the creation of positive relationships that are vital to the psychological health of a workforce.

The move into more virtual and hybrid ways of working does not change this. We have also known for decades the critically important role of the manager and that employees need to feel truly seen and heard at work in order to thrive. Companies such as Facebook see themselves as being able to move on from the old adage of ‘people don’t quit jobs they quit managers.’ In the linked article Facebook’s VP HR and Recruiting, Lori Goler states that for them careful job crafting is now where their focus is needed, although they also comment “..and who’s responsible for what that job is like? Managers.” Which, of course, still requires positive relationships, communication and engagement.

Lori Goler goes on to say “People leave jobs, and it’s up to managers to design jobs that are too good to leave. Great bosses set up shields—they protect their employees from toxicity…...When you have a manager who cares about your happiness and your success, your career and your life, you end up with a better job, and it’s hard to imagine working anywhere else.”

From whichever perspective you look at it, employees will always need to feel seen and heard by their employer, managers and leaders. As reported by the BBC, employees who were teetering on the brink of leaving prior to the pandemic due to difficult, unhealthy, or persistently toxic cultures and dreadful leadership practices did not hang around very long to support leadership teams through the pandemic. Why would they? Especially if they have also witnessed their ex-colleagues being treated poorly.

As the BBC notes:

“many of these companies with bad environments doubled-down on decisions that didn’t support workers, such as layoffs (while, conversely, companies that had good culture tended to treat employees well). This drove out already disgruntled workers who survived the layoffs, but could plainly see they were working in unsupportive environments.”

These unsupportive environments often lack emotionally intelligent leaders at the highest levels. Aside from eternal debate over the term ‘EQ’ or ‘Emotional Intelligence’; the behaviours, and associated thoughts and feelings we are describing within well-researched EQ models are what are important to focus on when considering relationships at work. It is evident to many applied psychologists that high EQ leaders will manage relationships more effectively, and have happier employees who are more productive, thus leading to more successful businesses and organisations.

In my experience, when you meet high EQ leaders you can clearly observe how easily they connect with those around them due to their high level of genuine emotional self-awareness, emotional self expression and awareness of others. They understand how to manage their emotions effectively and make well thought out decisions under significant pressure. I have also found the most authentic leaders, who display these qualities in abundance, have actively devoted time and energy to continually develop these aspects of themselves through regular introspection, a willingness to receive and act upon—sometimes very uncomfortable—feedback about their behaviour from all levels; whilst engaging with ongoing professional coaching / development.

Empathy is a key facet of EQ models. Supporting the importance of emotionally intelligent leadership and psychologically safe workplace cultures, the DDI study highlights that the number one factor which mitigated the probability of employee burnout was the leader’s ability to display genuine empathy for others. The key word here for me is ‘displaying’; not only is it vital to be able to empathise with others, but to be able to engage with others empathetically, and express this is paramount. As burnout becomes a key topic at the boardroom table, it is important for those sitting around that table (or staring into that shared screen) to ask themselves what it truly feels like to be part of the organisation outside of the boardroom and their immediate group. If the question is asked and no answers can be offered with any real evidence it is likely that the leadership’s empathy is low and burnout will be high amongst employees.

The DDI global study further concluded that leaders are craving connection with others and notes the following - “The moments that leaders can connect and the conversations they have with team members, peers, and customers define how effective (or ineffective) they are. Without positive interactions, coaching suffers, employee engagement dives, and the ability to influence disappears. Unfortunately, our data show that person-to-person interaction is happening less and less. Leaders at all levels reported they feel overburdened with tasks they have to manage, and aren’t able to spend as much time interacting as they would like.”

Results revealed that on average, leaders prefer to spend almost half (41%) of their time interacting, but in reality they currently only spend about a quarter of their workday (27%) doing so.

This lack of opportunity for ‘real’ connection and interaction is a potentially very harmful trend for many organisations. We only have to look at the data from the Microsoft study to observe the increase in online interaction as opposed to in-person: weekly online meetings increased by 148% in a 12 month period from February 2020, people working on Office docs increased by 66%, and weekly Teams chats increased by 45% per person.

I believe virtual teams must address how to incorporate at least some in-person interaction for their teams if they are to function effectively in this remote and / or hybrid landscape. They cannot fall into the commonly held belief that we can simply recreate everything we did in the physical office in the virtual workplace. There needs to be careful reflection on how best to integrate aspects of the individuals’ ‘real’ world into the virtual workplace.

During the last 18 months, our human need for connection has likely driven us all to increase our frequency of virtual communications. But is there a danger of getting stuck in a place in which authentic expression becomes less expected at work? Is this now leaving too many employees with an empty feeling, a sense that they have ‘used up’ their reserves and there is nothing left to give? Are leaders continuously over-using their strengths in an attempt to maintain their virtual world persona, ultimately causing them to experience more potentially ‘derailing’ behaviours or in their words ‘feeling used up’?

Emotional labour

Traditionally in psychological literature, emotional labour is observed in roles in which the employee is expected to manage feelings and expressions to fulfil the emotional requirements of the job. Jobs that involve caring for vulnerable groups such as social work; but also in hospitality or media based roles where a certain emotional expression is expected. The job can demand expressing feelings that are out of sync with how the individual is actually feeling. A basic example would be the air steward who is worrying about a sick relative whilst maintaining the expected expression of cheerfulness on a long haul flight.

There are likewise many situations in other industries in which real emotions are suppressed over extended periods of time in favour of a more ‘acceptable’ feeling in the workplace or group. If an organisation is not a psychologically safe place to work then this sense of suppressing true feelings will happen on a much more frequent basis. As this goes on the sense of experiencing emotional labour will take hold.

My question here is, to what extent has emotional labour been accelerated by the intense nature of virtual face-to-face communication? And how do we acknowledge this and provide a more psychologically safe virtual platform for employees as we create more ‘virtual workforces’, ‘100% remote teams’ and ‘virtual offices’?

The global study goes on to highlight that within this large-scale sample..”stress was even higher for high-potential employees who aspire to leadership. According to more than 1,000 high-potential employees, 86% reported feeling used up at the end of their workday, a 27% increase over the past year. These ambitious future leaders may be reluctant to express their frustration, possibly fearing it could cost them the chance for a key opportunity. However, these high performers are twice as likely to leave as peers who indicated they didn’t feel used up at the end of the day (37% vs. 17%).”

For high potential performers or future leaders, these feelings of being ‘used up’ may be something new. Experiencing failure is not familiar to the high flyer so why are 86% of this group experiencing such a high level of this so-called ‘used up’ feeling, or, how I read this, a sense of ‘emptiness’? Similarly, the Microsoft research shows us that 60% of the Gen Z group (18-25 years) have a sense of ‘merely surviving’. This group may not yet be identified as high-potential but they will certainly be forming this group in years to come. This is also the first ever generation to potentially be hired and work fully remote without ever stepping foot in a physical space and meeting people in person. It is absolutely critical that virtual workplaces consider the psychological impact of this with a sense of urgency, as this is potentially a ticking time bomb for mental health difficulties within this particular group.

From a slightly different angle, another more systemic question to ask here relates to whether these high-flyers are actually those individuals with high levels of competence and skill, or is there a potential concern with accurate identification of talent within these organisations? Could it be that the virtual environment shines more of a spotlight on the incompetence of certain leaders and employees than ever before, further leading to the sense of strain felt by the person and those around them? Are there fewer places to hide in the virtual workplace for individuals who are not as competent as they would like to believe?

A recent Journal of Business and Psychology study summarised by the BBC supports this suggestion, concluding “the confidence, intelligence and extroversion that have long propelled ambitious workers into the executive suite are not enough online, because they simply don’t translate into virtual leadership. Instead, workers who are organised, dependable and productive take the reins of virtual teams. Finally, doers lead the pack – at least remotely.”

It is important here to not only consider the individual but also the culture and system these individuals are in. The maintenance of a certain persona due to the lack of psychological safety within the culture is clearly a key factor here. It is possible that the pressure to act in a certain way, to not feel safe to truly express what is being observed or thought, is more strongly felt in the virtual world. The lack of any sort of release valve in the form of more human connections away from task-oriented interactions have been evident for many over the last couple of years.

So how can organisations prevent digital exhaustion now and in the future?

6 ways to create opportunity for social connections in a virtual workplace:

  1. Incentivise in-person activity outside the office e.g. providing gym / sports club / yoga / meditation / running / swimming group memberships etc.
  2. Pay very close and careful attention to your Gen Z employees and their higher potential for isolation, as well as other vulnerable groups such as neurodivergent or physically disabled.
  3. Create ways for employees to simultaneously connect virtually whilst being outside, such as group walking / running apps.
  4. Actively encourage and support employees to engage with their local geographical community through voluntary work / charity-based activities, possibly allowing them to exchange work days per year for this.
  5. In the absence of any physical office, create employee location hubs for people to meet regularly in shared workspaces / co-locating spaces, even if they are not in the same team or department. If there are physical offices and a hybrid approach is adopted, work with departmental managers on how to ensure teams optimise the space together.
  6. Organise quarterly team / departmental in-person events, trying to avoid any hybrid options in which part of the team are physically there and others are in person.

11 suggestions for changing organisational systems and processes that support preventing digital exhaustion and further promote human connections:

  1. In roles in which it is possible, ensure employees are empowered to have extreme flexibility, consider what teams and individuals need and how the organisation can reflect this in policy, physical space and technology.
  2. Ensure people have what they need wherever they are located, whether that be in an office, at home, on the go, etc.
  3. Create a culture in which time away from digital platforms is encouraged and role-modelled by leaders e.g. offer one full day per week in which virtual meetings are actively discouraged, create clear advice and guidance for virtual meetings such as length, camera usage per day, breaks between meetings, no back-to-back meetings, etc.
  4. The talent landscape is shifting dramatically. People can now apply for jobs with organisations they had previously considered impossible. Employers must ensure high standards of unbiased hiring remain in place, utilising extensively validated and reliable remote psychometric assessment platforms, alongside well designed structured interviews with interviewers who understand unconscious bias theory.
  5. Be clear in your contracts about expectations for employees who wish to work 100% remote, in terms of any desire for in-person interactions and what is a realistic expectation for both employee and organisation.
  6. Develop programmes for leaders which offer learning opportunities around harnessing emotional intelligence at work, coaching / delegating effectively, building partnerships and understanding how to develop digital acumen, in order to develop virtual teams efficiently.
  7. Ensure regular high-quality 360 feedback for leadership teams occurs regularly.
  8. Create transparent performance appraisal processes that focus on employees’ career development and non-financial rewards.
  9. Offer high-quality evidence-based coaching for all employees.
  10. Promote role modelling at all levels i.e. internal and external mentoring.
  11. Offer high-quality learning tools and platforms accessible for all.

Summary

When reconstructing work for the virtual world we are rapidly advancing towards, considering the human element of work and creating cultures that adopt psychological safety practices is more important than ever before. Ensuring organisations have practices and policies designed to minimise digital exhaustion will be absolutely essential.

Mental health absenteeism and presenteeism costs organisations hundreds of billions worldwide each year, yet surprisingly there are still many employers who place psychological well being as an optional extra in their organisational planning. Now is the time to pause, and question how best to support employees so they can thrive in both the optimum virtual and physical workplace.

The world of work has been turned upside down over the last two years and now it is time to regain our footing on the different landscape, looking through a new lens at how best to create and perform within a new system of work.

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