I posted the following as a reply to a Makers thread on Product Hunt.
The prompt was, “Remote work burnout is growing as pandemic stretches on. How do you cope with it?“. There are many thoughtful responses to this thread, so I encourage you to read them all.
I wrote my reply in the moment, with some light editing. I didn’t want to overthink it, and I sense it does not cover everything I’d like to share. However, it felt complete enough to cross-post here on my blog.
There’s already a lot of helpful advice in this thread. I’ve had the opportunity to work in all remote teams, and as a freelancer in the past. As always, you need to do the fundamentals like sleep and eat well.
I also think it’s important to note that many of our peers aren’t just working remotely in this pandemic. Many are also juggling pre-K-through-12 and college students/multi-generational family members at home on top of it all. Such conditions are not a typical way to trial a remote workforce approach. So, all companies need to be sensitive to these conditions when judging their team’s performance and the long-term viability of remote work.
I agree with others’ tips for keeping a routine. It doesn’t necessarily have to match 9–5′ office hours’. Your method should work for you and consider other at-home factors (not fight them). Aim to be up and running within the range of expected daily hour-commitments and availability to others. I tend to get up on the early side, do a stretch of focused work, and then take a break mid-morning. I also take a regular but short lunch break (can vary) and end the day by 5 or 6.
I shut down my work machine at the end of each day. For almost three years, I have NOT had work email on my smartphone – this has been very helpful. My colleagues have my phone number if a genuine work emergency occurs. I use my personal computer and smartphone to stay in touch with friends and family. I periodically do small side-projects or experiments to keep my creative tendencies exercised.
But to avoid burnout, it helps if you can budget a few days a month where you allow yourself to break all the structure mentioned above – without feeling bad. Creativity often strikes when you are away from your desk or routine, so remind people of that and do what you can to tactfully push back on any people with a clock-punching mentality.
Are you getting frustrated about work or anything else? Take a half or full-day off if you are lucky enough to have the time-off balance. Did an appliance break or a family member require your time and attention during work hours? Take care of it in real-time and ‘make up’ that work later on if feasible.
You aren’t at an office, so only replicate what helps you to be productive and rethink the rest. If you focus on being a productive and valuable team player, but also forgive yourself when it makes sense to break routine, that can help. It’s like when you get taken by a wave, and sometimes you have to go with it versus fight it. You can also use this principle to do something fun or relaxing like an activity alone or with people close to you to clear your mind.
Depending on your pre-remote work culture, you may find that you now have to spend a lot more time communicating with higher frequency, care, and accuracy. If you accomplished a lot thanks to in-person communications throughout the day, you would feel the deficit of those cumulative drips and drabs of conversations that helped keep people in sync. So it’s essential to figure out new ways to achieve that same camaraderie (emails, DMs, periodic and spontaneous video calls, whatever). Such ‘over-communication’ may feel tiring for the unaccustomed, so try to stick with it and strengthen that reflex.
You will also have to hone your skills at figuring out when to take the lead on something vs. sensing when to follow. We do this a lot in our in-person work, and probably don’t even notice it. This approach can require more intentional effort when you are working remotely. If you become more conscious of this and accept it as a challenge, you can feel like you have more control over it, and hopefully, that also reduces burn out.
If you work with teammates in other time zones, you can potentially negotiate with your supervisors to create a flexible personal schedule. Try to tie your scheduling objectives to business goals. For example, you could work within hours aligned with a different team’s time zone instead of your own. Point out that doing work early in your morning allows for your other teammates to use your output when they are up and running. It’s easier to make a case for you wanting to signing-off ‘early’ if you can attach it to a business value metric. Don’t suffer a schedule that is not working for you, without at least attempting to negotiate for a win-win (I realize this tip is assuming a certain level of privilege you may have in your role and a company culture of reciprocity).
Last, I echo the comments on burn out coming from stresses outside of work. There are many stressors, including the real and saddening health crisis we are all experiencing alongside social and geopolitical turmoil. If you are fortunate enough to have the time and resources of health coverage, be open to seeking support from friends, family, and outside counseling.
Illustration: Remote team by Iconathon, US from the Noun Project