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Remote-work and burnout: 10 ways to avoid it on your tech team

Article originally appeared in TechBeacon by Linda Rosencrance

For many tech pros, remote work is hell because all the traditional work/home boundaries are blurred. And in this economic environment, everyone is trying to avoid getting laid off. All the more reason, then, for wanting or needing to be always available to the job.

One example: having a security operations center dashboard on your mobile phone, to be alerted to problems day or night. That sort of connectivity can bring work-related stress to a whole new level.

TechBeacon talked to tech pros and HR managers to see what best practices have emerged in this remote era. Here are 10 suggestions for avoiding burnout as a development, testing, security, or other IT professional.

1. Accept that burnout is a real problem

The first step is to understand that burnout is real, said Jeff Gallimore, co-founder and chief technology and innovation officer at Excella, a technology consulting firm.

“We are at an increased risk of burnout, particularly in these times. Our individual ability to deal with things is not what it was a year ago because of all the other things we have to deal with now, such as healthcare concerns.”
Jeff Gallimore

That’s reducing the capacity of individuals to handle the other stuff that they used to cope with on a normal day-to-day basis at work, he said.

To help, Gallimore said, managers can take “a more proactive stance on trying to root out where those risks are” in their teams. One way to deal with it: “[By] realizing that my team might need a little bit more connection time in meetings just to catch up with each other.”

Rather than launching right into the agenda and starting to talk about business or the work of the day that needs to get done, managers should create space for chatter, to maintain the rapport that people used to have in the office, he said.

2. Communicate and connect

The mental health of all employees is especially critical during this tumultuous time, and individuals are struggling to manage the sudden shift to all-remote work, the need to handle family and schooling priorities, and their feelings of isolation, said Shani Brounshtein, vice president of HR at Atera, an Israeli company that provides a remote-monitoring management platform.

“Instant messaging platforms can simulate a water cooler-style conversation and office banter. By connecting with each other, it can help bring the teams closer together.”
—Shani Brounshtein

In the pre-pandemic world, Srini Vadlamani, CTO of Cyral, which makes a cloud-native security tool, preferred face-to-face communication, because it allowed for better conversation. Talking to someone in person also helped him understand what was going on from the other person’s point of view. Now, with the pandemic driving remote work, he encourages employees to use video during online meetings.

“We have this culture where we all turn on our videos, unless someone’s not feeling so well.”
Srini Vadlamani

3. Deliver a well-being program

When employees are burned out, it’s generally because they have been hyper-engaged for long periods of time without taking care of their well-being or having the support from their companies to take care of themselves, said Laura Hamill, chief people officer at Limeade, an employee experience company.

“Sometimes burnout goes so far that in order to cope with the exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy, employees start to detach and disengage from their work. When this happens, it’s easy for the employee to lose sight of why they liked their job in the first place and how their work helps them find more meaning and purpose in their life.”
Laura Hamill

To prevent employee burnout, organizations should deliver a well-being program, according to Hamill. This can include providing recovery time between big IT rollouts, training managers to support well-being within their teams, building support systems among employees, addressing unreasonable deadlines and overwork (often associated with IT departments), and helping people reconnect to their sense of purpose at work, she said.

4. Hold mindful meetings

Meetings have increased on average for developers since the start of the pandemic, according to an analysis based on over 2,000 developers conducted by Uplevel, an engineering effectiveness platform.

Developers are working longer hours, and the risk for developer burnout is high, in part because of the increase in overall time spent in meetings.

September tallied “one of the highest [meeting] increases we’ve seen, and we’ve also heard subjectively from our customers that everything has to be a meeting now,” said Ravs Kaur, chief technology officer at Uplevel.

One way organizations can deal with meeting burnout is to hold “mindful” team meetings. In other words, try starting meetings with a quick meditation or allowing time for some chat before diving into work, said Bryan Stallings, chief evangelist for Lucid, an online visual collaboration suite. One best practice he recommends: “Use visuals to create an interactive environment rather than an audience of zombies with a single person presenting.”

Bill Miller, CIO of NetAPP, a provider of cloud data services, said his company is very mindful when scheduling meetings, with the goals of making them shorter, but also as inclusive and as productive as possible.

Anything that can be read and digested ahead of a meeting is sent via collaboration channels, he said.

“[That gives] each person time to share their thoughts, which is something that didn’t always happen in a conference room, because the biggest voices with the most bravado often dominated the conversation. Now we’re going more thoughtfully around the visual space asking every person for their opinion, and that’s bringing to light more ideas, more perspectives, and deepening the feeling of inclusion and belonging.”
Bill Miller

5. Be aware of people’s time

Leaders have to ensure that they’re using their people efficiently, said Cyral’s Vadlamani.

“Let’s say a team of five people are all watching all the Slack alerts for a security channel. Do they all need to be watching at all times during the day, during the week, during the weekend?”
—Srini Vadlamani

He suggests setting up a rotation and designating which team member will be responsible for monitoring the Slack alerts at a specific time.

Another suggestion is to urn off notifications during certain hours of the day, certain days of the week, and so on, he said.

“We basically encourage people to switch off, disconnect, when they don’t have anything to do. That way, at least for the time that they’re not engaged, they’re not being bombarded with all these sensory inputs.”
—Srini Vadlamani

6. Connect back with your purpose

One of the best approaches to combat burnout is for developers and IT pros to connect back with their purpose—especially from the perspective of how their work impacts real human beings, according to Limeade’s Hamill.

For example, remind yourself of the problems your customers face and how your technology is helping to solve them, she said. “How did your contribution help them? How did that feel? From an internal perspective, remind yourself of the projects that you worked on with others and how it felt to have a positive impact on your co-workers.”

Managers can help by having “line-of-sight” discussions with their employees, describing to each employee how their specific work helps the team, department, and company be successful. “Sometimes, we might think that is obvious to our employees, but it isn’t always,” she said.

7. Use the off switch

It’s important to remember that “always on” has a corresponding off switch—and it should be used, said Derek Weeks, vice president of Sonatype, a provider of DevSecOps-native tools.

He advocates having a set schedule for the day, a time to both start and stop. “[You] have to be steadfast. When it says, ‘Stop,’ it means stop. It doesn’t mean bring your phone to dinner and check what’s happening on Slack.”

Before the pandemic, when employees used to leave the office, they weren’t usually responding to work issues when they got home in the evening. Rather, they were spending time with their kids, their partners, and their pets, Weeks said.

He said that although he works on Sundays and may send messages to his team on Sunday mornings, he doesn’t expect responses that day.

“I let my team know that it is totally okay to wait until Monday to answer it. If it was so time-critical, I’d call them.”
Derek Weeks

One of the keys to using the on/off switch when working remotely is to develop a physical action to support the shut-off valve, said Mika Liss, COO of NeuroLeadership Institute, a consulting company that aims to help organizations apply neuroscience to work.

For instance, if you decide to stop working at 5 p.m. every day, you have to take action to enforce that.

“Physically shut off your laptop you put it in a drawer. And since all tech people are online, you can have your teammates say something like, ‘Shutting down in five, four, three’—or you can put a reminder in your calendar.”
Mika Liss

8. Offer flexible schedules

NetApp is giving its employees far more flexibility in terms of work hours and schedules now that everyone is working from home, Miller said.

“We understand that some families have young children at home to address, while other employees may care for elderly family members,” he said. “We need to be very sensitive to the unique needs of families to succeed both in business and in life, thus removing inherent stress and eventual burnout.”

Working from home has introduced the need for different perspectives on balance, Miller said.

“We deeply believe a healthy work-life balance and an inherent sense of accomplishment and job satisfaction will result in the best employees for the long term.”
—Bill Miller

9. Learn to collaborate remotely

Before the pandemic, remote workers could physically go into the office to get some help with a problem, said Hyoun Park, CEO and principal analyst at Amalgam Insights.

“You used some human interaction to figure out how to work with other people and get some things done, synchronously. Now, a lot of us have to get the same amount of communication and collaboration done [remotely], and we have to use the technical tools that we have.”
Hyoun Park

The hardest part is understanding how to collaborate with other team members, especially when they’re nontechnical or business people—for instance, the people who care about security and applications and development but who are in sales or marketing or other areas where they don’t deal with code, Park said.

Although remote access to systems and tools has been around for decades, without in-person human interaction, something gets lost in translation.

The majority of person-to-person communication is nonverbal. “And a lot of that nuance gets lost because there’s just a little bit of a delay when we’re speaking to each other remotely—there’s less spatial detail that you can get from a two-inch box in a Zoom” meeting, Park said.

10. Reclaim your commute time

Justin Rodenbostel, vice president of solution delivery at SPR, which specializes in custom software development, said he used to have a 60-to-90-minute commute, and for a while he found himself logging on at the time that he would have left for work, which lead to really long days.

“We’re now working during the time that we spent commuting,” he said. People have to reclaim their commute times to preserve a normal workday, he added.

“This allows a time for the mental transition, which normally happens during your commute, to kind of warm your brain up for the day or wind it down at the end of the day so that you can switch from a family member to a team member and back to a family member.”
Justin Rodenbostel