Prevent virtual burnout: a manager’s guide on how to keep remote work engaging

By Aimee Happ
February 26, 2021
8 min read

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees have started to enjoy the benefits of remote work, including the absence of commutes, more flexible work schedules, and even increased productivity. Many remote employees are now looking to make that change permanent, with only 1% of respondents from one survey indicating that they would like to return to a physical office environment when physical distancing restrictions end.

But as the WFH situation continues for the indefinite future, there is also a growing number of employees who are feeling increasingly isolated, distracted, and burnt out from remote work. Non-existent commutes have often led to longer working days. Some work-from-home situations have resulted in increased difficulty balancing work and home life. And with no definite end in sight, it can be easy for employees to feel overwhelmed.

We’re here to help. This blog is the first of two parts on the topic of the new reality of remote work for those who traditionally work in an office setting. In this first installment, we’ll focus on the role of the middle manager in encouraging engagement and preventing virtual burnout, and in the second, on the role of leadership teams in making remote work a long-term success.

Keep reading this post for:

  • Tips for preventing virtual burnout
  • Ideas to foster virtual employee engagement
  • Considerations on the future of remote work

Let’s get started!

Tips for preventing virtual burnout

Studies have shown that, in general, employees tend to be at least somewhat more productive when working from home than when compared to working from the office. However, that increase in productivity can rapidly lead to virtual burnout if left unchecked. Here are our top three tips for managers to help prevent remote work burnout:

1. Touch base with employees regularly

Remote work has completely changed the way teams communicate. Now more than ever, it’s key for managers to regularly check in one-on-one with their employees. Ask candid questions to your employees to gauge how they’re doing. Do they have the necessary office supplies? How is their desk setup? Do they need anything from you in order to be more productive?

Sometimes, the nagging problems that employees are facing can be easily solved. Don’t miss out on an opportunity to improve your employees’ experience.

For example, if your employees are feeling video call fatigue, consider taking your one-on-one meetings over a phone call. Some managers have even had success with walking phone call meetings to break up days spent at the computer.

Not every meeting needs to be about work, either. In fact, you might want to make a point to ensure that you sometimes meet to chat about other things (to replace the in-office water cooler chats). When appropriate, you can also pose specific questions related to your employees’ wellbeing. What are their stress levels? Do they need additional help or resources in order to feel better about their situation? It never hurts to ask.

2. Offer flexible working options

And by flexible, we don’t just mean remote working options!

While remote work often implies more employee freedom, every remote worker lives a different experience. For example, a parent with young children might find it difficult to work from home uninterrupted. When needed, consider allowing flexible working hours to accommodate those who might have more difficulty keeping the traditional 9-5. Focus on work outcomes and results before the number of hours worked.

3. Encourage breaks & boundaries

Although it may seem counterproductive, research shows that taking frequent breaks during a workday actually increases productivity. However, when working from home, many employees forget to get up from their desks for long periods of time.

Encourage your employees to take breaks and get outside when they can. When possible, limit the number of meetings in a day, or encourage a “meeting-free day” once per week. Make sure that meetings that do happen have an agenda and don’t run overtime. If you can’t think of an agenda for your meeting, consider sending an email or having a discussion in a chat group instead. In the long run, employees will feel better and they’ll work better. It’s a win-win!

Along with taking more frequent breaks, encourage your employees to set boundaries between their work and personal lives, and always encourage them to put personal priorities first. A good dialogue between employees and managers is key to ensuring that this kind of arrangement is effective.

Ideas to foster virtual employee engagement

Effective managers don’t just try to prevent virtual burnout, they actively work to build employee engagement.

But in a remote setting, this can be an extremely challenging and daunting task. Unsure where to begin? Here are some tips to get started:

Foster a sense of virtual belonging

With your team, organize team-building activities and virtual team meetings. Have fun with online meetings as much as you can. For example, you could encourage your employees to dress up for special holidays like St. Patrick’s Day or Halloween or have a contest for the best Zoom background. It doesn’t take much time to make a big impact!

When possible, it’s also great to encourage your team members to socialize with colleagues outside of your department. Share success stories from across your organization to your team members that they might not otherwise have been aware of. Encourage your employees to attend company-wide virtual events and to have casual 15-minute virtual coffee chats with their coworkers.

Be extra clear about responsibilities

Without regular office interactions, sometimes responsibilities and goals can get lost in virtual translation. As a result, employees may become unclear on what exactly is expected of them.

With each of your employees, go through what their goals and responsibilities are in your regular one-on-one meetings, and make sure you are meeting with them every one to two weeks. Give clear deadlines, and ask employees what they think a reasonable timeline to complete their work should be.

Be the source of truth for your team

Besides your organization’s official source of truth, which is more than likely your corporate intranet, be a source of truth for your employees. Ensure that they know that they can always come to you with their questions. It’s ok to not always have the answers, but leading with your own authentic voice and voicing your own questions and challenges helps to build trust.

Establish a channel, such as a Microsoft Teams or Slack group chat, where everyone from your team can interact and discuss both work and non-work-related topics. This is also the perfect forum to ensure your team members have received and understood important organizational announcements.

When in doubt, ask for training

Managing a remote team is no easy task. Know that you’re not alone and that most managers experience challenges adjusting and operating in this new reality.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is to learn and improve. Ask your own manager or HR department to see what resources might be available to allow you to attend in-house or external training. You might be surprised with what your organization has to offer, and there is plenty of articles and training sessions out there on LinkedIn, for example.

The future of remote work

Although the COVID-19 pandemic won’t last forever, is remote work here to stay?

Research has shown that this is indeed the case. Of course, not every job is best performed remotely, and there are those who simply prefer to work in an office environment. However, even after the pandemic eventually comes to an end, some kind of hybrid model that combines remote and in-person work is likely to develop for many professions and individuals. Some individuals will even stay in a WFH arrangement permanently.

Ongoing remote work opens up a whole new world of opportunities. For example, if you’re recruiting for a position that can be fully remote, your candidate pool can now be drawn from a much larger geographical area. And 74% of respondents in one study said that they are “somewhat” to “very” likely to remain with their current employer “due to support of remote work”, making it a new key to employee retention.

However, certain challenges are also likely to arise. One researcher at Stanford University found that only 65% of Americans surveyed said they had fast enough internet service to support viable video calls. And as we’ve seen, remote work can create new psychological and emotional stresses for employees, such as isolation. To support viable permanent remote work situations, many companies will have to reimagine their processes and policies.

Our larger society will change as a result of this new remote workforce, as well. As office space frees up, we may see a structural transformation in cities, food services, commercial real estate, and retail. Investment in digital infrastructure will increase.

Nevertheless, the future of work is bright. With the right management and communication in place, working from home is not just possible, it’s efficient and productive. To learn more about the role of leadership teams in making work a long-term success, check out the second installment of this series.

Make remote communication a breeze with purpose-built technology

You can further increase employee engagement and decrease virtual burnout by investing in purpose-built internal communications software for your organization. Using technology like our intranet with multi-channel messaging capabilities, you can build, send, and track the results of all your communications to employees, without just relying on the classic all-staff email. Modern software also allows you to measure employee sentiment on your messages, so you’ll always have a pulse on how your staff is feeling.

Easy-to-use features such as an audience builder/sync, employee feedback, automated reminders, and timezone schedulers allow communicators to send the right message to the right people at the right time, on the channel of their choice. Even crisis communications are easy to send out to specific groups or everyone in your organization. No app downloads or training is required for your end-users—the message simply appears in their inbox, Microsoft Teams, intranet portal, or Slack app.

Learn more today by booking a demo to see IC’s internal communications software in action.

By Aimee Happ

Aimee Happ is proud to lead the marketing team at IC and enjoys working with the dynamic and diverse team that surrounds her. She is inspired on a daily basis by the company's mission of empowering internal communicators. Aimee holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Calgary and loves to travel.