This Extremely Common Management Decision is Making 'Flexible' Teams Burn Out, According to Harvard

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k
May 19, 2024 at 5:59AM UTC

The workplace has gone through numerous iterations, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated our questioning of what "work" should look like.

In the Harvard Business Review, Arjun Narayan, Chief Product Officer and Co-founder of Soroco, explored the blurred lines between work and personal life thanks to COVID-19, our new reliance on digital work, and the impact these both have on productivity.

Narayan and his team had the opportunity to research new works norms and the importance of having  an overlap in employee work schedules, something that’s become less prevalent in hybrid and remote work.

Soroco examined the work behavior of 187 people at six Fortune 500 companies that went entirely remote in 2020. Their sample crossed 22 different teams.

“Our findings confirm a now-familiar truth: the digital workday never really ends,” Narayan writes. 

Refusing to set 'on' hours for teams is hurting productivity and keeping people logged on for longer. Team members, on average, were “available” for work for more than eight hours a day (more than 30 minutes within an hour). The study divided the workday into an 8-hour 9–5 window and a 16-hour window. In the first, there was a 50-70% overlap with colleagues’ working time, and in the second, there was a 10-50% overlap. 

They found that on average, an employee spends 40% of work time working apart from their colleagues, as well as not within “normal” working hours. Moreover, there is almost always at least one team member working online at any given time in a 10+-person team, and digital teams are not typically working entirely together. There's no question this kind of workday — extended and isolated — is a breeding ground for burn out. 

Team overlap played a role in productivity, with 41% of business processes “positively correlated” with team overlap, 33% neutrally correlated and 26% negatively correlated. The type of work performed during team overlap affects productivity. 

How to set work hours — flexibly

The research suggests that the structure of the digital workday has implications for productivity — people who had established time together were better at certain tasks. And, theoretically, that boost in productivity means logging off sooner. 

To that end, Narayan advises managers to create a digital team charter, laying out plans for team overlap and working hours.

1. Establish “together” time.

Managers should have established hours when teams are coworking. Even in a digital environment, employees should be logged on and actively communicating during this time. Consider which types of work are best performed in collaboration (not just meetings) for these hours.

2. Don’t force it too much.

Still, it’s important that you avoid attempting to fit a square peg into a round hole. If it’s proving impossible to schedule together time optimally, then don’t force it. Remember, too, that some independent time is perfectly acceptable — even encouraged — for certain processes.

3. Avoid micromanaging.

This is sound advice for any situation, and it certainly applies to this context. Afford your employees the flexibility to work according to schedules that they believe maximize their productivity. While you can certainly mandate some times when they should be working together, chances are, they will gravitate toward certain schedules on their own.

4. Make downtime a norm.

This is an extremely important principle for remote work: encourage downtime. Tell your team that they should be logging off from work when they’ve worked a full day and that they should be “off-call” except in emergency situations. Set periods during which there are no meetings or collaborative sessions, too.

Of course, you should add specific details and modify these norms as needed, according to the needs of your team. But given the fact that remote and hybrid work environments are becoming more of the norm and will continue well into the future, it’s critical to maximize productivity by instituting policies that promote it.

About the Career Expert:

Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Slackjaw, Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket and The Haven.

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