burnout

One of the few silver linings of COVID-19 has been the very welcome, and long overdue, recognition given to workers who were once underappreciated in our society.

Unfortunately, this increased appreciation has not always translated to adequate compensation or sufficient measures to keep workers safe, and many workers have had to fight for better protection and/or pay. Nevertheless, the pandemic has highlighted many important issues related to work in America and spurred discussions about what needs fixing. Some have theorized that these discussions will pressure lawmakers to put forth new social protections, such as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

While new social protection legislation is a possibility, employees should not have to wait indefinitely for something that may or may not happen, nor do companies need to wait for new legislation to force them to implement policies that are good for their employees. Independent of what the government does, there are things companies can start doing now to better ensure the physical and mental well-being of their employees in these uncertain times.

Flextime, Remote Work, and Other Flexible Work Arrangements

Going forward, companies can meet many of their employees’ needs by providing flexible work arrangements. This can mean flextime, remote work, a compressed workweek, or some combination thereof. It would also be beneficial, in general, for companies to shift their work-related expectations to center on outcomes and results rather than strict, day-to-day schedules. For most employers, what probably matters most is that employees get their tasks and projects done on time, not that they always work traditional 9-5 hours.

As this pandemic has shown us, there is an entire world of invisible work — disproportionately done by women, immigrants, people of color, and people of lower socioeconomic status — that many must do in addition to their paid jobs. Examples of such invisible labor, often underappreciated and rarely ever paid, include domestic work, homeschooling, and caregiving for the sick or elderly. While I suspect that many kinds of invisible labor will remain invisible in the post-COVID era, allowing employees flexible work options would at least make it more feasible for them to juggle their jobs with the invisible labor they must also do (often during standard business hours).

The caveat here, of course, is that flexible work arrangements are not a one-size-fits-all solution. When we talk about arrangements like remote work and flextime, we inevitably end up excluding some people — many of them essential workers — for whom flextime and working from home are not possible simply due to the nature of their respective industries (e.g., grocery store employees). While we might not be able to immediately solve every work-related problem in America, companies that are able to should by all means address their employees’ needs in the ways that they can.

Making a Commitment to Workplace Diversity

In the wake of nationwide protests, many companies in recent weeks have taken nominal stances in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and racial diversity, justice, and inclusion in general. However, many of these same companies’ employee rosters and track records do not show a lived commitment to workplace diversity and inclusion, making their words ring hollow.

By making a real commitment to workplace diversity, coming up with tangible goals and plans, and communicating these to the public, companies can go beyond the lip service. Herein lies another potential benefit of a fully or partially remote work system. Given the innate hiring limitations that come with being based in certain geographic regions where local populations are not diverse, implementing remote work — and hiring remote employees from other geographical areas — might be the only realistic way that some companies can make their workforces more diverse and inclusive.

Aside from the studied business benefits of workplace diversity, cultivating more diverse workplaces and inclusive company policies could play a small role in the broader societal initiative to raise awareness of issues relating to race and racial bias.

Avoiding the Dark Side of Remote Work

To make flexible work arrangements effective for both companies and employees, you can’t simply offer flexible schedules. You must also cultivate a corresponding change in the workplace culture.

One downside to remote work we have seen during recent months is that the erosion of traditional boundaries between work and life can spur people to work more than usual, with negative repercussions for employees. The mass furloughing of workers is also causing those who still have jobs to make themselves over-available as a way of proving their value to their companies. Too much work and company communication overload, especially when combined with the aforementioned invisible labor that many do, can lead to burnout. That, in turn, can lead to lower engagement, reduced job satisfaction, and plummeting employee well-being.

Companies can prevent this by formulating clear expectations for remote employees and then communicating them. That includes communicating about communication itself. Organizations should clearly inform their employees, in no uncertain terms, what is expected with respect to timing and standard response windows for work emails, texts, phone calls, and Slack messages. Otherwise, employees might feel pressured to respond right away to a company email sent out at 11 p.m. If possible, you also might consider actively encouraging or even enforcing time away from work, including all work-related communication (excluding genuine emergencies).

Whether for the purpose of preventing burnout or appealing to employees and job seekers, offering flexible work arrangements and engaging in clear and frequent communication with employees will go a long way in the age of COVID-19 and beyond. While it would be wonderful to see new legislation that increases social protections for workers, companies should not wait for this to happen before making changes. Those that offer flexibility and communicate well — and are able to continue doing so — will have a distinct competitive advantage and be more resilient in the face of the many challenges that lie ahead.

Dr. Allison Weidhaas is associate professor and program director for the Online Masters in Business Communications at Rider University.

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