Hybrid workers are stressed out, but "empathy-based management" could help

The global pandemic has resulted in a new hybrid work model for many employees. Here are three problems caused by these new conditions, according to new Gartner research, and some solutions.

Stressed woman working from home

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As the COVID-19 pandemic entered our consciousness just over a year ago, the working world began a full-on shift to digital, creating new challenges for workers and employers alike. As it has evolved, businesses have experimented with a variety of work models, including the hybrid work environment, mixing the in-person and digital.

While the hybrid model certainly offers some perks—including flexibility for workers, cutting down the commute and maintaining the benefits of collaboration—it also carries hidden costs. New Gartner research explores the benefits and risks of the hybrid work model, as it's been observed over the last year. Employee wellbeing—specifically, the risk of employee burnout—is a major concern for 96% of HR leaders, according to new Gartner research, while only a bit over 50% are concerned about productivity and innovation.

SEE: Working from home: How to get remote right (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

"We knew fatigue might be a problem," said Alexia Cambon, author of the Gartner study. "And that the digital environment was one of high distraction—but it's adding everything in together that really creates the cumulative fatigue that's a problem."

Here are the three major red flags tech leaders should watch for in the hybrid work environment:

1. Attention at risk. The online work environment—with virtual meetings, Slack channels, and the constantly updating email inbox—has always been tough for digital workers to navigate. However, the new hybrid work environment has increased these distractions. Gartner shows that hybrid employees are 2.54 times more likely to experience digital distractions than full-time, onsite workers. These kinds of distractions are a real culprit for the kind of focused work required, and digital distractions were ranked highest among five potential distractions (four of which were work-related). According to Gartner, "Employees who experience a high level of digital distractions are 1.32 times more likely to feel emotionally drained from their work."

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2. Zoom fatigue. Virtual meetings take a bigger toll on employee health than in-person interactions, the research shows. It's tougher to interpret body language and visual cues, and results in lower accountability. Think about it—do you feel as engaged if your camera is switched off and you're brewing a pot of tea during the morning check-in? Conversely, having your camera on triggers the pressure to perform, increasing stress. On the whole, the virtual meetings are another ingredient of fatigue.

3. Work around the clock. As the remote-work landscape has blurred the lines between work and personal life, workers struggle to put up boundaries, and many stay connected long after the work day is done. According to the research, workers in the hybrid world are "1.27 times more likely to struggle to disconnect from work than employees in the on-site world." And "40% of hybrid or remote employees [are] reporting an increase in the length of their workday in the past 12 months." This kind of fatigue caused by the longer workday is a main concern for 92% of HR leaders. Leaders should stop expecting employees to be always "on."

The very tools that are used to ensure the smooth transition to a hybrid work model are also its Achilles' Heel. "Organizations have inadvertently been making the fatigue worse," 

Cambon said. There have actually been more check-ins (78%) between managers and workers, and 84% more virtual meetings with teams, for instance. According to Garter, "HR leaders must lead and support the creation of a hybrid model that mitigates the adverse impacts of digital distraction, virtual overload and the always-on mindset. Ironically, many of the actions that organizations are taking to improve the hybrid employee experience are actually exacerbating the fatigue these hybrid realities are creating."

SEE: How remote working still poses security risks for organizations (TechRepublic)

There are four modes of working, Cambon said, that fit with different personality types—collaborating virtually, collaborating in-person, working alone with coworkers nearby, and working alone, alone.

But even with the four different styles, managers are over-investing in the collaborating modes, for instance, tech that helps people work online together. Asynchronous work, or solo work, is just as important to innovation, Cambon said. Achieving more of a balance, she believes, is crucial for managers.

The research from Gartner is troubling, not simply because employers should care about their employees' mental wellbeing, but because the fatigue and stress caused by these new working conditions has ripple effects across companies, creating work cultures that promote speed and responsiveness at the cost of employees' health, and, ultimately, affect the quality of work being produced. Tech leaders must take the issue seriously by finding ways to slow down the pace, be aware when employees are being stretched thin—even when they are doing it to themselves—and ensuring that they promote a healthy work-life balance. 

"We're really advocating for what we're calling 'empathy-based management'," Cambon said. Pre-pandemic, employers could see when employees were struggling. Now, it's not so clear. "When you apply this approach, it has a huge impact on trust." We must train managers to "to ask the right questions to learn how to be vulnerable, to take into account factors that are not just related to work but that are outside of work, too," she added.

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