Overscheduled: How to avoid a stressed out remote worker mutiny

Many organizations have been pleasantly surprised by the productivity of their remote workforce, but there's a risk of pushing your staff too far.

Pirate silhouette.

Image: HappyNati, Getty Images/iStockphoto

I fired up my company-issued laptop this morning, and rolled my eyes as another assortment of security applications and updates were pushed to my machine. It took no less than 12 entries of my username, password, and multi-factor authentication token to get logged in to the tools I need to do my job, and my machine had slowed to a crawl with the half-dozen apps designed to keep me "safe" pegging my CPU at 100% utilization. 

Several minutes later, I was finally able to open my Outlook calendar, breathing a sigh of dismay as I looked at back-to-back Zoom meetings that ranged from the expected client activities, to "mandatory fun" meetings, to hours of reflection, to my favorite--a slot that a well-intentioned person had booked for "Time to take a personal break" that had been over-booked three times.

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Every one of these little assaults on my time was certainly well-intentioned. I'm sure (or at least hopeful) that each security app serves some important purpose that the other six anti-something apps don't cover, just as the individuals that set up virtual cocktail hours and sessions on "maintaining balance" surely have noble intentions. However, there's a growing risk that you're killing the productivity (and sanity) of your remote workforce one tiny cut at a time.

Put yourself in your employees' shoes

Pre-COVID-19, terms like user experience and human-centered design were all the rage, however we seem to have abandoned this consideration at the most basic, human level. Starting your day with a machine that runs like a 6-year-old Windows 95 installation (youngsters that never had that experience can interpret this as painfully slow), where you can get a fresh cup of coffee between when you click an application and when it finally opens, is a poor user experience by any metric. Security is certainly important, but it must be balanced with allowing your workers to actually get work done.

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Similarly, even the most well-intentioned meetings and activities can become overwhelming when relentlessly pumped into a calendar. Like it or not, most of us are too polite to delete these, and there is a sense of obligation to at least tentatively accept the meeting. All of this can add up to a feeling that work has become an unending grind, especially when you're trying to make dinner for the kids while simultaneously entering your multi-factor key for the fourth time while watching the "waiting" icon spin as Zoom loads your ninth video call for the day.

The risk of burnout--or worse

By any metric, as human beings we're collectively facing a set of circumstances and challenges that few have ever experienced. Thirty seconds browsing the news headlines should be enough to convince most people that the world is teetering on the brink, and when you mix broad racial and societal challenges with job uncertainty, atop a global pandemic and forced isolation, we're exceeding the capacity of many of us to process all of this and cope.

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In the best case, employees might grin and bear it, and I've noticed an increasing number of video calls in which cameras are off, and it's clear participants are doing something else. In other cases, I've` had a few team members "disappear" for a day or longer, and what seemed to be a feeling of resolve has turned into a grinding depression in many people with whom I've spoken. These "micro mutinies" may turn into something far worse, from employees who do the minimum to get by, to people that permanently "check out" and fall by the wayside of your company and even society at large.

Addressing these challenges by booking a 12-meeting series on mental health that is "optional but STRONGLY encouraged" isn't going to help.

Lead by example

As leaders, it's up to us to lead by example. Here are some options that can help instead of hinder remote employees.

  • Rigorously stamp out excess meetings, and consider creating a portal for optional social meetings or informational sessions so those who are interested can "shop" for what they like, rather than carpet bombing calendars and creating an unending set of tiny obligations that becomes a huge burden in aggregate.
  • Instead of reminding employees about your wonderful mental health benefits in an email blast, have individual chats and share some of the challenges you've faced in an effort to create conversations that let you gauge how that employee is doing. 
  • If it's within your purview, seek to make tools and systems focus on keeping people productive and having a positive experience, with reasonable security in place rather than security that's so good, it makes actual work nearly impossible.

We're all struggling with massive challenges, seemingly coming from every direction. Strive to create an environment in which "we're all in this together," rather than one in which each individual feels it's them against the world, and mutiny is the only possible answer.

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By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...