Recognize reality and be human: 4 things managers can do to stop burnout before it starts

A collaboration platform that puts Google's research on how to build successful teams into daily practice now works with Microsoft Teams.

Asian Woman working from home use Smart working and video conference online meeting with Asian team using laptop and tablet online in video call for new projects

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"Sleep when you're dead" has always been a popular mantra in the tech world, but the business risk of this way of working is becoming clearer all the time. The extra pressures from the coronavirus pandemic have made burnout even worse in the IT industry this year

Range CEO and co-founder Dan Pupius experienced burnout firsthand during his time as a staff engineer at Google. Ever since then, he has been interested in helping other people avoid that particular problem.

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"If you let it get too far, people can end up in a place that is unrecoverable," he said.

This year is unique because the stress factors outside work are even higher than usual, from wildfires and hurricanes to the pandemic to the social justice protests. Pupius said burnout at work often is caused by people not having enough information or control over their work. Dealing with these factors at work and at home delivers a double whammy to people trying to write code, strengthen cybersecurity, and manage teams. 

Pupius and his co-founders, Jennifer Dennard and Braden Kowitz, built Range to make it easier to talk about stress both at work and at home and solve the problems that create it.

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One example of how this works in practice is the daily mood check-in. Each person posts an emoji in his or her daily check-in to reflect a red, yellow, or green mood.

"To be honest, most of the team has been yellow for most of the summer," he said.

Pupius has built his company's collaboration platform and his management style around research from Google about how to create high-performance teams. Google found that the key to success is how the team works together. That relies on these dynamics:

  • Psychological safety: Feeling confident that it's OK to take a risk at work.
  • Dependability: Completing work on time
  • Structure and clarity: Understanding job expectations and how to meet them.
  • Meaning: Having a sense of  purpose.
  • Impact: Feeling that your work is making a difference.

"Psychological safety is the key to success, and a feeling of belonging is a precursor to that," he said.

As part of Microsoft Ignite this week, Pupius announced a partnership with Microsoft Teams, one of the  most common integration requests.

Here is a look at how Pupius puts this research into practice with his team and the collaboration platform.

Team building as a daily habit

Instead of making team building an annual or quarterly activity, Pupius makes this management work part of the daily routine at Range. One example is a series of daily questions that the entire team answers each week. Some themes are designed to help team members get to know each other better while others are about work preferences, such as, "How should teammates know when it's a bad time to interrupt you?"

Monday's question is always about the weekend and Tuesday's is about the week's topic. The questions get progressively more difficult until Thursday and Friday's question is easier.  The goal is to create incremental vulnerability, Pupius said. 

"People would be less likely to answer Thursday's question honestly if asked out of the blue."

Range built an Icebreaker tool with these questions that has three difficulty levels:

  • Intro, for new teams: What was the last scary movie that you've seen?
  • Tricky, for tight-knit teams: If you could complete one work-related task with a wave of your hand, what would it be?
  • Tough, it's time to get real: What distractions prevent you from doing your best work?

Range managers also hold twice weekly social sessions to cultivate a sense of belonging among employees. The company mixes informal work conversations with purely social sessions to build trust and connections among team members. Pupius said Range has found that completely decoupling social time undermines its effectiveness in improving teamwork. 

Range's product team has "collab time" on Tuesdays and Thursdays. People bring work to demo, specs to discuss, product ideas, or general questions but there's no formal agenda. Pupius said if the meeting organizer runs out of topics with time to spare, they then play some form of online game or quiz. 

"It may sound silly but play is a super important component for building connection," he said.

In addition to those hybrid meetings, Range has dedicated game time and a Friday Happy Hour. The company also schedules random one on one meetings via Donut, a collaboration platform that introduces teammates who may not know each other via direct message, and encourages them to meet or chat.

Papius said this kind of interaction builds that foundation that supports other conversations such as code review and decision making.  

Establishing windowed work schedules

Range managers recognize the fact that many people are working from home, or worse, living at work. This means juggling conflicting responsibilities. Pupuis said Range encourages flexible schedules based around "windowed work." Employees mark their daily availability on their calendars with green to indicate completely open time, yellow for available but possibly helping kids or cooking dinner, and red meaning unavailable. 

Personal and professional coaching for everyone

Range team members have open team discussions about the nature of burnout, what to watch for, and how to recognize it. The company also provides all employees free access to mental health therapy. Range uses Kip for this benefit, a San Francisco company that combines in-person sessions with virtual sessions.

"We have three new hires, and I think everyone who has joined in the last month has taken advantage of this," he said.

In addition to talking about burnout, the management team also share how they each use therapy in one form or another to normalize discussions of mental health.

"One teammate who held off for six or nine months announced this week that he had used the  benefit," Pupius said.

Also, Range team members also can ask a coworker to serve as an informal coach. 

Pupius said that during the first month of the COVID-19 shut down, the company doubled usage of the collaboration platform. 

Addressing goals every week

Range managers have a weekly review of high level objectives and current progress as well as a weekly recap to celebrate achievements, acknowledge struggles, and share lessons learned.

Pupius said that he built Range in part because he couldn't find the software he wanted to manage his team. He wanted a platform that prioritized transparency, belonging, and purpose.

"Projects are not always the most important thing to the company, it's sometimes more important for people to be engaged and excited," he said.

The platform provides a way to connect big-picture objectives with daily work and to determine when goals need to shift to fit a new business reality or when an individual needs help to meet those goals.

"The more information people have, the more autonomous they can be," Pupius said.

Range is an asynchronous check-in platform that integrates with Microsoft Teams, Slack, Githut, Trello, Asana, Dropbox, Google Drive, Google Calendar, and Jira. A team member posts her work plans for the day and shares it with the group. The platform also includes meeting tools such as team roulette that randomly picks a person to share the first update at a meeting, flags to indicate tasks that are past due, and icebreaker questions to build connections among team members.  

In a press release, Mike Ammerlaan, director of Microsoft 365 ecosystem marketing at Microsoft, said that Range understands how to connect the human and work sides of collaboration, and now Teams customers now have access to this integration.

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By Veronica Combs

Veronica Combs is a senior writer at TechRepublic. For more than 10 years, she has covered technology, healthcare, and business strategy. In addition to her writing and editing expertise, she has managed small and large teams at startups and establis...