A People Ops Field Guide to Disconnecting

a guide to disconnecting

Stefania Chiorboli leads Global HR at Boundless. Passing through and leaving an impact in companies such as Automattic, Booking.com, and Status, she knows what it takes to make remote employees happy, engaged and productive. A remote worker for the past five years, she has learned from the best and shares her lessons on the blog.

I am writing this from my native home in Italy. I came here from my adopted home in Portugal for two months to visit family and friends and regain a bit of sanity after months of lockdown. In a normal year, at this point of summer, very few people in this part of the world would be working. August is peak vacation time for most of us in Europe, and it’s not unheard of for some people to take the whole month off. Whether it’s for a week or a month, switching off is seen as an important way to stay healthy and sane around here.

However, this year is different. Those that are lucky to still have their jobs throughout the pandemic are reluctant to take time off in fear of making an already precarious situation worse. In many organisations, employees are doing the jobs of colleagues that have had to be made redundant. Travel, something we would typically do during a vacation, is severely restricted still and for a good reason. The result of that is that many people are skipping vacation all together when they might need it the most. 

As someone in the heart of People Ops, this scares me because I know what happens when people do not take time off in an already stressful environment. It’s a recipe for burnout. During a recent roundtable discussion for People Ops professionals we held, many participants working remotely shared similar fears for their teams. That’s why I would like to share strategies for helping people to disconnect that I have seen to be helpful. While this is written in August and with summer in mind, people can be affected by burnout at any point, and these tips can be used throughout the year.

What contributes to burnout

There are many reasons knowledge workers find themselves in a state of burnout. Gallup has identified the top five as:

  • Unfair treatment at work (i.e. corporate politics)
  • Unmanageable workload
  • Lack of role clarity
  • Lack of communication and support from the line manager
  • Unreasonable time pressure

These can exist under any circumstances, regardless of the company being remote or co-located. When a sudden switch to working from home is added to the mix, the pool of reasons increases: 

  • fuzzy boundaries between work and personal life
  • feelings of isolation
  • even less role clarity or communication and support (if that was already the case when in the office)
  • heightened insecurities on performance (aka imposter syndrome) caused by less face time

Fundamentally the problem with all of this is that it diminishes the feeling of being ‘allowed’ to take time off or to disconnect properly. This is where intervention is required.

Be proactive about disconnecting and avoiding burnout

My colleague Laure Martin recently wrote a piece about the Right to Disconnect law in France as one such intervention. As she argued, that kind of state-mandated regulation on the number of hours people should work may be the best antidote to burnout we have got.

how to avoid burnout

When countries are not as forward-thinking, remote companies have to take the initiative for people disconnecting. Buffer piloted a four day week in May, and after they found the positive impact it had on employees, they have extended it to at least the end of 2020. John Riordan, Director of Support, Ireland at Shopify (who is responsible for 350+ remote employees), mentioned switching off as one of his top tips for succeeding with remote working. If he needs to work late, he asks permission from his subordinates, making sure he isn’t sending the wrong signal. 

The common denominator here is giving people enough guilt-free time to look after their families or obligations, which became all the more daunting during lockdown, while proactively lowering the ‘fears’ at the root of burnout. Many of those fears are based on insecurity, and often – ambiguity plays a huge role in insecurity. Here are some ways to reduce ambiguity and send the right message when it comes to burnout:  

  • Set clear goals with your team members (short-term and longer term if possible) – so they know where they’re going and that they’re on track
  • Give feedback often, discussing performance and what you think is going great and what may need improvement
  • Lead by example by being explicit on Slack or other group communication that you’re going to be offline for whatever reason. Show that there is nothing wrong with it and that you trust your team to deliver their work, regardless of how they manage their day or how many other things they need to squeeze in. 
  • If you test shorter days/weeks like the examples above, be explicit about the expected deliverables and metrics that will be looked at to define productivity. 
  • When you’re off, be off. It will be harder for your team to feel they have real permission and encouragement to be offline and not peek in if they see others doing it all the time.
  • Encourage others (and yourself) to take guilt-free ‘renewal breaks’ – going for a walk, taking time to do sports, cooking dinner in advance – activities that provide headspace without which we all lose productivity.

You have to mandate flexible hours

While I am a big fan of the idea of a right to disconnect, I think it needs to exist in a slightly more flexible reality than it may have been intended for. As a parent with children at home who interrupt my day all the time, everything takes longer. If I had to stop at a defined time such as 6 pm, I would fret about not being productive enough during the “work hours”. 

Everyone is different, and expecting that every person delivers their best work between 9 and 5 is unrealistic. Some are, but allowing everyone to follow their flow helps with productivity. When people feel productive, they feel good about themselves. This decreases the feeling of inadequacy, which inadvertently reduces the chances for burnout.

A flexible schedule is essential when working remotely to avoid burnout. However, flexible work must still be somehow defined and measured up to ~ 40 hours a week (depending on the employee’s country). No matter when it happens, downtime has to be mandated. If an employee tends to work on Sundays because it’s quieter then, they should know to take more hours off during the week. When everyone is crunching to ship something, and working longer hours, then as soon as the pressure is off, there should be shorter hours. 

Establish disconnecting habits

While company policies on work hours and communication cadences with the team are important, in the end, what matters is actually disconnecting. Both for yourself and those in your team, I would suggest the following: 

  • Remove all work-related apps from your phone (your product, Slack, email, calendar, etc.)
  • Separate the workspace from your living space at home (as much as possible having in mind many of us live in tiny city dwellings)
  • Close Slack, email and any other communication tools on your computer when you finish work (and all work apps)
  • Find a ritual that helps you end the workday. For example, you could start by writing down the top 3 priorities for tomorrow (or Monday), so you know that you have a good starting point in the morning. Then engage in anything that will help you transition into another mind space – make a cup of calming tea or a refreshing cold drink, call your friends or family, go for a walk, play a favourite song, stretch and move your body, sit down for meditation, or simply close your eyes and take 10 deep breaths
  • Say hi/bye to your team on Slack (this only works if everyone does it and if there’s clarity so everyone knows it’s okay to come and go at any time and there’s no fear or judgement)
  • Take a Zoom holiday. As our CEO, Dee Coakley experienced a few weeks ago, Zoom fatigue is a real thing. To tackle it, she decided to take a ‘Zoom holiday’ for a few days, to reset. As much as was possible, Dee cancelled or postponed all planned Zoom meetings for Monday-Wednesday the following week. For those calls she had to attend, she dialled in from her phone, rather than using video. Dee still worked for those days, but afterwards, she felt refreshed in a way that she hadn’t in months. 
  • Invest in the emotional health of employees. As I wrote early on in the pandemic, providing emotional support in difficult times is one of the most important things leaders can do for employees. You can start by taming urgency and stress on their behalf, giving a lot of space to employees, avoiding micromanaging people, and giving an abundance of praise.   
  • Build resilience in teams and support good habits. Creating skill-sharing opportunities where people can connect based on their skills is an excellent example of that. Establishing an Employee Assistance Program and encouraging its use is another.
  • Show the ‘die-hard’ leaders (who have the most trouble switching off) the research that proves taking time away from work to do physical activity, engage in hobbies, etc. will make them more creative and productive. 

Just take that week off

I hope you have found the ideas helpful. Now do yourself a favour, close this browser and your computer, and take some time off. It’s still summer. I know the world is a crazy place, but that is all the more reason to take good care of yourself. I just came back from a week off. I was completely offline and swam in the Mediterranean sea more than I have in years. I feel in a much better position to support the Boundless team and our growing number of clients.


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