Article: Flexibility can raise productivity – but too much of it can lead to burnout

Employee Engagement

Flexibility can raise productivity – but too much of it can lead to burnout

The work-from-home revolution has seen an 'overflow' of productivity: More virtual meetings. More emails. More work done? One expert explains how high productivity can also lead to burnout. Find out how you can help your team
Flexibility can raise productivity – but too much of it can lead to burnout

Business leaders are gearing up for the digital revolution by investing in tools that make flexible work more sustainable. In fact, a recent survey from The Economist showed most respondents (70%) are keen to “invest more in digital offerings”.

“Due to COVID, we now have seen a quantum leap in terms of digital adoption in the workplace; what would normally take years is now taking months,” said Anne Chiou, Director of The Economist Corporate Network in Hong Kong. 

Chiou spoke about the future of work and talent management amid the pandemic at Mercer’s Regional HR Virtual Conference this week.

“Executives have radically shifted their views on the importance of technology. Whereas, once, technology was seen as mostly a cost-saving tool and 10% of companies still think so now it is being used more and more to solidify a competitive advantage and modernize capabilities,” Chiou said. 

The litmus test for technology

The massive shift to remote and flexible working in 2020 became a litmus test for new technology and how they deliver on their promise of productivity for virtual teams.

“Broadly speaking, remote working has greatly helped productivity. And we see that, while there are differences between countries, generally speaking, there are many productivity gains that have been unlocked by remote work and digitization,” Chiou said. 

When respondents were asked whether working from home allowed them to be ‘more or less productive,’ some 40% said the shift led to higher productivity for them. 

“But a caveat to this is that productivity in the hybrid form still depends in a large sense on coordination, communication, and different modes of collaboration. So, what we're finding in some cases is that workers are working much longer hours but less productively,” Chiou said.

The productivity boom and its pitfalls 

Working remotely may create situations in which employees are ‘siloed’ or ‘not as focused’ as when they are in the office. “Many may be juggling family demands while working,” Chiou said. “Really, there is no off switch when you don’t have to physically leave the office.

“This is where companies really do need to put more effort around designing set-ups and structures for a ‘work anywhere’ arrangement, including giving better guidance on what are, for example, core team working hours; how to manage asynchronous communication in more structured ways; and what our expectations for work hours are,” she said.  

The WFH revolution has seen a “gigantic overflow” of virtual events: “Virtual meetings went up by 148%; [there have been] 40 billion more emails, a 45% increase in team chats, and a 66% increase in documents. And this all reflects higher productivity. But it can lead to overwork and exhaustion,” Chiou explained.

Of those surveyed in Asia, 54% said they feel overworked and 39% said they are exhausted. Globally, one in five workers believe their employer doesn't care about their work/life balance.

“There could almost be this inverse relationship between productivity gains on one hand and wellbeing on the other,” Chiou noted. 

Are managers balancing EQ and IQ? 

In the days since the pandemic began, managers have learned to integrate the topics of mental health and wellbeing into their conversations at work.

“For a lot of senior managers, this is going to be a new skill set,” Chiou said. “We've been hearing senior managers tell us that they have started conversations now, with just a few minutes, to check in on staff and relay their own emotional thoughts.” 

This balance between EQ and IQ is now more important than ever for “routine cohesion”.

“We did a survey in 2020 and we found that less than half (40%) of employees hadn't had a good conversation with their managers about their mental wellbeing while working from home. Almost the same percentage said that they did,” she said. 

“But, in the midst of a global pandemic, it is concerning that there is still a level of hesitation to bring these topics out in the open. In fact, one in five people said they feel uncomfortable talking about mental health with their manager. 

“This is almost definitely something that companies need to openly discuss so that caring for employees and expressing empathy and care is just part of a firm's DNA,” Chiou said.

With one in eight employees feeling isolated while working from home, the infrastructure to support employee wellbeing is “still lacking and needs improvement”.

“The support measures that employers need to offer have to target certain demographics and even certain geographies. What works for one group may not work for another. The example here is that younger Gen Z [workers] are finding it difficult to gain coaching and mentoring support or to even integrate well into a company,” Chiou said. 

“Likewise, on the whole, we are seeing that new employees and singles may struggle in different ways than those who are well-seasoned in a company or even who are married. 

“Different groups will have different needs. And because there are less serendipitous ways to meet in an office fashion, because not everyone is in the office, companies may want to rethink the ways in which they can engineer collisions between these groups better,” she said.

People Matters is the exclusive media partner for Mercer's 2021 Regional HR Virtual Conference.


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Topics: Employee Engagement

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