The Most-Ignored Reason Why Remote Teams Become Unproductive

In 2006, Best Buy, the largest electronics retailer in the United States, implemented a ROWE “results-only work environment." It allowed all its corporate employees 100% flexibility. They could choose whether to work from home every day or on some days of the week -- they decided what worked for them. The company reported that productivity and employee satisfaction rose by 35%. Pretty soon, ROWE became a catchphrase for successful remote teams. “Work isn’t where you go, but what you do.”

But there is a problem with focusing on results and seeing your remote workers from the micro-lens of tasks met and projects completed. As telecommuting became more popular and is adapted by mega-corporations like IBM and Accenture, psychologists discovered that while flexibility can increase satisfaction, it can also lead to untreated burnout and depression.

“While flexibility can increase satisfaction, it can also lead to untreated burnout and depression”

The Unhappy Remote Worker

This was one unexpected finding in a study published in the Psychological Science in the Public Interest (Vol 16, No 2). “Those who work primarily out of the office may face isolation from, and reduced levels of knowledge sharing with, colleagues. Working from home may also blur family-work boundaries and lead to increased amounts of work during “non-work” hours,” says study authors Allen, Golden and Shockley.

Isolation can also feed dissatisfaction and distrust. Remote workers may feel they are working harder than everyone else, and not getting enough recognition. In an interview with global freelancing website Upwork, Psychologist Michael Britt traces it to Equity Theory.

“Equity Theory is about fairness. In an office setting, you can look around and see what co-workers are doing. You gauge how you’re expected to work and how your work is valued by watching what is accomplished by those around you and how they’re treated. Working remotely can throw off your inner equity meter. “Now you can’t see how your co-workers are performing, so you make guesses. You gauge how hard they’re working by their output. You analyze their emails, their accomplishments. You can almost never be completely comfortable with the level of work you’ve accomplished.”

Remote workers are more likely to ignore burnout

“Burnout affects people in all walks of life and in all industries, so what makes remote workers different? Well, if an athlete starts cracking under pressure, the team and the coach will notice something is wrong. The same goes for office workers; their co-workers will likely spot symptoms of burnout early on. This isn’t possible with remote workers,” says Nermin Hajdarbegovic, Technical Editor of Toptal.

That’s why many remote workers will just feel a slow deterioration of motivation and productivity, and a feeling that “I’m just not feeling really great now.” Burnout can manifest as symptoms like headaches, difficulty sleeping, chronic fatigue, poor concentration, forgetfulness and irritability.

How can team managers manage worker burnout?

It’s easy for team managers to overlook worker stress or its effect on productivity. Here are some ways you can help everyone -- including yourself -- stay happy, focused, and fulfilled.

  • Monotask There’s no such thing as multitasking: brains are built to do one task at a time, so you’re really rapidly switching between activities. Several studies have found that this lowers productivity, attention span and brain function. Unfortunately, remote workers often toggle between chats and emails (thanks to a stream of notifications or unplanned telecons) or assigned several roles. Do one thing at a time, finish it, and move to the next task.

  • Recharge “In a 24/7, always-on world, continuous partial attention used as our dominant attention mode contributes to a feeling of overwhelm, over-stimulation and to a sense of being unfulfilled. We are so accessible, we’re inaccessible," says Linda Stone, former head of Microsoft University. This is especially true for remote workers. Shut off your laptop and phone at the end of the day the way you would leave your office -- and if you get an email at 10pm, don’t feel tempted to answer it. Just because you’re online doesn’t mean you’re on call.

  • Give positive feedback Remote teams often have streamlined communications like emails or telecons, with feedback limited to revising or criticizing work. But it’s important for relationships and for motivation to appreciate both good work and the people who have done it.

  • Leverage technology Isolation among team members contributes to both distrust and burnout on remote teams. Rudi Ramin, Grow CEO and Co-Founder, believes that effective, healthy remote teams are the ones that address this isolation intentionally. “Virtual teamwork is possible today because of the rise of digital platforms that facilitate connectedness,” said Ramin. “Remote teams should leverage digital tools as much as possible to increase communication among team members.” These tools include communication platforms, such as Slack, as well as team development products like Grow. “With features that let teams give each other feedback and take stock of their performance, Grow increases team self-awareness and helps teams to spot burnout before it’s too late.”

“Virtual teamwork is possible today because of the rise of digital platforms that facilitate connectedness. Remote teams should leverage digital tools as much as possible to increase communication among team members.”
— Rudi Ramin, Grow CEO and Co-Founder

The feeling of isolation and disengagement remote workers might feel can adversely impact productivity and motivation. It’s crucial to spot the warning signs early on and address them effectively. Platforms like Grow provide telecommuters the means to support each other’s well being and development, while working towards great results.

Grow is a digital platform that empowers teams and supports leadership development. We believe that when teams develop leadership skills both individually and collectively, they are more effective, engaged, agile and successful.

Grow is where teams thrive. Discover how you can take your team to the next level with Grow by clicking the link below.