With millions of employees worldwide working remotely for an indefinite period of time as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, many employers are worried about maintaining productivity levels. However, as the authors of a recent HBR piece put it, “…what they really should be concerned about in this unprecedented situation is a longer-term risk: employee burnout.”

The article goes on to stress that the risk is real. Many employees are finding themselves working from home for the first time and are struggling to appear productive and efficient at the cost of healthy boundaries between their personal and professional lives. As the authors describe it, “Afternoons will blend with evenings; weekdays will blend with weekends; and little sense of time off will remain.” So, what can you do to keep this from happening to yourself, your colleagues, and your reports?

  • Maintain physical and social boundaries. Most people follow a routine that transitions them from home life to work life and vice versa—for example, commuting into the office on the same train or playing football with their children upon their return home. While these routines are no longer necessary in the era of remote working, it’s important to adhere to them as much as possible. As the HBR article puts it, “In the short-term, it may be a welcome change not to have to catch an early train to work, or to be able to spend all day in your pajamas—but both of those things are boundary-crossing activities that can do you good, so don’t abandon them altogether.” The time typically spent commuting could be replaced with a walk, yoga, or another form of personal reflection time, and sticking with the 5 p.m. football game will do workers and their children a world of good.
  • Maintain temporal boundaries as much as possible. With many employees and/or colleagues now juggling childcare and elder-care responsibilities, maintaining temporal boundaries is more challenging than ever—yet it’s critical both for individual wellbeing and for overall productivity. According to HBR, “Sticking to a ‘9-to-5’ schedule may prove unrealistic. Employees need to find work-time budgets that function best for them.” In addition, it’s important that employees at every level be cognizant and understanding of one another’s adjusted work schedule. For employees handling time-sensitive matters, the HBR article suggests adding “out of office” replies during periods when children or other responsibilities may make a timely response difficult.
  • Focus on the most important work. As the HBR article puts it, “While working from home, employees often feel compelled to project the appearance of productivity, but this can lead them to work on tasks that are more immediate instead of more important—a tendency that research suggests is counterproductive in the long run, even if it benefits productivity in the short term.” To counteract this habit, encourage your employees to focus on prioritizing the most critical work, even if it results in fewer tangible deliverables. In addition, make sure you are practicing what you preach and allocating time to those tasks that are truly moving the business forward.

As the HBR piece states, “Even before COVID-19, employees found it difficult to carve out [time] to focus on their core work tasks. With work and family boundaries being removed, employees’ time has never been more fragmented.” As such, it’s important that all managers be mindful of the considerations outlined above and look for other ways to help avoid burnout—both for their employees and for themselves.