When Octavia Conner informed the team at her accounting consultancy that they’d be moving back into the office after working remotely for nearly two years, the reception wasn’t great.
“It was a mixed response but overall, they didn’t seem too happy about coming into a physical location and that really surprised me,” Conner told ESSENCE. She decided to deploy a hybrid work environment model for her Atlanta, Georgia firm Say Yes To Profits after noticing a dip in productivity while workers were 100% remote.
“The level of work just wasn’t where I needed it to be and I noticed some of the team was consistently making mistakes,” she said. “I really wanted to use the move back into the office to observe work patterns and ensure operations were running smoothly.”
Conner sounds like many employers who are now urging workers to return to office after pandemic-induced virtual work began in 2020. Some claim that the move is prompted by a need to boost workplace morale, as evidenced by recent remarks made by President Biden in his March 2022 State Of The Union address. Biden called workers back to offices, saying it’s time to ‘fill our great downtowns again.’ “We can end the shutdown of schools and businesses,” the president said. “We have the tools we need.”
Other employers said working in-office is better for productivity.
A recent Microsoft report found that 85% of surveyed workplace leaders said hybrid work environments made it challenging for them to know whether workers are truly being productive and aren’t doing other tasks besides their work leading to poorer output quality.
While Conner initially thought this was the case for her team, she quickly realized what the real culprit was: stress.
“My team members were always on, and felt the need to constantly react to or respond to everything thrown at them immediately,” she told ESSENCE. “That sense of urgency really affected their workflow.”
This revelation isn’t a singular one.
Some 87% of workers surveyed in the aforementioned report shared they desired more flexibility at work, and would feel more productive if their employers supported that balance. This sentiment is shared by many workers who, during the height of the pandemic saw a significant uptick in their workload and a subsequent increase in micromanagement while working from home, creating a culture of urgency.
The widespread assumption from employers that employees should be ready and available at all times to carry out work functions has been pervasive and it’s affecting people’s mental health.
According to data from employee well-being company Limeade, Gen Xer burnout rates increased 14 points from 40% pre-pandemic to 54% this year. Meanwhile millennial burnout rates are up 42% since last year according to work performance platform, Betterup.com.
So, what’s the solution here? How can employees maintain productivity without becoming a victim of a culture of urgency? Conner offered a suggestions for employers.
IMPLEMENT EFFECTIVE SYSTEMS.
“Every task that is required of us has a system behind it so that regardless of who’s owning the responsibility, someone can step in at all times if a person is no longer with the company or they’re absent for that day.”
She recommends using a project management platform like Notion to help streamline communications and alleviate the strain of tasks on employees.
OVER-COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR TEAM.
Although it may sound counterproductive in dismantling harmful urgency culture anxieties, Conner suggests leaders deliver consistent and concise communication among team members.
“I often use the video recording function in Notion to provide concise instructions to my team as to avoid any confusion or misunderstandings that may come up if the directives were written.”
PAY CLOSE ATTENTION TO THE PERSON BEHIND THE SCREEN.
It’s easy to lead with a ‘work-first’ mentality as an employer but in a hybrid work environment, leaders have to go deeper, Conner says.
“A leader has to gain clarity on the personalities of each team member and their personality and how they communicate with that specific team member. You have to understand each team member’s learning style and make sure you’re communicating, training and connecting with them in a way that helps them feel like they can trust you.”
One tip is to implement personality tests like the Myers and Briggs’ 16 types, Enneagram, DISC, or Holland Cod to assess how to best engage with employees.
Lastly, Conner suggests checking in with yourself, because as a work leader, you can fall victim to urgency culture as well.
“I had to learn to give myself grace in this growth phase,” she said, sharing that the pandemic had brought in a slew of new clients, and while it was great for business, it was highly stressful. “I’m embracing a life of balance for myself and i want that for my team as well. We just have to work at it.”