Long Hours, Low Morale: The Hidden Toll Of Teleworking
Working remotely has its advantages. But it can also be tricky to manage, as countless people pushed out of their offices by the pandemic are now discovering.
PARIS — Working from home does not always improve employee happiness. In fact, the normalization of telework in this period of pandemic may be having the opposite effect, according to a recent survey by the tech company WorkAnyWhere, which found an "unheard of" drop in employee motivation.
"We are all overwhelmed, just overloaded," says Amélie, a senior manager in a small research and development firm. "We spend all day dealing with pressing issues. I have to block time in my schedule to be able to think."
"Issues that used to be solved in a few minutes through face-to-face interactions now take up an enormous amount of time and energy," she adds. "Usually we solve a lot of things by showing each other the documents, the prototypes. But at home, you first have to send each other an email to say you want to see each other... There are several back and forth exchanges, misunderstandings and conflicts, which must not be allowed to continue, to avoid irreversible damage. What used to take five minutes now takes an hour."
For many employees, teleworking has become synonymous with tension, stress and burnout. After two months, there is already a growing sentiment of mental wear and tear. The number of psychologist hotlines made available to employees has doubled, says Eric Goata, deputy managing director of Eleas, a firm specializing in the prevention of psychosocial risk.
"Employees talk about abandonment, loneliness and cognitive overload due to too much information being processed. It's overwork," he says. "They also cite excessive monitoring by their managers, difficulties cooperating with colleagues and the inability to reconcile private and professional life."
François-Xavier, a technical project manager who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says that teleworking has a compounding effect on toxic behavior. "In the office, managers who need constant monitoring to reassure themselves would simply drop by. But from a distance, it's more complicated to manage," he says. "Today I counted 28 emails from the same manager. Behind a screen, you're in a bit of an all-powerful mode. You're not necessarily aware that it's a burden on the employee's morale to feel spied on all the time."
Monitoring work is the manager's responsibility, but when working from home, this requires mutual trust and autonomy from the employee, which was not previously required. Indeed, teleworking alters normal workplace cooperation mechanisms.
"Deprived of support from their colleagues, those who don't know how to work alone can fall behind," says Eleas' Eric Goata. "They begin to doubt their abilities and feel neglected. On the manager's side, a lack of response or a late response can be interpreted as disengagement. But calling every morning to find out what has been done is harmful."
For Laure, the situation is even more dramatic. A civil service contract worker, she experienced psychological harassment before telework became widespread. Since then, things have gotten worse. She receives urgent requests in the morning, but the files needed to deal with them only arrive in the evening. No one knows about it except her and the person who sends the emails. Her questions remain unanswered and in video conferencing, she feels ignored.
"It's easier to tear someone down remotely," she says.
The safeguards represented by the physical presence of her colleagues are no longer there. But she also doesn't want the risk of working in person. As Goata explains, psychologically fragile people are in a delicate situation because "teleworking can play an important amplifying role."
Firms that have the means to monitor employees closely through regular surveys were quicker to identify problems. "In the beginning, we didn't have the same feedback, at the weekly meetings, from upper as well as lower management. So we set up a survey for employees, who reported isolated cases of people who were overworked, overwhelmed and didn't have time for lunch," says Caroline Arquié, human rights director of SGS France, a certification company with 2,800 employees, 25% of whom work from home.
I've stopped counting my hours.
"They acknowledged efforts on the part of the company but said they were insufficient," she adds. "Every manager now receives the results of the survey in order to respond to the concerns raised anonymously."
The audit firm Mazars took a similar approach and appointed "senior" referees to check the pulse of young teleworking employees who might suffer from a lack of supervision. "The younger the employees are, the more they need to be supervised and guided," says Célica Thellier, co-founder of ChooseMyCompany, the data analysis company that carried out the WorkAnyWhere study. "In teleworking, they feel they are learning less than before. The relationship with the manager lacks spontaneity and frequency."
Yann, a 30-something employee of a large service company, concurs. "I have an older colleague who is a bit of an informal boss," he says. "But since we are remote, I can't manage our communication. I don't know how to contact him. I don't dare call him. I'm online from 8:00 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. but I might only talk to him three times."
The young man explains that in the meantime, he's being asked to take on even more work. "It's been like that for the last two months," he says. "I'm struggling. I've stopped counting my hours, but I'm close to burnout."
The WorkAnyWhere survey, conducted in April and published in early May, found that many workers feel they're not receiving enough recognition for their efforts. Of the 6,500 people polled, 42% said they get less recognition when working from home.
Indeed, in a remote working situation, employees can become invisible, especially newcomers and people who are naturally quiet in team meetings. They can be overlooked for assignments. There are also cases of people taking advantage of the situation to take credit for the work done by others.
Of course, not everyone opposes teleworking. Past surveys showed a high level of satisfaction among remote workers. Perhaps, then, it's a question of just how much time people spend alone, away from the office.
"One or two days a week was good. But now, frankly, I've had enough," says François-Xavier.
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