A year into the pandemic, there’s an epidemic of stress that’s reaching a crisis point. A recent poll from the American Psychological Association showed troubling trends across the board, including worsening mental health, along with physical manifestations of stress, such as unwanted weight changes.

Research from Future Forum has tracked the rising epidemic of stress among knowledge workers. A study of approximately 4,000 knowledge workers globally found that from Q3 to Q4, productivity held relatively steady, increasing by 7%. However, the ability to manage work-related stress and achieve work-life balance both fell by 36%. 

In short, employees are always-on and cranking out work like never before, but they are drowning under the weight of relentless connectivity. They desperately need to unplug.

Many commentators have chosen the easy path of blaming the technology we’ve relied on more than ever during the pandemic. But the current epidemic of stress isn’t the fault of technology. It’s a failure of leadership. Ending this epidemic of stress depends on a fundamental rethinking of the working model leaders ask employees to follow. It depends on giving employees control over their day. 

The Future Forum research shows that knowledge workers who have the ability to design their own flexible working schedule have a 58% higher ability to manage stress and anxiety, 57% better work-life balance, and 53% higher productivity.

And yet for most workers, remote work has been anything but flexible. They’re experiencing an overload of an age-old problem: they’re being asked to work as human routers. Sarah Cooper expertly illustrates this problem visually on her blog.

Knowledge workers are trapped at home on endless rounds of video meetings. There are meetings to update status, meetings to prepare for the status review with the leadership team, and then more meetings to follow-up on action items coming out of the status review. 

The Future Forum study shows that people working remotely are far more likely to feel pressure to keep their manager informed (33% vs 22% for office workers), are working more hours (39% vs 31% for office workers), and feeling like they are in too many unnecessary meetings (49% vs 37% of office-based workers).

So, what’s the solution? It comes down to taking what we’ve learned over the last year to radically rethink working models that embrace flexibility supported by technology.

From “lift and shift” to reinventing work

The Future Forum study shows that people working at companies they consider innovators and early adopters of new technologies have had much greater success adapting to remote work. Their work-life balance and ability to manage stress are better. They are more productive. And they also have a highly positive “sense of belonging” with their remote team – versus the negative experience reported by those working at technology laggards or even “majority adopters.”

How to build Sync, Flow and Control

But technology is just an enabler of the habits, practices, and processes leaders put in place – whether good or bad. Leaders at innovative, early-adopter companies are redefining how teams work to give employees more flexibility while ensuring they use the time together for more meaningful interactions. They’re leveraging technology to achieve better ways to work.

Here are some common ground rules all leaders can adopt:

  • Core Team Hours. Teams that have “bursty” times of rapid interaction create better results. But that doesn’t mean “always-on” – it means times when you are available and collaborating in documents, on Slack or email, or in live conversation. For our team, our “core team hours” are 10am-3pm. 
  • Flexible Maker Time. It doesn’t matter outside those hours when you do your work. It does matter that it works for you and that you get into “flow” – the ability to have sizable chunks of time that are productive and creative. That’s the key to individual productivity. So turn the notifications off and put some headphones on.
  • Clear Expectations. Leaders and teams need to set expectations for escalations and availability, and how you’ll reach out if something is urgent. We set response timeframes (“EOD tomorrow”) for requests, and if it’s truly urgent, the team knows I’ll call them on their phone.

Making this work isn’t easy. You have to kill a lot of meetings and learn to say no to more of them when they pile up. You have to build discipline as a team. As a leader you also have to invert the traditional norms: your schedule has to accommodate your team’s hours, not the other way around.

But the potential to make work more flexible and people more productive and less stressed is fantastic.