By Andreas Schumacher, PhD, PCC
Ever since the arrival of telecommuting in 1972, the arrangement of “working from home” has been assessed through two different lenses. Most often reserved for upper and more senior management, those eligible saw it as a negotiation point and an added fringe benefit of their position. Additionally, the added flexibility, reduced disruptions, and greater control over the workday was viewed by many as an effective approach to producing their best work. For those not eligible, these arrangements predominantly evoked skeptical scoffs about what and how much work was actually being done at home. While the lenses were different, one aspect was shared by both participants and onlookers: everybody wanted to enjoy such freedom.
Since 2020, these outlooks have changed. In response to the pandemic, a substantial portion of the global workforce was tasked to leave their office spaces, colleagues, and associated social interactions behind to set up shop at home. The former “perk” became a day-to-day routine, with new challenges to work-life balance and definitions of what constituted work performance, acceptable outputs, and efficiencies. Naturally, with routine, an individual’s level of flourishing is expected to diminish over time. While careful discussions on bringing employees back to their work campuses have started, for many of them, the future of work will revolve around hybrid in-office, predominantly offsite arrangements, creating yet another phenomenon for leaders to deal with: The languishing of a hybrid workforce.
According to psychologist Adam Grant (2021), languishing is a feeling of apathy, a sort of “showing up for life but never really participating in it with purpose.” It is the loss of identity that creates a “going through the motions” approach. As one of my clients recently stated, “Yeah, I’m working, attending the meetings, smiling for the Zoom camera, and I guess I’m arriving somewhere… but not here.” A very profound way, I believe, of stating what we all experience: a somewhat static state of waiting for something to happen without a real goalpost to aim for. Apart from the psychological risks of prolonged languishing (e.g., research in young adults has shown the effects to include prevailing life dissatisfaction, transition into sadness, depression, and even suicide), the risks to creativity, innovation and overall sustaining competitive advantages are worth considering. So how do leaders engage their virtual colleagues in a way that helps them walk back from languishing? Here are three themes recently explored with clients in the healthcare space.
This is why you matter:
If you think you thanked them, thank them again.
In our coaching discussion we began by asking, “What are you most thankful for about having your employee on your team? If you were to personalize a thank-you card, what is it they do that you don’t want to live without? How do you connect this essential attribute of your team member to the purpose or values they are trying to rediscover? Amidst all the change, what makes them and ONLY them uniquely important to the mission or vision of your organization?”
Upon reflection, the leader decided to dedicate 10 min of each staff meeting to a voluntary roundtable for team members to recognize and express their thanks and appreciation for other team members.
You don’t need to wait anymore to arrive.
You are already here.
Combatting languishing includes creating a feeling of connectedness to both a higher order (mission) and a social reference group (colleagues, friends, etc.). As coaches, we can help leaders explore ideas on increasing the sense of community. For this, leaders need to first define community not as a shared geographical space, but a space within which ideas flow, all voices are being heard, and everybody shares the common reality of being connected to a jointly desired outcome that is meaningful to everybody. As Antione de Saint Exupery said, “It is not about gazing at each other in awe, but to look together in the same direction.” In other words: regain energy by focusing on what is the same, and less on what is not.
A possible approach here is to create a cadence of “what’s on your mind” meetings in which the leader and team members meet up in random selection to give kudos, share stories, “life hacks,” or seek advice on challenges that are essentially common to everybody’s new work/life reality.
Keeping busy is not creating purpose.
Delegate with care.
Leaders in coaching realized that the coping mechanism of shutting out your brain by taking on more work, extracurricular activities, or simply creating greater diversity in projects is not creating purpose. It creates the opposite, because when you are already questioning why you are doing what you are doing every day, wouldn’t piling more on top of that not only amplify but possibly even exacerbate such thoughts? Instead, leaders need to help languishing employees carve out time for rediscovering ways to connect their passion with their values. Coaching conversations at all levels could include, for example, “How much are you leading with the understanding that ‘work from home’ is not geographically taxing, but it is taxing psychologically, physiologically, and often even spiritually? How do we acknowledge that shifting to this new reality is not a simple ‘Keep the goals the same, the only thing that changed is that we don’t see each other in person?’ How does a core principle of leadership — caring for the people in your stewardship — need to affect the type and degree of delegation and expectations?”
One outcome here was to implement “No Meeting Wednesdays,” giving employees a Zoom-free day without any meeting obligations. Initial anecdotal responses suggest a positive impact on burnout and will need to be further observed.
All of this is to say that the fallout of the pandemic will likely be with us for the foreseeable future, requiring coaches and other helping professionals to assist clients in not only helping people cope, but stewarding them towards a rediscovery of purpose and meaning so that “hybriding” does not become “hibernation.” Perhaps that is another, new determinant of effective leadership.
To learn more about how executive coaching can help you develop and strengthen your leadership skills, and move your teams from languishing to thriving, schedule a consultation with Andy.