In the post-pandemic workplace, managers and leaders in all organisations will have to navigate new and difficult situations. In Leaders’ Lessons, a monthly FT series, global executives share insights from their experiences during the pandemic — and their plans for the reset to come.

For this fifth instalment, we asked: How are you going to preserve productivity gains from the crisis while making sure staff don’t burn out?

Tell us about your experiences

Please share your own reflections on this question with other readers in the comments section below. Our intention is that this series will be a reference source for anyone in a leadership role in 2021 and beyond.

Richard Tang, chair and founder of Zen Internet, based in northern England

Since the first lockdown, over 90 per cent of Zen’s people have been home-based, and we have “discovered” that most of the business can run perfectly well with everyone working from home.

The huge reduction in commuting and business travel has also had environmental benefits, and as a B Corp, this is particularly important for us.

The new normal for Zen will centre on choice. Some people will choose to be office-based permanently, and others home-based, but we expect the majority will split their time flexibly between home and office working. Maybe it will end up being a 50/50 split on average — we’ll have to wait and see.

It is this personal choice that we expect will allow us to hold on to productivity gains, and in fact to build upon them, since our people will be able to choose the working preferences that suit them best, within the constraints of what works for the wider team.

Many people at Zen have experienced a better work-life balance over the past year, without the pressure of commuting and that feeling of constantly rushing from one thing to another. People have had a chance to slow down their lives and enjoy the simpler things. For these people, burnout has been less likely than it was prior to the pandemic.

Large-scale homeworking brings with it a greater degree of isolation, and so makes our focus on mental health and wellbeing even more important. Prior to the pandemic, we were already very active in promoting good mental health. During the pandemic, this has been even more important, and its importance will continue as we move into our new normal.

Nathan Sivagananathan, managing partner, Atman Holdings, based in Sri Lanka

Nathan Sivagananathan

Employee burnout was a problem long before the global pandemic, especially in Asia, where we follow a rigid 9-to-5 structure. The prolonged stress and uncertainty created by the pandemic compounds the risk. 

Meetings can be the death of company productivity. We base our decision to have a meeting on what we want to accomplish. If it is a problem-solving meeting, we limit participation to important stakeholders only and if it is status reporting or information sharing, objectives can more effectively be accomplished via a report or email. 

I feel that the typical five-day work week decreases productivity and leads to fatigue and employees feeling overworked. A four-day work week will increase efficiency and provide employees with the flexibility for a better work-life balance. 

The pandemic demonstrated that employee productivity can be maintained off-site, but it has created a situation where some employees thrive while others risk burnout. The lines between work and non-work are blurring in new and unusual ways.

In this unprecedented situation, it was crucial that senior management aided employees in structuring, coordinating, and managing the pace of work. We hold regular virtual check-ins and virtual meetings to determine the pace of work and maintain productivity gains without interruption. 

We understand that employees often feel compelled to project the appearance of productivity while working from home but workload management is key in preventing burnout. I advise my team to prioritise and focus on important tasks over immediate tasks. 

Above all, open communication and empathy to better understand how best we can support our employees has helped us persevere during a challenging year. 

Maya Hari, vice-president of global strategy and operations, Twitter Inc, based in Singapore

Maya Hari

At Twitter, we were progressing towards a distributed and flexible workforce before Covid — and this was further accelerated out of necessity. Our employees are accustomed to using various virtual channels for work and having meetings and employee all-hands events enabled for remote participation. As a global leader based in Singapore, it’s this very system of virtual asynchronous work and mindset that allows me to lead teams across time zones and geographies.

There’s no denying that working from home has increased productivity gains, but we also need to be mindful of the psychological toll of higher work demands. Ultimately, the wellbeing of our employees is what drives everything — our number one priority has been to provide our employees with a deeply connected, highly inclusive company culture that allows them to take care of themselves and keep balance in their lives.

We have launched several new internal initiatives over the past year, from company-wide rest days to flexible working hours for caregivers, counselling and peer-support programmes led by Twitter’s own global wellness team, and financial allowances for boosting wellbeing at home. We use internal surveys to get feedback to improve our policies, and have arranged listening sessions for parents so they can tell us directly what they need for support.

Finally, if our employees decide to return to the office, it will be their choice. If they are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that happen.

Anastasios (Tassos) Economou, founder and MD of the iGroup of companies, based in Monaco, and chair of YPO, a global CEO leadership network

Tassos Economou, also known as Anastasios Economou

During the pandemic we saw an increase in productivity in the beginning and then somewhat of a decline as signs of burnout in part of the team started showing up as working from home blurred the separation of work and personal space.

We are focusing on an HR strategy that allows more flexibility: people to come to the office for a number of days a week and then have the option to work remotely on the remaining days. The aim is to allow for connectivity in person and having focused time so that staff can do their deep work.

We have invested in a digital hub, and trained our teams to use more advanced technological tools. Those in the office can communicate seamlessly with those not there in person and everyone feels connected.

We restrict the distribution of emails in the evenings to reduce the human tendency to check our inbox. I am a firm believer that leaders should lead by example and, with that in mind, I don’t send email responses over the weekend. It’s vital to signal the importance of down time. 

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