Credit: Courtesy Stefanie Tignor

I’ve been thinking about the recent survey where researchers asked CEOs to rate the stress of their employees on a scale of 1-10 and the average score was 9.1. People are burned out. But how can you best address this? 

I recently reached out to Humu, a company co-founded by former Google people operations head Laszlo Bock. Humu uses artificial intelligence to analyze its client companies’ employee surveys and then give individuals in the organization “nudges,” or small things they can do to contribute to improving things. 

There’s more on how Humu works here. But I was most interested in what the data about the state of its clients’ workforces were saying, and what measures seemed to be making a difference. To understand that, I recently spoke with Stefanie Tignor, Humu’s head of data science and insights. Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity:

What are you seeing in the workforce today?

If you look back to the beginning of the pandemic and folks just starting to work from home, our nudges allowed them to personalize what they’d like to work on. They can actually tell us: I really want support with this topic, I really want support with inclusion or with feeling more connected to my company’s mission and purpose. We solicit that input from folks as well as what they’re feeling maybe more negatively about, what they’re not seeing progress in. And one of the interesting things is that right at the beginning of the pandemic, we saw a lot of folks asking for help with remote work. Just collaborating and understanding how to work together in this new environment, as well as social connection—all of a sudden, you’re not seeing everyone every day, so how can I feel connected to my colleagues?—was really the big theme at the beginning of the pandemic. What’s interesting is as we move over time, the thing that we now start to really see resonating is burnout, is inability to disconnect from work, and just this general sense of exhaustion.

There’s still a little bit of that ‘How can I better communicate remotely?’ and feel belonging, but really it’s much more about the stress, the burnout, those types of things—because, you know, I’m dreading the one-year anniversary of a remote work but it’s been almost one year. So at this point, folks have figured out rhythms for communicating with their colleagues. Maybe not perfectly—they still need help—but folks have figured out how to muddle through, even if they had never worked remotely previously. But now it’s the day-to-day of every single day looking exactly the same sitting at your dining room table. Eating all of my meals and doing all my work in the same exact space and having the same exact view every day is really a recipe for burnout. We’re seeing that a lot. Particularly that inability to disconnect from work, to know when I can have a ritual where it’s the end of my workday and to actually mark that in some way.

How intense are the signals that you’re seeing? Is this a five-alarm fire for the managers and leaders of these companies?

Yes, I would say so. Of course it varies by the situation; I don’t want to make it seem like it’s the case everywhere, because that’s not true. But it is certainly definitely something that leaders and managers should be paying attention to. What’s interesting is that we see that coupled with really high retention numbers right now because of economic situations, because people don’t want to start a new job remotely, because people are worried about their own company’s future. Maybe they’re worried about moving somewhere new and then being the first in and the first out, if something happens economically again, due to the pandemic. That’s especially important and why I say it’s—maybe not a five-alarm fire, but it’s sort of right in your face.

But the problem is that if you have these really high levels of stress and burnout, coupled with really high retention numbers, because people feel like they can’t leave, then the next thing is people start to get a sense of more stability, whatever that means. The second we see that, people will be out the door because they will just be so emotionally exhausted from their current jobs. And so I predict, given the data that I’ve seen, that we’re going to see massive job turnover in the future when folks are returning to offices because people have just been sad; they’ve had his building sense of burnout, but actually haven’t been able to do anything about it.

Are the alarms flashing more in certain areas, such as specific job roles, seniority in an organization, or gender or ethnic background?

Definitely. In terms of job roles, we see that there are some jobs right now that are just on the front lines of Covid response. Think about telecom—you might not immediately think of it, but phone and internet services are so essential right now, that is how people connect with their families. That’s how people get their work done. It’s about your livelihood at this point, your internet connection and your phone connection, and so on. And so those folks are really dealing with a pretty high-stress situation. Anyone who’s providing an essential service for the world to function right now, we’ve seen that heightened increase in burnout in those groups in particular. What’s also interesting, though, is we are seeing that those folks also have the highest potential for feeling mission and meaning in their work right now, because they are literally connecting to the world in the case of telecom or in the case of life sciences, maybe developing therapeutics or vaccines, or doing testing, or any of those types of things. Though the burnout is incredibly high, the successful organizations may meet that head-on with a sense of mission and purpose. That can be a really effective treatment for that burnout in those industries.

Do your data give you any read on how managers are performing? Are managers struggling or are there any particular areas where they’re falling short?

We see that a lot that managers right now are struggling. One of the things that we’re seeing that has really been an outstanding need for managers in particular, is creating new norms to communicate more effectively. And then additionally, it’s making goal clarity our priority; specifically, not just what I have to do right now, but connecting that to the big picture and sort of overall mission as being really crucial and something that managers are struggling with during work from home. That’s because everything in this situation right now is very much—every day seems like a good change. It could be a new thing. So people, even if they have goal clarity for their individual days, are starting to lose connection with that broader sense of company mission and starting to understand: where am I going to be in three months? Where is my work going? Is this still the case? That is one of the things that we’re seeing in particular managers can struggle with right now, but also that managers are actually most well-poised to help with. We’ve seen really effective results from nudges especially on those items.

What’s the state of communication now? Are you seeing improvement, and what does that look like?

I can say that we’re seeing improvement, but only when managers make an effort. We’ve done some experiments where we give people nudges as compared to not receiving nudges, and we’ve shown that nudges cause a significant increase in ability to communicate effectively and communicate with empathy among managers right now during work from home. That is really sort of essential. And bringing it back to what you asked about—is it improving? People are getting used to it and they’re doing it more regularly, but not necessarily more effectively. So people are used to the tools now and they’re able to use them; maybe they hadn’t used Slack that much previously, and now they’re communicating in bursty communications. People talk a lot about bursty communication while working remotely, which means giving real-time updates and connecting people to your status. People might be doing that more, but not necessarily zeroing in on exactly what their teams need to create that effective end result of better communication.

Can you explain that?

Maybe people have gotten used to the channels, and so they understand—we’re going to Zoom, we’re comfortable with Zoom now. So we’ve switched our weekly syncs to zoom, but am I actually having effective communication in my Zoom meetings? That is still something that people are struggling with and can actually get worse over time unless something’s been done about it.

What are the primary levers that you’re focusing on in this moment? What are the things that people can prioritize to address what’s happening?

Burnout and sustainable work habits are the number one priority right now. If I knew nothing about an organization, I would bet on sustainable work habits as being their number one need right now, just because it’s such a universal problem at the moment. Some of the things that folks can do to help mitigate this are, for example, creating very strong norms about off-hours communication. This has become increasingly difficult with the rise of technology, even before work from home. But with folks being able to reach you at any time now, it’s even more so the case. When you’re always in your home, you’re always right next to your work laptop, you’re not necessarily out to dinner with friends or these doing these other activities to separate you. So you are all the more reachable, and you all the more think that you should be working all the time.

Some really effective norms that folks can create are limiting communication hours, snoozing notifications, taking Slack off your phone if you use Slack, or taking your work email off your phone, since you probably won’t be far from your work computer these days. Importantly, a lot of this is it has to be reinforced from the top. It has to be reinforced from leadership and managers because individual contributors or folks, maybe now the senior folks within the organization, if they try to disconnect but then leaders are pulling them into things constantly—that disrupts it. People can’t go at it alone. That’s a big philosophy behind our nudges as well, not just saying ‘let me just give you some advice and then see if you do it’, but actually can we create new norms by nudging people as a system to say we’re all going to work on this together. And that’s really when we find it to be most effective.

Are there other examples of best practices to deal with something like burnout?

Absolutely. Another example of a way to reduce burnout is to create rituals within your day. We’ve lost a lot of rituals due to this pandemic and associated quarantine. I’m not going to give that classic advice of ‘change out of sweatpants’, but you’re rolling out of bed and getting to your computer. I used to have an hour-long commute, both ways, and I’d walk from the train and I listened to a podcast and have my coffee and then get on the train. That was really just a signal that my day is starting. Then I would have that in reverse in a signal that my day is ending. And now we just don’t have those rituals. Anything you can do to create that ritual—so for example, maybe you’ll have a specific cup of tea at the end of each day. And that cup of tea signals, it is time to stop working. There’s actually some folks that do that, literally say my day is over and shut the computer, which might be a little embarrassing. You might be shy to do that in your apartment, but saying a phrase at the end of every day and then committing to that can really help to make you feel like you have control over your time again, because I think that’s the huge issue. People don’t feel like they have control over their time, because you’re living where you’re working and you’re working where you’re living, at least for folks fortunate and privileged enough to be able to work from home. And I should clarify that everything I’m saying assumes we’re talking about folks who are able to work remotely.

I had a colleague once who was working from home prior to the pandemic and he had a hat that he would put on when he was working and when he was not working, he’d take it off. That was a way, both to himself and to his family, to say when he was on or off duty.

What are other examples of levers?

The other thing that I mentioned is this goal clarity concept, and specifically communicating the future plan for the team. We’re seeing that, even if you were okay at that previously as a manager, it can take a huge nose dive because everything feels so uncertain. Everything’s churning all the time. Some examples of goal clarity that I really like, and some nudges that we have to address this—one example is rallying your team around a short-term mission. Maybe you’ll develop a one-month mission. And you’ll say for the next month, this is the mission of our team. This is what we’re striving toward. This is the one key objective, and that can help sort of in this frantic time when everything feels out of control, and you’re not sure what’s going on, you’re not sure what other people are working on. Do we have just this touchstone that we can all as a team come back to, to make sure that our work is contributing and that it’s meaningful.

Are there any specific levers for improving the quality of communications?

Another piece of advice that I would give is communicate more frequently about short updates. It’s really easy for folks working remotely to retreat and maybe work on a project for a week and then resurface. Then, all of a sudden, that project could be completely wrong and you could have duplicated someone’s work. So the more that you can advertise really publicly to your colleagues what you’re working on, which just has so many added benefits–even just being able to communicate that and have people know what you’re working on can be great for recognition as well, but also you can prevent folks from pulling other directions.

If folks are working on teams and in a project-based environment, you could have a daily asynchronous stand-up. You could say on the Slack channel every morning, here’s a thread, just tell everybody what you’re working on today. That can be a really effective use of time. Also, importantly, not over-relying on meetings. This is actually a trend that I’ve noticed as well, is that at now that we’re all getting used to Zoom, a lot of organizations are facing a real increase in the number of Zoom meetings that they’re having. People are getting this Zoom meeting overload because folks are just defaulting to it for everything. There are way fewer barriers to setting up a Zoom meeting than to find a conference room. It’s better the more that we can kind of question, does this need to be a Zoom meeting? Or can we actually do some asynchronous communication via mediums like Slack or email—that can help us out a lot.

Presumably you’re also seeing data about the intensity of people’s needs around diversity, equity, and inclusion. What are the signals you’re getting now?

At Humu, a thing that has always been a part of our culture models and always essential is our focus on diversity and inclusion, and on making sure that you can’t have a good culture without having an inclusive and equitable workplace; that’s built into our models, but it has been exciting and interesting to see. I just hope the momentum continues that we’ve seen: a lot of demand for more content about allyship in the workplace. After the events of the summer, folks in the United States are having these renewed awareness of different diversity and inclusion priorities in their lives and in their worlds, and that translates into the workplace. we do see an increased desire for that. So people want to know what they can do to take action, to be a better ally in the workplace—folks from majority groups.

And so we’ve seen a huge increase for that type of content, which is really exciting. The key is just making it sustainable. Given the events of the summer, obviously there was this huge groundswell of interest, and that is really great, but what actually makes notable change is that sustained progress. We want to make sure that folks take action in small ways every single day to not just be a good ally for a month or two, but every week in their job. How can they maintain that and continue to support that? That’s something that nudges can be really powerful with as well, to keep you on track.

Employee surveys show that there’s a lot of interest in having more feedback. Are there any practices that you’re encouraging around feedback right now?

Absolutely. We’ve seen an increase in demand for that as well, because a lot of organizations paused their official performance reviews and things like that. At the beginning of the pandemic, folks weren’t really concentrated on that. It was more about survival mode. Now people are saying, wait a minute, I’ve been working by myself. I have no idea if I’m doing a good job, I’m really hungry for this feedback, and so we’ve seen a huge demand for that. We do have a nudge track specifically about feedback and giving effective feedback. Those have been quite popular.

One of the things that is important is to try to have explicit feedback conversations. I think a lot of folks try to weave the feedback into the day-to-day and don’t make explicit space for it. That creates two problems. Number one, it creates the problem where folks getting the feedback don’t recognize it as feedback. We encourage managers to be way too explicit, more explicit than you think you have to be—to say, ‘I am about to give you a piece of feedback. This is feedback for you.’ Really explicitly stating that, because there’s a lot of research that shows that sometimes managers are uncomfortable giving critical or constructive feedback, and then they couch their language so much, they sort of hedge, that the employee doesn’t actually even hear it as feedback.

That’s a really sad thing because then they never get to improve. They have no idea. You’re saying ‘I gave them this feedback’ as the manager, but actually they didn’t even hear it. So being really explicitly and saying ‘I have a piece of feedback for you,’ and then doing that at a regular cadence and not just trying to wait for the moments to pop up though. Of course, real-time feedback is great too, but scheduling—for example, we have a nudge to schedule regular feedback sessions with your team and talk to your team members about how often they want feedback and have space divided specifically for that. And if at the end, it’s a 30-minute meeting, if you don’t have any feedback for them, or they don’t have any feedback for you, then you can end the meeting early. But creating that space makes it known that it’s a safe space.

The best way to create a culture of feedback is to remember that anyone can provide valuable feedback to anyone at the organization. It is not the case that managers should just be giving their direct reports feedback. Direct reports often have really valuable feedback for their managers as well. Sometimes when we talk about feedback, folks zoom in on, ‘Oh, well, of course, that’s the thing that my manager does for me.’ But managers also can get incredibly valuable feedback from their direct reports. We see that in our manager effectiveness products, that they can really open their eyes to things that they didn’t even realize they were maybe not as great at as they thought they were. Providing that feedback both ways is just really valuable, number one, but number two it creates a culture of feedback where then feedback doesn’t become so scary.

You’re looking at the data across different companies and seeing where employees are at and seeing what nudges are working. If you’re going into a new company as a manager, what are the top things that you want to make sure you get right?

The top two things would be that your people right now are incredibly burned out, most likely number one. And number two is to keep them going. They have to feel like they’re contributing to something beyond just their daily tasks. So coming in as a new manager getting right, number one, that sense of empathy and understanding of folks’ psychological situations, of their exhaustion, particularly if they have kids at home and they’ve been at home with them maybe for months and months, and they don’t have childcare—empathy for all those situations and understanding the level of burnout that is likely persistent at any organization. Then number two, if you’re coming into an organization as a new manager, understand very clearly where the organization is going in terms of its goals and its mission in the near range. Again, in that three-month range, where are we going? What are our goals right now? What are our long-term goals as well? We’ve seen in the data that people are feeling pretty adrift and feel like their work has become increasingly isolated. So the more that you can be a force of empathy and be a force of unity, rallying around common goals, those would be the top things that I would say for any new manager at an organization to do.

The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive our briefings by email.