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Managers, What Are You Doing About Change Exhaustion?

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How can leaders help their teams combat change exhaustion — or step out of its clutches? Too often, organizations simply encourage their employees to be resilient, placing the burden of finding ways to feel better solely on individuals. Leaders need to recognize that change exhaustion is not an individual issue, but a collective one that needs to be addressed at the team or organization level. First, pause to acknowledge when a significant change is happening, and the discomfort that comes with it. Second, adopt a learning mindset and model for your team that it’s normal to be continuously evolving, especially in the face of ongoing uncertainty. Third, make plans, but accept that you and your team will likely deviate from them. Lastly, invest in simple rituals that the team can do together to reduce stress.

Re-orgs, leadership transitions, new technologies. Pre-Covid, many employees already were experiencing change fatigue, defined as feeling apathetic towards or overwhelmed by too many organizational changes in a row.

When Covid hit, everything changed. We remember a tweet from digital health consultant Simon Terry that resonated with us: “Change fatigue. Resilience fatigue. Agility fatigue. WFH fatigue. Video-conference fatigue. Online schooling fatigue. Restriction fatigue. Conflict fatigue. Fatigue fatigue. 2020 – the international year of fatigue.” The heightened level of uncertainty in both our work and home lives pushed many of us into change exhaustion. Gartner found that employees’ ability to cope with change in 2020 was at 50% of pre-pandemic levels.

How can leaders help their teams combat change exhaustion — or step out of its clutches? Too often, organizations simply encourage their employees to be resilient, placing the burden of finding ways to feel better solely on individuals. Leaders need to recognize that change exhaustion is not an individual issue, but a collective one that needs to be addressed at the team or organization level.

Based on research we did for our book Big Feelings, here are four practices leaders can use to help their team or organization collectively combat change exhaustion.

Pause to acknowledge change, and the discomfort that comes with it.

Navigating uncertainty requires that we push back against our natural impulse to run from discomfort. When faced with anxiety, we tend to immediately jump into action-mode. Psychologists call this “anxious fixing,” and it doesn’t help us, or the people around us. Rather than addressing the root cause of our anxiety, we work ourselves into exhaustion trying to find immediate relief.

Say a team is changing its return-to-office plan. If you’re a leader, you may react by trying to drum up excitement and send a flurry of emails with new dates and timelines, without stopping to acknowledge the emotional toll the shift might be taking on your people. Chances are your team is weary of new announcements and another plan for coming back to the office. Make it a priority to set aside time in an upcoming meeting for people to share their feelings, voice concerns, and ask questions.

This practice can be helpful outside of Covid-related uncertainty, like when someone joins the team. Gartner’s study found that smaller scale, personal changes — getting assigned to a new manager or moving to a new team — were 2.5 times more fatiguing than larger transformational changes like mergers or acquisitions. But how often do leaders pause when changing team assignments and give voice to the discomfort that employees may feel from these changes? We recommend having an employee’s former manager meet with both the employee and the employee’s new manager to  talk through the details of the change, acknowledge the anxiety the employee may be feeling, and create space for the employee to share their emotions and ask questions.

Adopt the mantra, “I am a person who is learning _______.”

Sitting with uncertainty helps us confront the fact that we don’t have all the answers. Of course, that can be frightening, especially if you’re someone who likes to feel in control. To help yourself and your team shift from anxiety to a growth mindset, reframe the situation. When we tell ourselves, “I am a person learning to ______” versus “I can’t do this” or “I need to have this all figured out already,” we start to see ourselves as empowered agents of change.

Here are a few examples of how you can reframe the not knowing:

  • Instead of “I don’t know enough to manage people in a remote environment. I can’t do this,” tell yourself, “I’m learning to be a great manager in a remote environment.”
  • Instead of “I’m a nervous wreck about doing in-person presentations again” tell yourself, “I’m learning how to present in front of live audiences again.”

We recommend doing this as an exercise with your team by asking them to fill in the phrase, “I am a person learning to____” or “We are a team learning to _____.” It can be helpful to hear what others are navigating, so individual team members feel less alone and can more easily support each other. It can also be useful to better understand each person’s comfort level with uncertainty. (You can take our uncertainty tolerance assessment here.) If you know everyone on your team prefers to avoid uncertainty, for example, you can take extra steps to ensure that everyone understands the path forward.

Make a plan from which you will deviate.

In the face of uncertainty, we have to work extra hard to figure out what we should do next. Our brains are hardwired to recognize patterns. When confronted with a known challenge (e.g. filling out a quarterly report), we can simply think, “Here’s how I did this last time. I’ll do that again.”

Uncertainty breaks that mechanism. “You feel you have to pay closer attention to everything that’s going on, because you’re not confident about what you should do,” psychologist Dr. Molly Sands told us. “That’s why uncertainty is so exhausting.”

That’s also why it’s easy to get stuck in analysis paralysis: our minds are swamped as they zig and zag through a million future possibilities. So how can you figure out a path forward under these circumstances?

At NASA, Dr. Laura Gallaher told us, teams refer to plans as “Plans from which we deviate.” Dr. Gallaher explained, “The benefit of planning is doing the thinking around what we will do when something happens. The value is in the process and the journey, not in the specific agenda.” In other words, the key is to plan, but not see our plans as set in stone. Instead, view them as reassurance that we’re prepared to face what comes next.

We recommend using similar language with your teams. By adopting a more flexible mindset while planning, you can help your people get less frustrated when things inevitably shift and be more willing to see the journey as a learning experience.

Invest in rituals.

Studies show that rituals or habits can go a long way towards reducing our stress levels during times of uncertainty. In fact, researchers have found that it doesn’t even matter what the ritual is. Simply doing the same thing at the same time can improve our mental health. Don’t believe us? That’s okay, studies have also proven that rituals help people feel better, even when they don’t believe that rituals work!

It can be hard to stick to rituals as an individual within a larger organization. We’ve often added meditation or lunch breaks to our calendars, only to have another meeting scheduled over them or to find ourselves unable to tear ourselves away from our constantly pinging inboxes.

Organizational consultant Amy Bonsall, who helps organizations collectively achieve well-being, suggests teams ask: How can we incorporate rituals as part of our days? Bonsall says it doesn’t matter what specifically teams do, as long as it is collective and centers on what matters most to that team (for example: energy boosting, creativity, or connection). She suggests starting each meeting with a short centering practice, like collectively closing your eyes and breathing for a minute. Or doing a daily 15-minute stand up where everyone shares something that is inspiring them.

There is no doubt that uncertainty is anxiety-inducing. The key is to not let employees struggle alone, but to collectively acknowledge and address the challenges. With the right tools, you can help your team gain confidence in your ability to better handle whatever comes next together — whether that means establishing a “plan from which you’ll deviate” or putting into practice a few new rituals (even if you don’t believe in them).

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Six Office Remodels That Will Help Improve Work Culture

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The physical space of an office plays a significant role in creating a positive or negative work culture. When your team members love coming to the office, it shows in their attitudes and overall job satisfaction. Thankfully, by researching a few key remodels, like floor plans, furniture, and LVT flooring reviews, you can create an inviting and inspiring space for your staff.

1. Open Floor Plans

One of the most popular remodeling trends is to ditch the traditional cubicle layout in favor of an open floor plan.

An open floor plan typically means no physical barriers between employees. This can help to encourage communication and collaboration, as employees can easily talk to one another. It can also make the office feel more relaxed and informal, which many prefer.

The downside to an open floor plan is that it can sometimes be too noisy and chaotic. If you opt for this type of remodel, make sure you have ample sound-dampening materials to help keep the noise level down.

2. Private Offices

If you prefer more privacy in your office space, then private offices might be the way to go.

Private offices are small, enclosed spaces that can be used for individual work or meetings with clients or employees. They offer more privacy than an open floor plan but allow for more collaboration since people can easily meet in a small space.

They can sometimes feel too isolating, so make sure you have plenty of other areas in your office where employees can socialize and collaborate.

3. Breakout Areas

Breakout areas are another popular office remodeling trend. These are usually informal and comfortable areas where employees can take a break from work, relax, and socialize. They can include couches, TVs, games, and other fun activities. They’re a great way to support staff, especially if you work in a stressful industry.

Breakout areas can also be used for collaboration, so if you have the space, you may want to consider creating a few different ones. For example, you could have a quiet area for individual work and a more lively area for group projects.

Ergonomics

4. Ergonomic Furniture

Ergonomic furniture is designed to be comfortable and supportive. It can help to reduce strain on the body and improve posture. This type of furniture is becoming increasingly popular in offices, as it can help to improve employee health and productivity.

If you’re considering an ergonomic office remodel, talk to a professional about the best way to implement it. You’ll want to ensure that all your employees have access to comfortable and supportive furniture.

5. Updated Flooring

Updating your office’s flooring is another excellent way to improve its look and feel. Replacing your current flooring can make a big difference if your existing flooring is dated or damaged.

There are many different types of flooring to choose from, so you’ll want to consider your options carefully by researching multiple carpeting and LVT flooring reviews. You should also consider how easy the flooring will be to clean and maintain.

6. Better Lighting

Poor lighting can cause various problems, including eye strain, headaches, and fatigue. If your office has fluorescent lighting, you may want to consider replacing it.

LED lighting is a great choice for office spaces because it’s natural and inviting. It also provides better light distribution, so everyone in the office can see clearly. LED lighting is also energy-efficient, so it can help save you money in the long run.

Colleagues in an office space
photo credit: Kindel Media / Pexels

Final Thoughts

These are just a few of the many office remodeling trends that you may want to consider. Updating your office can create a more enjoyable and productive workplace for your employees.

Research what would work best for your business, and check out all of the furniture, lighting, and LVT flooring reviews you can find before making any final decisions. Your employees will be happy you made the investment and will enjoy spending time in the office.

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Rekindling a Sense of Community at Work

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For decades, we’ve been living lonelier, more isolated lives. As our social connectedness has decreased, so has our happiness and mental health. And with more aspects of our lives becoming digital, it has reduced our opportunities for everyday social interaction. The nature of our work, in particular, has shifted.

In 2014, Christine and Energy Project CEO Tony Schwartz partnered to learn more about what stands in the way of being more productive and satisfied at work. One of the more surprising findings was that 65% of people didn’t feel any sense of community at work.

That seemed costly (and sad!), motivating Christine to write Mastering Community, since lonelier workers report lower job satisfaction, fewer promotions, more frequent job switching, and a higher likelihood of quitting their current job in the next six months. Lonelier employees also tend to perform worse.

During the pandemic, many of us became even more isolated. Community, which we define as a group of individuals who share a mutual concern for one another’s welfare, has proven challenging to cultivate, especially for those working virtually. To learn more, we conducted a survey with the Conference for Women in which we asked nearly 1,500 participants about their sense of community at work before and since the pandemic and found it has declined 37%. When people had a sense of community at work, we found that they were 58% more likely to thrive at work, 55% more engaged, and 66% more likely to stay with their organization. They experienced significantly less stress and were far more likely to thrive outside of work, too.

People can create community in many ways, and preferences may differ depending on their backgrounds and interests. Here are several ways companies have successfully built a sense of community at work that leaders can consider emulating at their own organizations.

Create mutual learning opportunities.

After creating an internal university for training years ago, Motley Fool, the stock advisor company, realized that the teachers got even more out of it than the students. The feedback led to a vibrant coaching program in which about 10% of employees act as a coach to other employees. For many, being a coach is a favorite part of their job. Chief People Officer Lee Burbage said, “When you think of progress and growth in a career, your mind tends to stay boxed into ‘What is my current role? What am I doing?’…we really try to encourage side projects…taking on a teaching role, taking on a coaching role, being a leader in one of our ERGs, that sort of thing.”

Burbage went on to describe how the company helped foster a sense of community by enabling employees to learn from one another in a less formal way:

We’ve had incredible fun and incredible effectiveness going out to [employees] and saying, “Hey, is anybody really good at something and would be interested in teaching others?” All it takes is for them to set up a Zoom call. We’ve had everything from DJ class to butchering class. How to make drinks, how to sew. Tapping into your employees and skills they may already have that they’d be excited to teach others, especially in the virtual world, that makes for a great class and creates an opportunity again for them to progress and grow and meet new people.

Tap into the power of nostalgia.

Research suggests that shared memories from past positive events and accomplishments, such as birthday dinners, anniversaries, retreats, or weekend trips, endure and can help sustain morale. Nostalgia can help counteract anxiety and loneliness, encourage people to act more generously toward one another, and increase resilience. Research has also shown that when people engage in nostalgia for a few minutes before the start of their workday, they’re better at coping with work stresses.

Come up with ways to bring employees together for memorable events outside of work. Christine recently spoke at the law firm Jones Walker’s anniversary leadership celebration offsite. After meetings, we headed to the Washington Nationals ballpark, where we toured the field, feasted on ballpark favorites, and had the opportunity to take batting practice.

Eat or cook together.

In 2015, Jeremy Andrus, who took over Traeger Grills as CEO in 2014, decided to reboot a toxic culture and moved the corporate headquarters to Utah. There, Andrus worked to create a positive physical environment for his employees. As part of that, employees cooked breakfast together every Monday morning and lunch Tuesday through Friday. As he put it, “Preparing food for and with colleagues is a way of showing we care about one another.” According to pulse surveys in 2020, Traeger Grills employees rated the culture a nine out of 10 on average, with 91% reporting a feeling of connection to the company’s vision, mission, and values.

Cooking and eating together isn’t just a community builder. Researchers conducted interviews at 13 firehouses, then followed up by surveying 395 supervisors. They found that eating together had a positive effect on job performance. The benefits were likely reinforced by the cooperative behaviors underlying the firefighters’ meal practices: collecting money, shopping, menu planning, cooking, and cleaning. Taken together, all these shared activities resulted in stronger job performance.

Find ways to bring employees together over a meal. For example, invite the team to a lunch of takeout food in a conference room, or organize a walk to a nearby restaurant for a brainstorming session or a chance to socialize. You could also ask team members to cook an elaborate meal together at an offsite as a means of figuring out how to work collaboratively on something outside of their usual range.

Plug into your local community.

Kim Malek, the cofounder of ice cream company Salt & Straw, forges a sense of meaning and connectedness among employees, customers, and beyond to the larger communities in which her shops are located. From the beginning, Kim and her cousin and cofounder, Tyler Malek, “turned to their community, asking friends — chefs, chocolatiers, brewers, and farmers — for advice, finding inspiration everywhere they looked.”

Kim and Tyler worked with the Oregon Innovation Center, a partnership between Oregon State University and the Department of Agriculture, to help companies support the local food industry and farmers. Kim Malek told Christine that every single ice cream flavor on their menu “had a person behind it that we worked with and whose story we could tell. So that feeling of community came through in the actual ice cream you were eating.”

On the people side, Salt & Straw partners with local community groups Emerging Leaders, an organization that places BIPOC students into paid internships, and The Women’s Justice Project (WJP), a program in Oregon that helps formerly incarcerated women rejoin their communities. They also work with DPI Staffing to create job opportunities for people with barriers like disabilities and criminal records, and have hired 10 people as part of that program.

In partnership with local schools, Salt & Straw holds an annual “student inventors series” where children are invited to invent a new flavor of ice cream. The winner not only has their ice cream produced, but they read it to their school at an assembly, and the entire school gets free ice cream. This past year, Salt & Straw held a “rad readers” series and invited kids to submit their wildest stories attached to a proposed ice cream flavor. Salt & Straw looks for ways like this to embed themselves in and engage with the community to help people thrive. It creates meaning for their own community while also lifting up others.

Create virtual shared experiences.

Develop ways for your people to connect through shared experiences, even if they’re working virtually. Sanjay Amin, head of YouTube Music + Premium Subscription Partnerships at YouTube, will share personal stories, suggest the team listen to the same album, or try one recipe together. It varies and is voluntary. He told Christine he tries to set the tone by being “an open book” and showing his human side through vulnerability. Amin has also sent his team members a “deep question card” the day before a team meeting. It’s completely optional but allows people to speak up and share their thoughts, experiences, and feelings in response to a deep question — for example:

  • If you could give everyone the same superpower, which superpower would you choose?
  • What life lesson do you wish everyone was taught in school?

He told Christine, “Fun, playful questions like these give us each a chance to go deep quickly and understand how we uniquely view the world” and that people recognized a shared humanity and bonding.

EXOS, a coaching company, has a new program, the Game Changer, that’s a six-week experience designed to get people to rethink what it means to sustain performance and career success in the long run. Vice President Ryan Kaps told Christine, “Work is never going back to the way it was. We saw an opportunity to help people not only survive, but thrive.”

In the Game Changer, members are guided by an EXOS performance coach and industry experts to address barriers that may be holding them back from reaching their highest potential at work or in life. Members learn science-backed strategies that deepen their curiosity, awaken their creativity, and help sustain energy and focus. The program structure combines weekly individual self-led challenges and live virtual team-based huddles and accountability, which provide community and support. People who’ve completed the Game Changer call it “transformative,” with 70% of participants saying they’re less stressed and 91% reporting that it “reignited their passion and purpose.” 

Make rest and renewal a team effort.

Burnout is rampant and has surged during the pandemic. In our recent survey, we found that only 10% of respondents take a break daily, 50% take breaks just once or twice a week, and 22% report never taking breaks. Distancing from technology is particularly challenging, with a mere 8% of respondents reporting that they unplug from all technology daily. Consider what you can do to focus on recovery, together.

Tony Schwartz told Christine about the work his group did with a team from accounting firm Ernst and Young. In 2018, this team had been working on a particularly challenging project during the busy season, the result being that the team members became so exhausted and demoralized that a majority of them left the company afterward.

To try to change this, the 40-person EY team worked with the Energy Project to develop a collective “Resilience Boot Camp” in 2019 focused on teaching people to take more breaks and get better rest in order to manage their physical, emotional, and mental energy during especially intense periods. As a follow up, every other week for the 14 weeks of the busy season, the EY employees attended one-hour group coaching sessions during which team members discussed setbacks and challenges and supported one another in trying to embrace new recovery routines. Each participant was paired with another teammate to provide additional personal support and accountability.

Thanks to the significant shifts in behavior, accountants completed their work in fewer hours and agreed to take off one weekend day each week during this intense period. “Employees were able to drop 12 to 20 hours per week based on these changes, while accomplishing the same amount of work,” Schwartz told Christine.

By the end of the 2019 busy season, team members felt dramatically better than at the end of 2018’s. And five months after the busy season, when accounting teams typically lost people to exhaustion and burnout, this EY team’s retention stood at 97.5%. Schwartz told Christine that his main takeaway from that experience was “the power of community.”

. . .

Community can be a survival tool — a way for people to get through challenging things together — and helps move people from surviving to thriving. As we found, it also makes people much more likely to stay with your organization. What can you do to help build a sense of community?

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How to Handle Office Gossip … When It’s About You

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Gossip comes in different forms that serve different purposes. When it’s used as an indirect way of surfacing or engaging in interpersonal conflicts, it can incite workplace drama. So what should you do if you find out a colleague has been gossiping about you? First, let the messenger of the gossip know you’ll be discussing it with the gossiping colleague. You may lose access to some information. But if your example positively influences others, you may gain a healthier workplace. Second, when you confront the person gossiping, focus first on the content of their gossip, rather than their method. If there’s merit to the person’s concerns, you get the benefit of the feedback, and you also demonstrate both openness to feedback and a willingness to hold others accountable in a way that might encourage them to make a better choice the next time they have concerns. Finally, ask them for a commitment that, in the future, you will hear the complaint before others do — and promise them the same yourself.

Imagine a colleague of yours, “Beth,” approaches you one day and tells you that “Gareth,” a relatively new member of your team, made disparaging comments about you to her — referring to you as a “lightweight who wouldn’t be in the job if not for getting hired before the company could attract those with credentials.”

Beth reports this in hushed tones, then adds, “He can’t know where you heard it, okay?” What should you do next?

As I’ve written about before, gossip comes in different forms that serve different purposes:

  1. It can be a source of information for those who mistrust formal channels.
  2. It can serve as an emotional release for anger or frustration.
  3. It can be used as an indirect way of surfacing or engaging in interpersonal conflicts

It’s this latter form that incites a lot of workplace drama. This kind of gossip is communication minus responsibility. It is a collusive counterfeit to problem solving. In the example above, someone is telling you that you’ve been gossiped about — and they’re using gossip as the vehicle to do so. They’re passing along information on condition of anonymity.

The most crucial moment in addressing gossip like this is not after you hear it, but when you hear it. In an ideal world, Beth would have informed Gareth in the moment that she would need to share the information with you, unless he was willing to do so himself. But given that didn’t happen, you as the subject must decide whether you will continue the gossip or invite responsible communication.

When you tacitly or explicitly agree to engage in gossip so you can get access to gossip about you, you become part of the problem. You also prevent yourself from taking the only kind of action that could lead to resolution: a candid and respectful dialogue that produces mutual understanding. The way you handle this moment — the instant you’re issued an invitation to participate in gossip — becomes crucial. Here are three things to do when someone else is gossiping about you.

Don’t listen if you can’t act.

I adopted an ethic years ago that I always use to set a boundary with those who want to pass along information about another person. When I can see the conversation is headed in the direction of gossip, I politely stop the person and let them know that I’ll likely act on the information I’m given. This helps them understand that speaking implies responsibility and gives them an “out” to decide to keep the information to themselves.

In the situation above, Beth has already shared critical information. At this point, you could say, “Thanks for letting me know Gareth has concerns about me. I’ll be discussing that with him. I don’t feel a need to share your name, but he might guess you shared it.” If that makes her nervous, you should still hold your boundary. You might say, for example, “I’m going to address this with Gareth one way or another. If you want a day or so to let him know you shared it with me, you’re welcome to take that time.” If she chooses not to do so, you’re free to move forward.

Of course, the risk in this approach is that people will think twice before sharing gossip with you. You may lose access to some information. But if your example positively influences others, you may gain a healthier workplace.

Address the right issue first.

Next is the conversation with Gareth. A gossip episode like this involves two conversations: one about process and one about content.

Most people’s first instinct is to address the process problem — i.e., the fact that Gareth is talking negatively behind your back. You assume the content of the gossip in meritless and move to immediately confront what bothers you most: the inappropriate way he’s peddling his “fabrications.” A better way to proceed is to focus first on the content issue — Gareth’s apparent concerns about your competence — and not the “talking behind my back” issue.

Be humble. Don’t frame the conversation (even implicitly) as “Shame on you for talking behind my back,” but rather as “If I have failed you in some way, I really want to understand it. Or if my skills are coming up short, I need that feedback.” This approach helps in a number of ways. First, if there is merit to the person’s concerns, you get the benefit of the feedback. Second, you transcend tit-for-tat reactions in a way that might prevent this from escalating into future personal conflict. And third, you demonstrate both openness to feedback and a willingness to hold others accountable in a way that might encourage them to make a better choice the next time they have concerns.

Don’t be deterred if the person starts by claiming misunderstanding or minimizing their statements. Reiterate your desire for feedback and urge them to be forthcoming about any concerns.

Discuss the process problem.

Only after you’ve explored the other person’s concerns can you productively hold them accountable for the indirect way their feedback came to you. Ask for a commitment that, in the future, you will hear the complaint before others do — and promise them the same yourself. If you’ve humbly solicited feedback in the previous step, you’ll have the moral authority and safety needed to hold them accountable for their bad behavior.

There is no guarantee that approaching gossip in this way will eliminate it. But it does guarantee that you become part of the solution instead of perpetuating the problem.

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