Supporting your team during a time of isolation

Remote work has fundamental differences from in-person collaboration. After weeks of working from home, engineering teams are feeling the impact of Zoom fatigue. The dissolution of work-home boundaries leaves many feeling “always on,” leading to burnout. In response, some managers are giving more space and time for employees to recharge. But what happens to those already feeling isolated?
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uplevel
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social isolation

Giving employees space during this time has a clear benefit—but there is a drawback. Humans need interaction, just like many of your team members looked forward to group coffee runs every morning. On the other hand, some people prefer to work independently and get overwhelmed with too many social interactions. How can we protect against burnout while providing support during isolation?

Are your team members feeling isolated?

If you’re hearing a chorus of resistance to daily check-ins or notice dropping attendance at Friday’s Zoom happy hour, it may seem like a clear sign to leave people alone. However, we often hear from the loudest voices, which might be crowding out the quieter (and possibly, more isolated) ones. Data can show the way:

1. Analyze team and project-based meetings. Consider the current workload of each team member. Are some engineers involved in multiple projects, while others are focused solely on one? There might be some people that have only independent projects and empty calendars, indicating a possibility of isolation.

2. Look back on your 1:1 history. Are you consistently holding all of your 1:1s? Occasionally, busy weeks call for meeting cancellations, but there’s a chance that the same employee keeps getting scheduled over or cancelled. Make sure you’re making time for 1:1 check-ins with all team members on a regular basis.

3. Ask your team! Data aside, we recommend communicating openly with your team. Ask how everybody is feeling this week, and how that might compare to the early days of working from home. Perhaps some people eagerly anticipated virtual lunches, but now prefer a solo walk outside. Others might have enjoyed the initial silence of home, but grew to crave more interaction. Overall, do they feel overstimulated? Under-stimulated? 

4. Give consideration to non-work-related factors. It’s powerful to remember the reason why we’re working remotely in the first place: a global pandemic. No matter how many meetings or deadlines you face in a workday, you’re likely equally full with news headlines, family video chats, and homeschooling. With so much external unrest, some employees might prefer to work independently so they can set their own hours and rest when needed. Meanwhile, some team members might appreciate the collaboration of a team project. Again, we recommend open communication, and occasional check-ins to reevaluate the balance.

How to address isolation

Once you have an idea of your team’s preferred working styles, there are many helpful practices to keep people engaged without pushing toward burnout.

1. Consider pairing developers that haven’t worked much together. One way to invite novelty into this time of monotony? Establish new working relationships. See if the next project could be an opportunity to introduce unusual working teams, giving people a wider network while working remotely.

2. Share independent work with the team. For employees that are working on siloed projects—perhaps happily!—encourage them to get feedback on their work from other people on the team. You might set up a casual time to screenshare or start a Slack conversation for ideas. If you sense that the silo is leading to feelings of isolation, aim to balance that person’s workload with a team project next sprint.

3. Schedule time for innovation. When the days blur together, work time can feel…uninspired. Make time for group brainstorms, like dreaming up future features or renaming your Slack channel. Be sure to include a diverse roster of team members to encourage the most creative thinking.

4. Actively plan social gatherings. Engineers that are feeling isolated at home may appreciate the playfulness of virtual hangouts. Try team lunches or happy hours, play online games, or encourage people to schedule 1:1 time (or skip-levels) with each other. See if you can encourage a culture of virtual coffee dates or TGIF celebrations. 

5. Remember to take care of yourself. With the elevated effort of managing a remote team, it’s easy to lose time for yourself. Managers require care, too! Find ways to balance your own calendar, whether that’s setting up more social lunches, or clearing the afternoons for more headspace. Leverage your own manager or other managers for support, even meeting to brainstorm ways you can help each other. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or unclear about how to solve your own team isolation issues, don’t be afraid to manage up and ask for support. We’re all in this together.

It’s more critical than ever to check in on what employees need to feel supported. As the pervasiveness of COVID-19 uncertainty continues, coupled with the recent unrest across the country in response to racial injustice, it’s likely that your employees may need more time to decompress, process, and connect with loved ones. There is nothing “business as usual” about this moment, so it’s a healthy time to adapt your leadership to best support all your employees.

For help in identifying isolation patterns, check out the new features that Uplevel launched to help managers lead remote teams.