Here’s a snapshot of my Thursday afternoon.
A two hour global conference presenting our digital transformation consultancy to several hundred excos across our top markets; a one hour International Women’s Day panel (pre-recorded) and 2 x 30 min 2021 KPI setting sessions with direct reports.
Also, we have an hour with our holding co-discussing shared service needs; a 30 min consultation with my daughter’s college tutor and ex-husband; a 30 min check in with French CEO; a one hour session with tech founders looking for collaboration potential; 30 min client proposal run through and a 30 min weekly status with US team. 8pm and breathe…
Now that’s a hefty schedule for one week by anyone’s standards, let alone one afternoon.
Yet, this is merely one fragment of my diary depicting a meeting flow which rolls endlessly onwards repeating morning, afternoon and evening similarly.
On and on go the meetings, the delivery, the pace. On I sit in this chair, looking into this screen. This is how it’s been since the world stopped turning as we knew it in March 2020.
Now, I’m a senior business leader, entrepreneur and mother and I take full responsibility for having set this schedule myself. I also know I’m not alone viewing and organising a work calendar like this. Every colleague, friend and professional relative I chat to cites an identical crisis. Productivity HAS increased during the pandemic. Fact.
Remote workers are logging on to company VPNs for an average of 11 hours per day in the UK, US & Canada, marking an increase of two hours per day compared with pre-Covid work patterns.
We’re ‘always on’ and, understandably, less able to punctuate the end of the working day when we’re still in the working space – and this is exacerbated even further if working from the bedroom, where degenerative mental and physical consequences of remote working escalate alarmingly.
However, it’s not just our inability to call time on laptop time, there’s a general ripple of accelerated pace expected at companies.
Universally, we excitedly brandished the ‘decade of innovation in 10 weeks’ stat at the start of the pandemic when digital transformation agendas catapulted businesses into winner or loser status in unprecedented, revelatory strides.
We leapt headlong into proving our ability to innovate and produce at speed, both in terms of company and personal output, as we protected our client relationships and job security. We all bustled around proving ourselves as economies contracted and flexed in every sector, category and market.
The upshot is that we’re now 12 months in. Optimism is twinkling on the horizon over a return to normality. And yet, I believe we’ve got an awful lot of work to do before we healthily reintegrate into whatever the new normal is.
The contributions remote workers have become accustomed to delivering are absolutely unsustainable. There’s a new health hazard at play, which I call The Cognitive Bounce.
The Cognitive Bounce
Take my agenda above. It all took place from the same chair, in the same room, through the same screen, in one long stream with mere seconds as transitions.
Now, if I was delivering a global conference in a normal world I would probably have flown somewhere and experienced three days of travel, rehearsals, the big keynote stage moment, networking and so on.
I would have focused singularly on this valuable and important work, decompressed afterwards – probably with a co-presenter dinner and drinks – and followed up on the Q&As on the flight home.
Instead, that epic delivery last week was simply two hours in the middle of a back to back flurry of other meetings and other work. I was immediately off the virtual stage, after two solid hours of presenting, into a recording for IWD with my publisher.
Boom. Immediately I’m on stage again meeting new faces and discussing powerful female agendas whilst being filmed during another high intensity hour.
Time to get a drink/pause/see my kids after this? Nope. Close the Zoom link and accept the Teams link to join the KPI session and shift into nurturing line manager mode. On and on with only fleeting mouse clicks as full stops, click, click, deep breath, new agenda, new faces and go…
In the usual office setting, we would have a break between meetings. We would walk to another room. We would excuse ourselves to make a tea. We’d get a cab to another meeting location.
We’d have some banter in the corridors en-route to the lift. We’d call a loved one. We’d have gaps. We’d shift energy and location. We’d subconsciously mentally reboot between meetings.
The virtual meeting world means not only have we stopped enshrouding personal and professional time with distinguished boundaries, but we’ve stopped breathing between agendas.
We have glided into unrelenting end video call/join video call/end video call/join video call in a dangerous frenzy of assumption that this is okay. It is NOT okay.
Our brains are not designed to flit so extraordinarily between one task and another. Focus, as Daniel Goleman describes in his excellent book of the same name, is ‘the hidden driver of excellence’.
But where and how does the focus come when we are playing mental ping pong all day? In my case, generally late evenings and weekends, once domesticity and children have been tended to, is when I get to do the work – responding to emails, writing the decks, strategising the business direction.
And yes, often in bed, just for a change of scenery from my downstairs desk next to the playroom. This also is NOT okay.
The brain burden of darting
When a brain is exhausted by one task it can be rejuvenating and energising to flit to something entirely different.
Nick Hall, neuroscientist and author of ‘I know what to do so why don’t I do it’, teaches us that when growing weary of a left brain task, such as number crunching, it’s a useful leadership hack to quickly change work entirely and flip to a creative, right brain task, such as writing the comms for your launch announcement.
Sparking the other side of the brain gives us a surge of energy which is healthy and creates renewed motivation, concentration and re-invigorates general cognitive function.
However, when we dart too rapidly from unconnected task to unconnected, challenging task, at my example Thursday pace, we dangerously plunge into risk of total cognitive shut down.
Our brains simply cannot cope with the frenzied oscillation of this, then that over and over without a break.
Eventually we crack. We hit mental burnout , which quickly descends into the physical.
Thinking becomes fuzzy, we become irritable and decision making starts to become ineffectual. We start to feel overwhelmed by minutia as stress hormones surge, exaggerating the importance of the non-essential, triggering ever-spiralling, cortisol-fuelled and unwarranted panicky responses.
Biologically, it’s imperative to rest our brains to be able to contribute intelligently and impactfully. Abundant research on naps, meditation, nature walks and the habits of exceptional artists and athletes has evidenced how mental breaks replenish attention and by default increase productivity.
Stepping away from the maelstrom of meetings and reclaiming perspective, of both self and business agendas, is the ONLY way to maintain effectiveness. We simply have to create the space to digest, decompress, recalibrate, prepare and breathe.
The sociocultural strain of back-to-back meetings
Think about the nuances each meeting requires. It’s not just the work we’re discussing where we need technical prowess, but there are unique social dynamics at play in every interaction.
How are we interpreting and responding to non-verbal cues? How’s the rapport? Who’s influencing versus who’s being influenced? Is the shared agenda clear? Are collaboration levels high? Is there diversity of voices? Are there any unhealthy hierarchies at play? And so on.
Scientists have widely proven the mental burden video meetings incur as well as the varying levels of alertness and strategic inter-relational input required in group settings compared with 121 (both virtual and real-world).
Yes, we’ve talked a lot about mental health in the past year and employers have been compassionate and proactive at supporting employees across the board.
We’ve addressed loneliness and worries about our children. We’ve acknowledged and empathised about how tough it is being locked in together or alone, and how intense home-schooling our children is.
But I’m worried about the unspoken disaster at play. In what was originally a positive pursuit of new methods of productivity, we have unconsciously initiated a new crisis. As leaders, colleagues and employees we must take urgent note of the The Cognitive Bounce.
I see this extreme mental strain as becoming the demise of many a high potential, well-intended worker and in turn successful businesses. What has become the status quo cannot continue and we have reached an emergency.
As an experienced business leader and life coach, I have spent decades learning and teaching how to maximise impact without burnout, and yet even I have gently glided ignorantly into this rhythm of no pause output.
Ironically, I pride myself on training empowered individuals to consistently deliver graceful productivity in life and yet upon scrutiny right now my own productivity is far from graceful.
I’ve subliminally accepted The Cognitive Bounce and believe with hindsight that I was stimulated and energised by its freshness and variety initially.
It was a fun challenge to learn how to skate into colleagues’ and clients’ homes, to share or not share my pets/children/rooms/pyjamas, to evidence the power and value of new global intimacy and agility connecting teams to produce work faster, bigger, better…
But now, I admit it, I’m tired. Pretty frazzled actually. Thankfully, I’ve equipped myself to recognise my personal burnout precursor symptoms. When they start manifesting, I know it’s time to alter some patterns.
I know that when I start crying at sweet acts of kindness (flowers or a soft ‘how are you?’), or snapping inappropriately at the kids, or procrastinating over things I love, or fantasising at having an OOO alert for friends and family…it’s rehaul time.
So what can be done to address this?
How to arrest The Cognitive Bounce crisis in eight steps
So, in awareness, The Cognitive Bounce needs to stop for me, my teams and my family, these are 8 steps I intend to take.
I encourage you, whether, employee, employer, self-employed, company director, student or leader, or general Cognitive Bounce sufferer, to follow suit.
1. Strategically prioritise
You have custody over your time. This is a fact. As a contributor to the world it’s up to you to prioritise what is going to have most impact against what matters most and by when.
So, I have designed a set of 2021 strategic priorities that meet my ambitions for the business, realistically factoring in my team’s capacity and my own ability as a leader to produce sensible timelines and related revenue forecasts.
It actually doesn’t all have to be done yesterday, despite our desire to succeed and scale quickly.
I have also created a complementary plan for my personal 2021 goals so my resource, ie time and attention, is factored in across every life realm symbiotically.
2. Get stakeholder alignment
This planning only becomes valuable when lifted off your private excel into a full stakeholder-aligned strategy and set of actions.
Managing expectations is always key to avoiding disappointment (and likelihood of delivery), so design your Cognitive Bounce mitigation plan with its realistic pace, engage relevant stakeholders for agreement then share it constructively and intelligently where apt.
For example, I’m sharing my plans internally vertically and horizontally.
3. Do energising passion work
Variety matters in soothing our busy brains. It’s good to apply ourselves to projects unrelated to our day jobs. If you have a creative pursuit, side-business, any pleasure-zone stuff which restores you, it’s essential to keep your world buoyant with this.
Whether playing the guitar, writing, crocheting, cooking, running, Pilates or interior design, do what you love at least once per week, ideally daily if possible.
Factor it into your schedule so it doesn’t disappear into a hobby of yesteryear. This stuff is not about income, status, public accolades or any extrinsic stuff, it matters intrinsically because it keeps us feeling upbeat, high in self-esteem and motivated to contribute to life generally.
4. Cut your own meeting invites down by 15 mins
I’m now only sending invites for 45 mins, not 1 hour. I’m popping in ‘15 min chats’ with tight agendas and ensuring RACIs per attendee.
We’ve moved beyond the coddling chit chat for the sake of chit chat which blossomed early in the pandemic, and whilst we absolutely must maintain connection and community still, we must give the gift of time as a prerequisite where possible.
5. Frame big meetings with space either side
Planning wisely for the big meetings by building breathing space pre and post is essential so block the time out. It’s obvious, but so easy to over-estimate our ability to perform and I advise erring on the side of pragmatic caution.
Building in those calming gaps should happen the moment the key meetings land in the diary so get organised to do this as a matter of routine.
6. Plan hard stops and honour them
When I my twins were born and I found myself with an ecomm tech start up to run plus 4 children under 7, I took the philosophical and spiritual decision to halt aggressive business growth.
I let it plateau for a couple of years and found peace with that. I reflected that work would forever be there but that precious pocket of family adventuring never again. It’s a decision I don’t regret.
Now is a time to take stock equally. The work will always be there, and goodness with life expectancies and retirement ages increasing, we’ve got a whole bunch of graft ahead of us, so claw back your evenings and weekends and get to the work when Monday/the next morning comes.
Just do it.
7. Build awareness of The Cognitive Bounce dangers
Leaders should set the example here. We should make noise about the fact that this has inadvertently happened and it’s time to stop it.
The WHO classified burnout as an epidemic in June 2019 for the first time, then 2020 saw us inhale and spin in different ways detracting our attention, but we’re scooting right back into the same mess we were in pre Covid.
Let’s take collective responsibility to protect each other with a positive surge back into balance.
8. Cluster focus
If you do run your own business and/or have pockets of time across the week with no external demands or interruptions, try to cluster your work into pockets of similar themes.
Could Friday mornings be your people mornings where you focus on talent, training and team bonding? Could Friday afternoons be your strategy time? I block my Fridays out as ‘Sacred Thinking Time’ and try to protect it as holy.
The end is nigh
Recently, in some European countries where part-time office work has become permitted again, normal working hours have returned.
Thus, we can assume, a healthier work life blend is trickling across these fortunate societies, with a renewed respect I imagine.
The geographic segregation between home and office has helped bring back that order back in. But for many of us in different regions, where that’s a long way off, we need to build in concerted effort and conversation to thwart what has become our harmful norm.
We need to infuse our business cultures with a new, post-pandemic recognition of what’s harmful and what’s healthy. As leaders, exemplary strides to stamp out the mayhem is essential to humankind as we cascade into another new anthropological era.
It’s up to us individually and collectively to plan reintegration. Managing The Cognitive Bounce is a critical consideration for thriving, flourishing workforces and workplaces.
What steps will you take today?
Bianca Best is a Global MD, Speaker and Best-Selling Author. Learn more
DIGIT Leader Virtual Summit 2021 | Join the Discussion
Bianca Best will explore the issue of burnout, mental health and employee wellbeing at the fifth annual DIGIT Leader Summit, held on the 26th May.
For more details and information on how to register for the free virtual summit, please visit: www.digitleaders.com