Company Culture
COVID-19 / DC Startup Week / Remote work / Workplace culture

Work-from-home burnout is real. Here’s how local startup leaders are avoiding it

After months of quarantine, dogs, walks around the neighborhood and strict morning routines are some of the things helping these four pros stay balanced.

Working from home. (Photo by Pixabay user DarkWorkX, used under a Creative Commons license)

This editorial article is a part of Workplace Culture Month of's editorial calendar.

We’re nearly nine months into the year, and March — the month our lives changed forever because of COVID-19 — feels like it was ages ago.

Work-from-home life is more common than ever yet, some people still may be feeling burnt out from the emotional strain of balancing work and a personal life. As the pandemic continues to affect how professionals communicate with their teams and keep a personal life, we asked some local startup leaders to share their WFH experiences and how they are avoiding burnout.

Here’s what they had to say:

Amira El-Gawly, founder and CEO of Manifesta

El-Gawly is the lead curator of the inaugural Culture & Leadership program track at DC Startup Week this year. D.C.-based Manifesta is a workplace culture agency, helping make work better for purpose-driven teams and leaders.

El-Gawly maintains a strategic structure to help herself get through the day.

“A morning routine that eases me into the day is super important for a recovering workaholic like myself,” she said. “I have a morning zone where I have my coffee, read, pray, meditate on the day. That helps me take control of my day and start it off with intentionality, gratitude and focus.”

She’s able to draw boundaries for her work-life balance by setting some sort of plan for the evening when work concludes, even if it’s just going on a walk around the sunset. El-Gawly avoids the WFH burnout by reserving her regular office hours in the afternoon — when she normally has lower energy — for new business or networking phone calls.

“That allows me to focus my daytime work on ‘the work,’ without worrying about toggling between modes so often,” she explained. “And then I feel energized by the communication with people in the afternoon. Win-win.”

Amira El-Gawly, founder and CEO of D.C.-based Manifesta. (Courtesy photo)

She also incorporates walks into her work days and defines a three-task “must do” list each day. Email, Slack and spontaneous phone calls for small things are her go-tos for communication.

Other tips from the founder:

  • Block off focus time on your calendar so you’re spending your best hours doing the work, rather than in meetings.
  • Communicate to your team when you need a break or aren’t feeling up to things.

Eva Reid, consultancy founder and senior analyst in geospatial technologies at the Office of the Chief Technology Officer

Similar to El-Gawly, Reid stays focused by planning out her days ahead of time and keeping her calendar updated. She makes a lot of lists, creates routines and schedules her lunch out using the pomodoro technique for time management, which incorporates working time blocks with short breaks.

“Not going to lie though, some days just don’t end up very organized, said Reid, who also runs her own consulting business serving women in tech and other fields where women are underrepresented. “Some days are still a struggle, and creating a framework can only go so far. On these days, I try to give myself grace and a nice chunk of down time to balance the chaos.”

Eva Reid, consultancy founder and senior analyst in geospatial technologies at the Office of the Chief Technology Officer. (Courtesy photo)

Reid primarily uses MS Teams and WebEx to collaborate with her team at OCTO, while using Zoom, Slack and text messaging to communicate for her consulting business. To stay away from WFH burnout, she reaches out to colleagues throughout the work week to avoid disconnection.

“I focus particularly on connecting with people who I enjoy talking to but aren’t necessarily on my immediate team, or people that I wouldn’t see in the course of my day at home,” she shared.

Reid also prioritizes personal time, walks around her neighborhood, sitting out in the garden, writing letters to  friends and reading a book for 15 minutes or so to avoid that burnout. She also sets up personal virtual meetings throughout the week.

“Now, more than ever, it’s important to find the balance between work and life,” she said.

Another tip from Reid: Keep a regular start and stop time and don’t try to get “one more thing” done at the end of the day if it’s past your work hours.

Jay Newton-Small, founder and CEO of MemoryWell

Newton-Small survives working from home with the company of her 80-pound dog, Louie. At the beginning of quarantine, the pair were running five to seven miles a day. While Newton-Small still gets a good run in with her pup, she send him off to daycare sometimes for some extra focus.

“Pre-Covid, I did a daily run —like three miles on a treadmill plugged into ‘General Hospital’ or ‘Gossip Girl,'” the founder shared. “But Louie needed more than that in order for him not to start joining my Zoom calls with his own particular voice (think howl).”

As a former magazine writer, Newton-Small said she is used to “working from home, hotel rooms, airplanes, buses, yurts — you name it.” While Louie is away at daycare, she likes being able to work with little distraction while being able to fold laundry or do the dishes in between work calls.

Jay Newton-Small, founder and CEO of MemoryWell. (Courtesy photo)

When quarantine first started, Newton-Small use to work all over the place from the couch to the backyard. She has since set up an at-home office which she uses exclusively for work to get in a productive mode each time she steps in the room.

“Work was creeping into everything everywhere and that wasn’t fun,” she said about narrowing her work space.

MemoryWell mainly communicates using Slack, Zoom, Google Hangouts and email, but Newton-Small said the team is contemplating adding Trello as the company takes on more employees and adjusts to virtual work. Trello is a list-making application where you can make different boards and assign tasks.

Here’s an extra work from home tip from Newton-Small:

“You have to have something to look forward to, to differentiate the days when everything feels the same. I’ve gotten into astronomy lately and have been setting up stargazing trips with friends to West Virginia and Virginia. That’s been really fun,” she said. “Even if it’s just a hike or a jog around the monuments, planning something special each week to look forward to has been essential for me.”

Also, here’s Louie. 🙂

Arf! (Courtesy photo)

Corinn Perry, chief of staff at SEED SPOT

Perry has been managing the entrepreneurship organization’s team remotely for three and a half years. She has a professional certificate in the Science of Happiness at Work from the University of California, Berkeley, so keeping her team pleased is something she’s personally passionate about.

Corinn Perry. (Courtesy photo)

Perry maintains focus while working at home by hosting Monday morning and Friday afternoon check-ins with her team. Slack communication is her go-to, and she makes sure she etches out clear schedules for programs and team priorities to help keep SEED SPOT employees moving in the same direction.

“Remember that the little actions you take every day add up to something bigger,” Perry said. “On busy, or challenging days, we try to ask ourselves ‘How did we help an entrepreneur today?’ Even if it’s a small thing, our team can anchor to that and feel proud that they contributed to the mission of SEED SPOT.”

To avoid that WFH burnout, Perry opts to take some calls on the phone versus on Zoom so she can take some laps around her place and avoid constant screen time. She likes to start her mornings slowly and stays away from diving right into notifications and emails. Perry uses the platforms Basecamp and Fieldtrip for project management, Rippling to support major milestones like birthdays and anniversaries, Bonusly to show recognition and build culture, and Zoom to run webinars and other virtual programs.

Here are some extra WFH tips from Perry to avoid burnout:

  • Use Slack to let team members know when you’re stepping away so you can fully disconnect, even if it’s just for 30 minutes.
  • Focus on priorities, not trying to tackle everything. Determine two to three things you want to accomplish. If you hit them, take the rest of the day off, or give yourself a nice break to celebrate!
  • Use a window sharing site like this one to set up visuals on extra screens or monitors.

Check out this blog post Perry authored last year that talks about ways to build remote work culture using technology. She also led a webinar in May on how to engage remote teams.

Companies: SEED SPOT
Series: Workplace Culture Month 2020 / How to Work Remotely / Coronavirus

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