Even before the pandemic, the Middle Tennessee’s tech industry had a high rate of remote work, but the Franklin-based company Rustici Software is different.
Managing Director Tammy Rutherford said socializing and connecting with co-workers has always been an essential part of the company’s culture. Few employees worked from home before this year. The office has a bocce ball court, a ping pong table and a spacious outdoor deck where employees can gather.
That made it all the more difficult to transition to remote work when the coronavirus pandemic hit Tennessee.
"Moving virtually for us was really hard. We're familiar with the tools. That part is not the problem," she said. "The hard part was the culture, and the fact that we don't see each other to have coffee in the morning or have lunch together in person … Replacing that has been a big focus this year.”
The transition to remote work was also happening while demand for the company’s products—software that supports e-learning content—skyrocketed. The inability to connect socially with co-workers, increased screen time and personal crises related to the pandemic all made it more challenging to stay motivated at work.
Many workers in Williamson County are moving into their 10th month of working from home, and they’re starting to burn out. At many organizations, workers have had to solve enormous problems in chaotic conditions. (For example, a small kitchen where a spouse is on a video call, two kids are taking online classes and a dog is begging to go outside.)
As the pandemic stretches on, local companies are looking for ways to reduce burnout, especially since many of the technologies adopted over the last year are likely to stick around.
For Rutherford, creating ways for employees to connect remotely is an important way to combat burnout and maintain the company’s social culture. Rustici has continued its tradition of having a full company lunch every Thursday, but now it’s virtual. The company’s Slack workspace also has a gaming channel where employees can get together to play trivia or a Pictionary-like drawing game.
Those opportunities help, but Rutherford said offering employees flexibility is even more important. She has been stressing the importance of flexibility to her employees since the beginning of the pandemic.
"The hardest part for us is helping people navigate a work schedule and balance a family,” she said. “We have been trying to give our team as much grace and room as possible to handle that level of stress. The work aside, we know there are stressors coming at everybody from other angles. Each team has been really great at helping each other balance that and be graceful with each other in scheduling.”
Michelle Endres, the Chief People Officer at Brentwood-based LBMC, said flexibility is an important part of her company’s response to burnout as well.
At LBMC, many employees have the flexibility to choose whether they want to work from the office or at home. The company is allowing employees to use office buildings as long as the capacity is below 50%. Recently, Endres said offices have been at about 30% capacity.
"There are people that absolutely are back here in the office, and feel much, much more productive because they're here. Others still have some concerns and are working from home, and have found ways to be productive at home and be connected," she said.
Endres has been encouraging LBMC leaders to reach out to their teams and understand their needs. For people with compromised immune systems, that might mean reassurance that they can continue working from home. For people with large families, that might means the flexibility to work from the office. She said it’s also important to continue checking in on employees as the pandemic evolves.
"What you needed in July is different from what you need today," she said.
In addition, LBMC is using software to reduce some repetitive tasks for employees and make their work more meaningful. For example, one service automatically reads through dense contracts and automatically identifies the most important provisions. Another service compiles large data sets into reports that are easier for humans to read.
“We’re looking at ways to make sure our team members are finding their position as engaging and valuable as they truly are," Endres said. "If I find it impactful and meaningful it's less likely that I'm going to feel burned out.”
At a virtual conference hosted by the Nashville Tech Council in November, Jerry Bisaha, an IT leader at the Brentwood-based retailer Tractor Supply, said his company is also exploring ways to use automation to help employees avoid burnout.
During his presentation, he referenced a report by the consulting company McKinsey showing that remote work has particularly affected women in senior positions. According to the report, 40% of the women in senior positions surveyed felt consistently burned out.
"Where can we start to introduce more technology in taking the pressure off our employees in the work that they do?” he said.
He imagined a system that uses artificial intelligence to help an accountant search for mission transactions.
“Let's use machine learning and AI to do the heavy lifting work,” he said. “The human is the one overseeing the process and working through the exceptions.”
Larger companies like Tractor Supply and LBMC have the capability of investigating these types of technical interventions, but for small business owners the problem of burnout is arguably harder to solve.
For the last 10 months Brentwood CPA Greg Lemons, who owns a Padgett Business Services franchise with two employees, has mostly been using brute force to power through the mountain of work.
"A lot has to do with how big of an office you are," Lemons said. "If you have more people, you've got more opportunities to spread things out. I'm a small office. I'm the only CPA here."
Lemons said he has become more efficient during the coronavirus outbreak. Normally, his clients will come into his office and spend between 30 and 90 minutes talking about their taxes. Now, the simply upload their documents to a portal and Lemons works on the tax return.
The extension of the tax filing deadline also helped ease some of the burden this year.
However, the extra time and increased productivity didn’t make up for new work created by the pandemic. In addition to tax filings, Lemons has helped business owners apply for the Paycheck Protection Program for free. Afterwards, he helped those businesses apply for forgiveness. On top of all that work, Lemons had to educated himself about all the various coronavirus relief programs.
As a CPA, he’s used to seasons of intense work, followed by periods of rest, but this year the work hasn’t let up. Without many employees, most of that work falls on his shoulders.
In many cases, business leaders in Williamson County recognize that virtual happy hours are just a band aid on the problem of burnout. Over the last few months, those online social events have started to fade.
Now, employers are looking for more meaningful ways to meet the needs of their employees. It’s a problem they have to solve because video conferencing technology is likely to persist much longer than the coronavirus.
"You're going to continue to see the pervasive usage of video conferencing ... whether we continue to be a highly adapted work-from-home workforce or whether we eventually get back into the offices," Bisaha said at the tech council conference last month. "One thing is for sure. We need to be thinking about our employees, and how do we use technology to help them."