Leading a global team does not mean you have to work 24 hours a day.
I’m not sure when it happened, but something changed when I was supporting a team in Europe. I was developing a comprehensive methodology for a SaaS (Software as a Service) and consulting process, and was working with colleagues in France and the Netherlands. Aside from the six-hour time difference, the new perspectives of my team members was refreshing and, at times, gave me a great deal to consider.
I started waking up at about 3:00AM with work ideas and realized after several days of early wakeup that I was not going to be able to go back to sleep. Instead, I got out of bed, went to my office, and started my workday. My European colleagues were happy to see me online, and I was able to have more synchronous conversations with my distance team. Overall, this had the impact of boosting my productivity, at least in the short term.
The wakeup behavior continued for about eight months. Looking back on it now, I think the stress of having two teams in several time zones was something I was unprepared to manage, and I was waking up because I was anxious about being a good leader and effectively managing my distance teams. As I got better at leading and communicating with other team members, my anxiety decreased, and I was able to sleep more and better.
Management exhaustion is real
Why did having a team elsewhere motivate me to wake up early? The short answer is anxiety, and the feeling that there was always more that I could be doing to support the team and the project. This isn’t unusual for leaders, but developing work-life balance for distance leaders is even more of a challenge. There are several factors contributing to distance leader exhaustion:
- Blurred boundaries between home, work, and personal time. Similar to the entrepreneurial mindset, an office away from the home provides a transition period to “switch” from one role to the next. Whether you are leading from a traveling position or from a home office, deciding when the work day is done and the personal day has begun is not always easy. For example, when I was traveling all the time, my computer was my window to the world. Now that I work at home, it’s sometimes easy to lose track of time when project deadlines are looming.
- Feelings of isolation. The feeling of being alone in your work is a common distance leader sensation. Everyone has their own tolerance for being alone and feeling lonely. Sometimes work is an escape from these feelings of isolation through connections to colleagues and a sense of purpose with work tasks.
- Perception that there is always more to do. Here’s a hint, distance leader: there is. The struggle to manage projects, especially dynamic or unclear projects, has consumed people since there were things like projects. However, after a certain number of work hours, your productivity drops and you simply can’t do more. Learning to perceive work tasks in human-sized task chunks each day is a critical leadership skill.
- Dependence on social media. By now, there are hundreds of scholarly articles and many more marketing research studies telling us what we already know: social media can be depressing. Very few posts emphasize the reality of people’s lives, and depending on social media for human connections often only presents a skewed, falsely positive view of others’ lives and experiences. Want to read more? Check this article out.
- Lack of (fresh) air. Actually, this means exercise. I’m not going to tell you that you should exercise, but I will point out that daily exercise can contribute to healthier sleeping patterns, energy levels, and creativity. When I was traveling all the time, my only real exercise was walking in airports every afternoon to get to my next flight. I was not healthy, and don’t even get me started on my eating habits… yikes. In my current home-based work environment, I am able to get significantly more exercise, and that has really increased my productivity and creativity.
Frankly, working can be an addiction. In all seriousness, deadlines can be thrilling, and the rush of endorphins for crossing a major project off your list is a motivator for doing even more. However, if you feel like work is getting the best of you (or maybe all of you!), then here are some steps you can take to regain your work-life balance:
- Move more. While exercise is great, sometimes there are other things you can do to stand up and move around. I have a desk that can be switched to a standing desk, and I have a personal rule that I only attend conference calls while I am standing. If I am on the phone with a friend, that’s when I do my house chores. Find an exercise class that you like, or spend a few minutes at lunchtime taking a short walk. The more you move, the more oxygen is getting to your brain, and that can lead to better creativity, problem-solving, and emotional equilibrium.
- Communicate directly with real people. There’s nothing wrong with LinkedIn, Instagram, or Facebook friends, but sooner or later you need to talk to real people. The same goes for having the television on in the background at all times. I make a point to speak with my friends, even going so far as to make a list and schedule time when I can speak with family and friends directly. It sounds silly, but sometimes I will get into the work “zone” and weeks will go by when I haven’t spoken with people who are important to me.
- Change your scenery, but in a good way. Some people resolve a feeling of isolation by working in coffee shops or shared workspaces. Others join Meetups (that’s my personal pick) to meet new people or find a shared interest group. Some people take classes at the local community college. A change in scenery or role can be a refreshing reality check. Yes, you are still working, but being around others often has a self-moderating effect that makes you realize when you need to take a break or finish your work for the day.
- Find accountability. In my life, I have several accountability partners who help me see the differences between working to live and living to work. Dana Jarvis, in his book, 7 Essentials For Managing Virtual Teams, provides some good guidance for developing accountability practices (2017). Positive and supportive accountability can be a team practice that helps build enough trust to share boundaries related to work habits.
- Close the door. Many studies have explored the dangers of having virtual workspaces in “non-limited” spaces. I have colleagues who had their office in their bedroom, making a boundary between work time and personal time extremely difficult. Being able to pack up your office (or at least your computer) or shut the door on the office at the end of the work day gives your brain the essential transition signals it needs to shift to non-work behaviors.
The Results and Cross-Cultural Communications as a Distance Leader
Dealing with work addiction is a real challenge, because it is often attached to our feelings of purpose, self-worth, and emotional connection to others. Additionally, since your income is related to your work, there is a financial connection, too.
Developing a healthy work-life balance may require some larger changes, and those are the times I would say that a professional counselor or therapist should become part of your healthy habits.
What experiences have you had with work-life balance? Do you have a strategy that works especially well for you? If so, I’d like to hear it!
Comment with your answers below!
Dana Jarvis provides good project management guidelines for managing your work so that you can feel accomplished and perhaps build more balance in your life in his book, 7 Essentials For Managing Virtual Teams, The following affiliate link will allow you to get a copy from Amazon.com. Please note that I do receive a small commission at no cost to you.