Remote Burnout

All it takes is one notification to set off the office in your mind.

Pierre immediately stands out because of his Slack photo—a hacked-together collage of a sunset, a cat, and an inspirational headshot looking out into the distance.

After a few talks, I learn that Pierre has gone from a windowless Paris office to the role of CTO, a job that hadn't come naturally to him. But more importantly, he was the first person I’d ever met who'd fallen into—and come out of—a remote burnout.

Today, we talk to Pierre Renaudin, CTO, about the topic of working from a place that doesn't fit the better part of who you are. We also take a look through the long, dark tunnel of remote burnout as we try to uncover yet another layer of what it really means to be remote.  

Pierre, CTO

M: You've worked hard, and you've lived through a remote burnout. What happened?

I was living and working in Paris. I wasn't fully remote yet, but part of my team was. It felt lonely in that I had all these challenges and complex tasks to deal with from what felt like an island. And when things are difficult, humans have needs. And one of those primary needs is connection.

You need to feel that there is someone next to you that is also feeling the way you do—real empathy. It won’t solve the issue, but knowing that you’re in the same boat as someone else helps.

At the time I was in an office, feeling forced into the same routines as everyone else—when in reality, me and my team had very different needs. This was the part that I was not communicating. I was not communicating how I felt.

When things are difficult, humans have needs. And one of those primary needs is human connection.
— Pierre

As a newcomer, I was blindly following the rules and they were in no way working for me. And we didn’t have a format yet to discuss these things—no one-on-ones, no coffees in the morning, no beers after work. I felt trapped.  

M: So how did you know you were burning out?

I started having health issues—I got really skinny, I had teeth problems, I couldn’t sleep. Basically, I was super afraid.

M: What was the main thing that was bothering you? Was it the people, the processes, or was it a bunch of things?  

It's hard to tell because when you're going through a burnout, you're not even working that hard. But everything feels like a dark hall—the different facets of your life just don’t feel that great anymore. I started to think to myself:

Why am I doing this? Where's the pleasure in all this?

I had no pleasure in my professional life, and so I had no pleasure in my personal life. My mind wasn’t really full, it was just made tiny all of a sudden. It couldn’t take any more information. There was pressure, and lots of expectations. I wasn’t ready for that part of startup life.

M: What did you do to get out of the place you were at?

A lot of stuff. I said to the CEO “Listen, I'm leaving, I can’t live like this anymore.” And Chris [CEO] said, “Is it that bad?”

We talked and set some actions. One of them was to step down from the CTO role for six months. The next thing was to move out of Paris—that was my escape hatch. Then I took some medication to get back into the rhythm of sleeping at night. And I hired people that were better suited to my management style. Some of them were even friends, others were people I'd worked with in the past. I wanted to create a friendlier environment with people that I trust.

I also realized I had issues with leadership, I’d never really had a role model in that area. So I didn't really know what the work was like. What was okay to do? What wasn’t okay as a CTO? I had a lot of trouble with that. I got some coaching sessions in that area and it really helped. All in all it was a two year process. Today I’m feeling good again.

M: So what would you say to someone in a similar situation?

Tap into your emotional intelligence to share how you feel with the people around you. It’s okay to feel frustrated, it’s okay to feel anxious. Often others are feeling the exact same way and if they aren’t, the things you’re worried about are not as bad as you think. Outside perspective is so important.

Also, don’t try to reproduce the office model in remote work. They're two different worlds.

Then there’s all the cues that come with remote management that were new to me. Managing people from around the world meant adjusting to cultural differences without having the luxury of interacting in person.

It’s one thing to all be from a place like Bordeaux where everyone likes the same wine and all have the same weekend plans—like going to the beach. But a remote team is more dynamic than that.

Like it or not, people carry attributes from where they’re from, there are personalities to understand, cultures to take into account. Some people were shocked, even hurt because we had team members that were so direct. But they were just being themselves, they had cultural attributes that we weren’t used to.

Often, others are feeling the exact same way.

M: But don’t you have off-sites where you get together?

Yes we meet every few months. But it’s much more informal, we’re not necessarily treating ourselves like we would at the office. It’s more open, almost a parallel track. But it helps to get to know people better, it helps to form a more complete picture of who people are.

M: So everyone’s more relaxed because they’re being more themselves?

Or they're stressed because it can be quite a shock to move from remote to real life within a big team of people.

M: It sounds like an introvert's nightmare.

Haha. Yes, it can be.

M: What’s your formula going forward?

For me, remote is a reinvention of the workplace. You have the flexibility of time all of a sudden—a huge advantage on the personal level. For instance, I’ve always wanted to do sports, but I’ve never been very good at them and didn’t have a schedule that allowed me to explore that side of myself.

But now I make a point of fitting virtual bike races into my daily routine. I’ll work, I’ll compete online, I’ll work some more, I’ll prepare a meal in the oven for dinner if I need to, and then I’ll go back for another work session. It brings a fulfilling flow to my life, I’m able to work in a way that feels meaningful.

And it’s so important to switch off the office when you’re done. Because the office is on your laptop, the office is on your phone. All it takes is one notification to set off the office in your mind again. I turn everything off, and I encourage the people around me to do the same.

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