Learning to Block

The tools and techniques remote workers can leverage to block time and avoid burnout.

Hi friends,

Welcome to the 14 new subscribers who subscribed since my last newsletter—thanks for joining!

In case you missed it, the last few newsletters covered remote work boundary management styles and Work-as-a-Sport (aka WAAS).

Today’s newsletter builds on those themes by focusing on remote blocking techniques and why we need to learn to block for ourselves and our teammates in order to increase remote worker productivity to avoid burnout.

If you’ve ever wondered what you might have in common with a 300lb offensive lineman, this one’s for you.

Alright, let’s dive in.


Before we begin: If you’re reading this but haven’t joined the Path Nine community, hit the button below to join the entrepreneurs, solopreneurs, architects, psychologists, designers, and engineers that read Path Nine to learn the strategies reshaping our work and lives!


Learning to Block: A Work-as-a-Sport Lesson for Employees

American football is a brutal contact sport that leaves many with severe damage, including traumatic brain and spine injuries. It has been said:

“There is no better experimental and research laboratory for human trauma in the world than the football fields of our nation.”

Well, there is no better experimental and research laboratory for human burnout than the modern, remote workplace.

We need to rethink how we work so we can prevent injuries.

Even as work goes remote, people are experiencing burnout at record rates. A recent study by Monster found that 69% of employees are experiencing burnout symptoms while working from home in 2020.

With burnout on the rise, companies are starting to examine their internal practices to help employees cope with the circumstances.

But it’s not just about learning to cope with the world around us. Sometimes we need to build strategies that protect us. Employees need to learn the offensive and defensive skills to ensure they don’t get crushed by work.

Let’s start with blocking.

Why We Need Better Blocking

The goal of a good blocking technique is to provide your team—organizations, managers, and employees—with protection and create space for them to drive forward.

We know what it’s like when our blockers miss — we’re exposed and attacked from all angles. Our managers want more, our spouse needs more help around the house, and our kids look to us for education, entertainment, and sustenance.

We need help blocking so we can improve our:

  • Work-life Balance. You can’t spend every minute on the field. We understand this for athletes, and it’s no different for workers. Athletes need a break for water, coaching, and a change of perspective. Our work is no different. We need outside activities and space to increase creativity and productivity.

  • Productivity. Working remotely has both a positive and negative impact on productivity. It’s easy to push hard for a few plays, but it’s also easy to find yourself completely worn down and exhausted. You can run plays all day, but if you have to punt every time you get the ball, you’re doomed to fail. If we want to execute more, better, faster, we need to block our way to the end zone.

  • Mental & Physical Well-being. If you’re getting hit every day, sooner or later, you start to get tired of what you’re doing.

We want to build a generation of blockers; people who understand what it means to use the tools and techniques available to create the space they need to be productive, happy, and healthy.

Employers should do this, but some simply won’t. It’s up to all of us to retrain ourselves to think about good blocking strategies.

Blocking Basics for Employees

Let’s start by establishing a goal: to safely improve our position against the competition.

Okay, now that we’ve established a goal where we can get tactical. Since we started with football, we’ll continue using it as our metaphorical guidepost.

In football, blocking is one of the most important components of a team’s strategy. Good blocking enables quarterbacks to execute a great pass, running backs to drive into the open field, and any play to optimize a path to a successful touchdown. While linemen are often considered the primary blockers, every player on the field needs to be able to block.

How can we build teams that know and understand how to block? Here’s a breakdown.

The Stance

The easiest way to get flattened by burnout is to be caught flat-footed. If you want to avoid getting flattened, you need the appropriate stance.

In football, there are two primary positions that players use for blocking: the two-point and three-point stance. Each stance is designed to help the blocker use their athleticism to their advantage, gaining leverage over their opponent and protecting a teammate along the way.

The modern, remote work environment tends to favor collaboration and cooperation at all costs. We co-locate and cram ourselves into open offices under the guise of “collaboration.” We use tools like Slack and Zoom to cooperate and keep lines of communication open. But each of these practices and tools can slowly leave us more exposed than ever.

If we want to get better at blocking and creating space for ourselves, we need to start with the right stance. The best stance for remote work is:

  1. Agile. It keeps you on your toes and allows you to move swiftly in all directions. If you need to step up and block an incoming request, you can. If you need to drop back and protect someone else, you can.

  2. Strong. It keeps you firmly planted, even under the most challenging circumstances. You’re ready for anything.

  3. Repeatable. Remote work moves faster than normal work, so you have to be ready to get into a protective stance at any moment. You need to be able to move fast, with confidence.

How to Get Yourself Into the Right Stance

  • Plant your feet. Start by blocking off your calendar. This allows you to create space for the work. I recommend using tools like Clockwise or Reclaim to help you create space on your calendar.

  • Know your numbers. Consistency creates strength and confidence. You’ll build up strength and knowledge as you do more reps. Track your time with tools like Clockwise (again) or Timely to gain better insight into you could be more effective.

  • Keep your head up. If you can’t see it coming, you can’t block it. Burnout doesn’t just happen, it piles up over time and then suddenly crushes us. Keep yourself constantly in check and recognize when it’s time to take a break (mentally and physically). Start with this list of 10 Ways to Get Away.

Types of Blocking

Not all blocks are designed to do the same thing. Sometimes we need people to help us block. Other times, we are running out ahead to do the blocking for a teammate. We should learn how to think about these techniques and do our best to apply the right method in each situation.

Run blocking

In football, the idea of run blocking is to drive the defender away from an area or player. This may be straight ahead or off to the side in order to create a hole for the running back to come through.

At work, we can think about run blocking as a strategic and coordinated effort to create openings or protective barriers for coworkers (or ourselves).

Pass blocking

Similarly, passing situations in football require offensive blockers to protect the quarterback. They form a pocket around the quarterback and keep the defenders from getting through. Each lineman should have an assigned defender to block. Sometimes two linemen will be assigned to one player in a double-team block.

At work, we can assign blockers to a specific defender and work to effectively give ourselves and our teammates the room to run, pass, or handoff.

How to Improve Blocking

Whether we’re blocking as a group or as an individual, we can utilize the same principles to improve our blocking. The principles include:

  • Block offensively. In every situation, do what you can to be ahead of the blocking needs. If you use a communication app like Slack, start your day by signaling to your team what you’re working on and how they could help.

  • Know when to block. Don’t assume that blocking is always necessary. Unwelcome blocking can create unnecessary boundaries for those who prefer to integrate or cycle in their boundary management. If you or one of your coworkers is showing signs of burnout—additional fatigue, forgetfulness, anxiety, etc.—it’s likely time to start blocking. Not sure if you’re about to burnout? MindTools has a great little tool to help you assess your situation. Try it here.

Communication: Understanding the Snap Count

Great teams have great communication. It can seem second-nature — as if they’re reading each other’s minds.

In football, the snap count is a critical offensive and defensive communication point. Concentrating on the snap count gives offensive teams an advantage over their defensive counterparts. Instead of reacting, they’re acting at exactly the right moment, wasting no time moving too early or too late. They can start their block the second the ball is snapped, providing valuable seconds for themselves and their teammates. This takes a lot of concentration and coordination.

Most people talk about the need for remote workers to communicate, communicate, communicate. But not all communication is the same. And it’s especially difficult to notice the difference when your communication channels are digital—Zoom, Slack, and email obfuscate the underlying tone that helps us parse emotions and subtext.

In order to work well with our teams, we need to understand the snap count.

Learn About Your Coworkers

Do your coworkers have kids, a sick family member, or an outside commitment? The more we know about what other people need, the easier it is to help them block a time or even find ways to work around their schedule so we can block time for ourselves.

Recommendation: schedule regular 1:1s and check-ins using Navigator.

Schedule Other Activities

If you’re just sitting there, it’s easy to default to work. When we’re not surrounded by our work, it’s easier to avoid it. We can’t sit in the pocket all day and just assume we’ll never get sacked. Sooner or later, a defender shows up to plant us on our back. Recommendation: schedule virtual social events, pick up a new hobby or book, or pick one of the 10 Ways to Get Away.

Be Explicit With Your Goals and Actions

People can’t read your mind, so you need to tell them what you’re planning to do. In time, they’ll learn your patterns and find ways to improve together.

Recommendation: use a tool like Sunsama to collaboratively track your workload. This enables managers, teammates, and even family members to see the commitments on your plate.

Learning to Block: A Work-as-a-Sport Lesson for Organizations and Managers

Overworking can decrease employee engagement, reduce well-being, increase conflict, and exacerbate collaboration issues and turnover. Employees should not be alone in this battle. Managers and organizations can help remote employees by providing more accommodation and boundary protection. Each level of the workforce plays a critical role in blocking:

  • Organizations = governing bodies. They can enforce rules and regulations.

  • Managers = coaches. They can enforce behaviors and standards for the team.

  • Employees = players. They train and play hard, but need to know their limits.

Culture comes from above, so these policies say a lot about what companies value. And having a little extra support every now and then can save much more than time and money — it can save a life.

Blocking As An Organization

In a recent study, about two-thirds of remote work ready companies plan to make some of their new policies permanent. As more companies go remote, organizations will need to collaborate with employees and leaders to ensure employees are learning to block for themselves and keep their team on track.

Here are five emerging practices that organizations are exploring:

  1. Sabbaticals and mandatory vacation. Every quarterback has an off-season. Even if that means you’re still practicing and gaining new skills, you can’t go at 100% all year. Sabbaticals and vacations provide a much-needed break from the day-to-day of modern work.

  2. Provide a minimum time off. It’s one thing to rest in the offseason. It’s an entirely different thing to play every minute of every game. Companies may need to start enforcing a minimum time off to prevent burnout and keep employees healthy, even if it’s just one day a month. Trust me, they’ll play better when they’re rested.

  3. Spread out the work. Some players may be best suited to call the plays, move the ball, and keep the team going, but that doesn’t mean they’re alone. If an employee is going out of town, create mechanisms that allow others to step in and fill the gaps. Just like a team that relies on an all-star, you’re not doing your job if their absence is truly detrimental.

  4. Learn Boundary Management Styles. Educate others on social differences in boundary management when team building. Embrace diversity of boundary management styles without stigma. Review your style here.

  5. Focus on Results. Develop a culture that is results-oriented work rather than activity-oriented. Running in place is about the least productive thing a player could do, but sadly, we all know plenty of players who do this. When we change to a results-oriented culture, employees feel more open to taking breaks.

Blocking As A Manager

Too many managers ask employees to tell them where to draw the boundaries. This is insanity. Seriously.

Employees, by definition, are working for someone. Therefore, the responsibility falls to the employer, not the employee. Managers need to embrace the psychological impact of their actions and take responsibility. If you’re a manager, here’s are a few tips to help block for your employees:

  1. Model good behavior. Don’t be the a**hole who sends emails at 11pm. Whether it’s intentional or not, you’re communicating a lack of boundary control and creating mixed signals for your employees. Many employees feel compelled to check their email or respond during non-work hours, which often leads to increased stress and anxiety.

  2. Learn about employee values and needs. Not just surface level stuff. Try to understand where they value their time and work to meet their needs. Some employees are better at sharing their preferences proactively, so don’t be afraid to ask.

  3. Focus on results, not activity. Managers and organizations already put enough pressure on remote worker productivity; we don’t need to overemphasize activity. Instead, let your employees know that output is what matters.

  4. Communicate your expectations. We all lose when we’re silent. Be clear about your expectations and allow employees to know that you’re doing this so you can collaboratively reach your goals.

  5. Be a blocker. Don’t force employees to be the only blockers on the team. Step in, and step up.

Conclusion

Boundaries are much easier to manage in a physical environment. We’ve grown accustomed to just accepting them as they are, but in the modern workforce we’re forced to face a new reality: we must protect our assets.

The habits we create at work have long-lasting consequences that take years to manifest. Whether it’s attention, energy, well-being, relationships, or communication, we need to redesign our work and our lives to create a healthy environment where we can all thrive and advance.

Organizations, managers, and employees need to work in concert to build the future of work. Why not start with blocking?


What next: Over the next few newsletters, I’ll be exploring strategies that organizations, managers, and employees can use to address the challenges of remote work.

Enjoying Path Nine?

If you liked this post, I’d really appreciate it if you share the post!

Share

Thanks for reading, and see you next week,

— Kevin K. (@kkirkpatrick)