By Andy Chavez, CM&AA

What can drones tell us about preventing burnout in the AEC industry?

Drone and UAV technology has come a long way in the last few years.  New developments allow drones to fly fasters, longer, and higher than ever before.  Not only has battery technology improved, but so too has our strategic deployment of these resources.  Field and home docking stations allow drones to recharge their batteries, upload data, and rest until needed again.  This strategic deployment helps maintain the continuity of crucial data streams and prevents the physical loss of drones.

It is easy to think of drones in these terms, but the same isn’t necessarily true for us as human beings.  And it’s true, we are not drones.  We need much more to sustain our daily tasks beyond being shut off and charged.  The human brain is complex, but, by thinking strategically about how we deploy our resources, we can prevent burnout in ourselves and those who work with us.  

Firm owners and employees all agree that burnout should be avoided, but I think that today’s work environment is vastly different from that of several years ago and deserves an updated and refreshed set of approaches to solve the issue. Here are some actionable solutions for both owners and employees alike to promote the longevity of high performers in the workplace:

1. Take a real lunch break. While working from home, many of us find ourselves eating in front of our computers while trying to crunch out one of our tasks for the day. When we work through lunch, we deprive ourselves of the following benefits:

– Increased productivity. Taking breaks might sound counterintuitive when it comes to boosting productivity, but it’s one of the best ways to do so. 

-Improved mental well-being. Our brains need time to recharge. Taking some time away from the desk to go for a quick walk or unplug from your devices has a way of reducing stress and improving mental well-being. In Peace in Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh expands on the benefits of ensuring that you find a consistent time to disconnect from your devices (amongst other things) every day.

-Creativity boost. Taking a break can give you a fresh perspective on challenging projects. 

2. For employers: Create immediate rewards for positive behavior. While we don’t have a full grasp on the complexity of the human mind, we know we can create positive habits via positive reinforcement (rewards). The most common and well known, tangible form of positive reinforcement in the workplace is merit-based bonuses. From an employee’s perspective, this is always appreciated, but I don’t think it’s effective at combating burnout. In Atomic Habits, James Clear explains that the more time there is between a reward and an action, the less effective our brains are at associating the two together to create a habit. Long-term rewards require more conscious thought and decision making from the employee to hold on to that motivation and put in the extra time necessary to claim the reward at the end of the period. Long-term rewards require more discipline and willpower.

Supplement your long-term reward with a short-term reward that offers more frequent positive reinforcement of the behavior that the employee is displaying. My suggestion: if your employee is working late into the evening, allow them to order and expense dinner. To the brain, the thought of working additional hours until the end of your bonus period is a much more daunting endeavor than working until your Chipotle arrives in an hour or two. Our brains are complex but creating and fostering productive habits can be simple.

3. Utilize locational cues if working from home. In Atomic Habits, Clear also explains that our brains use locations as “cues” that are to be followed by an action. In other words, our brains naturally associate certain locations with certain actions and/ or habits. Since Covid, the lines have been blurred and many are struggling to find and maintain a balance between work and life that is sustainable. For some, they may have found issues remaining productive at home with all of the distractions. For others, they may have been too successful in bringing their work home and now have issues finding time to unwind, causing them to feel more stressed and burned out than ever. Clear’s suggestion: create more precise locational cues within your home. This requires a bit of discipline, but it’s effective if you’re persistent and intentional. 

This method of separating work from relaxation when working from home requires a fair amount of discipline and an almost comically strict implementation of the ground rules (yes, you have to stand up and walk to your couch to scroll through Instagram). However, it becomes more habitual over time and has been an effective way for me to find a healthy work-life balance that promotes longevity and prevents burnout. 

Compared to a human brain, drones are not a particular complex technology.  Our understanding of the different pieces of unpiloted flight have improved in recent years, leading to more effective uses of the technology.  Likewise, our understanding of the human brain and what it takes to prevent burnout is growing every year.  By using this understanding to guide successful business practices, we can work towards eliminating burnout in the AEC industry.


Andy Chavez, CM&AA  is an advisor within Zweig Group’s M&A advisory services team. Contact him at achavez@zweiggroup.com.

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