Digital exhaustion: Redefining work-life balance

Is your team suffering from the digital exhaustion that so often comes with remote and hybrid work? Consider these strategies to ease the stress
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The hybrid workplace is here to stay, so let’s get our heads around it.

In a recent report from Accenture, 83 percent of workers prefer a hybrid working model, where they can split time between the office and a remote environment.

This trend is not surprising; with the world entering year three of the pandemic, many workplaces have shifted at least partially online, and the working world has adjusted to a radically different rhythm.

Even as people have enjoyed greater flexibility and freedom, however, screen time has increased, teams have become more siloed, and digital exhaustion has become an aggressive, unsustainable threat. On top of this, the gap between remote and in-office workers is placing a new level of strain on teams.

[Also read Burnout busters: 5 tips to give your team motivation and purpose.]

For all the good remote work offers, the shift online has also heightened the amount and intensity of work. At many companies, meetings, quick conversations, and teamwork are increasingly being done online to accommodate remote staff members; therefore, more people are spending much of their workday staring at a screen. Overall, the digital intensity of a workers’ day has increased. According to a 2021 Pew Research survey, 40 percent of those who have used video since the onset of the pandemic feel fatigued or worn out from time spent on these calls.

When we compare collaboration trends for Microsoft 365 between February 2020 and February 2021, the average time spent on Microsoft Teams meetings has more than doubled, increasing to 2.5x globally. The average Teams user is sending 45 percent more messages per week and 42 percent more messages per person after hours.

The related spike in screen time is leading to tired eyes, sleepless nights, and digital exhaustion, which is the feeling of burnout and detachment people get from continuously using digital tools for long periods of time.

To address this problem, leaders must adopt modern views on work-life balance. This means creating an office culture that accepts different work styles and embraces flexibility.

A new look at work-life balance

For many, the time has come for a significant shift regarding control in the workplace. That may be easier said than done, but it is imperative to stave off digital exhaustion and manage attrition rates.

[ Reimagining work to fight change fatigue is a key CIO priority, according to a recent report from HBR Analytic Services. Download the eBook.

Let’s discuss some solutions:

As workers continue to create and collaborate in digital spaces, one of the best things we can do as leaders is to let go. Let go of preconceived schedules, of always knowing what someone is working on, of dictating when and how a project should be accomplished – in effect, let go of micromanagement. Instead, focus on hiring productive, competent workers and trust them to do their jobs. Don’t manage tasks – gauge results. Use benchmarks and deadlines to assess effectiveness and success.

This will make workers feel more empowered and trusted. Such “human-centric” design, as Gartner explains, emphasizes flexible work schedules, intentional collaboration, and empathy-based management to create a sustainable environment for hybrid work. According to Gartner’s evaluation, a human-centric approach to work stimulates a 28 percent rise in overall employee performance and a 44% decrease in employee fatigue. The data supports the importance of recognizing and reducing the impacts of digital exhaustion.

Avoiding burnout can be as simple as allowing people to listen to their bodies and work based on their own needs, preferences, and abilities.

As this strategy is implemented across hybrid teams, a new form of communication etiquette between leaders and their teams is crucial. Maintaining trust and efficiency in this flexible workplace will require enhanced communications – not in the sense of constant messaging and phone calls, but rather in providing awareness and updates that are timely, relevant, informative, and concise.

This type of communication builds understanding between office and remote team members by addressing the misconception that remote workers are working less (if we’ve learned anything over the past three years, it’s that the opposite is true). It also boosts efficiency as workers coordinate with each other and reduces the need for excessive messaging outside working hours.

By implementing these strategies, we not only reduce screen time – with fewer messages to respond to and fewer arbitrary meetings to attend – but we also allow workers to optimize their own productivity cycles. Maybe one team member works best in 45-minute increments, for example, with breaks to stretch in between. Another colleague might do their best work by hunkering down in their home office for two hours at 4 a.m. It is important to understand different working styles to maximize productivity.

Of course, as a leader, you must still ensure your team is meeting deadlines. But changing your approach will likely lead to better outcomes in our new hybrid working world.

Avoiding burnout can be as simple as allowing people to listen to their bodies and work based on their own needs, preferences, and abilities. This does not exclude the fact that some team activities or meetings will require everyone’s participation at a designated time. The key to staving off digital exhaustion is to ensure your workers can take a break when they need to and schedule their work around when they feel most productive. But to do this successfully, they must have confidence that their team members trust and respect their choices. In return, you will see improved team productivity, collaboration, and people who are working hard to do their best.

When you take a macro-management approach in the workplace, you give team members the space to be more present in their own lives and to make work “work” for them, with the benefit of improved performance and diminished digital exhaustion.

The hybrid work revolution has arrived, and it’s time for leaders to adapt with creative options and working styles for teams. So let go, and allow your employees to soar! They will thank you by being more productive and positive.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Irvin Bishop
Irvin Bishop is EVP & Global Chief Information Officer of Black & Veatch, an engineering company focusing on Critical Human Infrastructure. Effective as an entrepreneur in both start-up and fortune 50 corporate environments, he is equally comfortable with technology and data as well as marketing strategy and consumer insights.