Just 20 months ago, broaching the subject of home or flexi working took a deep breath and some courage for fear of being considered work shy.
Fast forward to today and the new normal sees nearly 40% of professionals admitting to working some of the time from home.
No longer having to endure long commutes just to share the air conditioning with colleagues is a welcome change, but does the hybrid working revolution really tick all the boxes or has it brought with it its own problems?
How many communication tools is too many?
Remote and hybrid working has only become possible as a result of the widespread adoption and acceptance of online communication tools. Video conferencing, email, instant messaging and virtual chat have become the equivalent of a boardroom round table or quick catch up by the water cooler.
But are we now overly connected?
Pre pandemic, most of us were only reachable via email or old-fashioned telephone. Now we’ve added Zoom, WhatsApp, Chat rooms and social media DMs into the working mix. All technological innovations that have enhanced our professional and private lives during the pandemic, but when does this much communication become interference that can threaten to overwhelm?
Ashley Friedlein is CEO of Guild, a platform for professional groups, networks, organisations, and communities. He’s concerned the working-from-home revolution isn’t as beneficial as it currently seems.
“Accelerated by the pandemic, work schedules have become more flexible, and as a result, there’s been a blurring of lines between what constitutes personal and professional use of digital communication tools.
“While this can have its benefits, including facilitating a culture of innovation which leads to increased productivity, there is also the risk of it having a negative effect on mental health and well-being, leading to employee burnout when the frequency of messages or number of channels used to communicate becomes unmanageable, leaving staff unable to cope with the pressure of being ‘always-on’.
Greig Johnston is CEO at Vidatec. The company behind the NHS’s Couch to 5k app have just launched Engage4, a workplace wellbeing platform designed to help organisations improve their workplace culture.
“Remote working employees can often be expected to use upwards of eight apps daily, this has led to a kind of Frankenstein-like solution that is expensive, bloated and an endless source of daily frustration to workforces. “
Is the lack of physical interaction from remote working adding to the problem?
The lack of physical interaction with friends and colleagues seems to be compounding this digital overload. In the workplace we’re still getting used to this new-normal and there seems to be a trend towards over-compensating for not actually meeting face-to-face. Always being available and always being ‘on’ seems to be our way of adjusting to remote working. Admirable, but long term potentially damaging to our health.
Ashley of Guild suggests individuals need to take control; “A key part of the solution lies not only in the apps providing the ability to switch off notifications, but also empowering employees to feel confident enough to take a break when they need to. The role of the organisation is to make their workers feel comfortable enough to be able to say ‘no’ when needed – not to put pressure on them by contacting them via other channels for not responding to an email instantly, for example. This sort of behaviour makes for a toxic work environment and adds unnecessary stress. “
“Businesses’ need to take a step back and understand that tackling digital overload requires a cultural shift rather than a quick and easy fix. Employee engagement isn’t just about opening a channel, it’s about fostering a sense of community and two-way communication with as few barriers and as little friction as possible,” suggests Greig Johnston of Vidatec.
4 tips for managing digital overload
Separate business and pleasure
Companies should help their employees to untangle the work and personal use of digital communication by not using consumer messaging apps, such as WhatsApp. Stick to a dedicated business tool for office communication.
Reduce the noise
As an employee you may not have much say over the number of communication tools your organisation uses but you can control how you use them. Switch off notifications and anything that interferes or distracts you during a particular task. We’re not all adept at multitasking so try to switch off the interruptions and concentrate on the task in hand.
Schedule time for communication
Checking your emails and messages at set times each day gives you the opportunity to really concentrate. Studies have shown that workers who look at emails just a few times each day report lower stress than constant checkers.
Limit unnecessary communication
Take a good hard look at those you allow to contact you. You might think having 1000s of connections on LinkedIn is a good thing but scrolling through a ream of social media notifications takes time and effort. The same can be said for emails. Time spent unsubscribing from unnecessary communications will be well spent.
Avoiding digital overload will take a planned approach
For the benefits of the home working revolution to continue to be felt, employers must take time to reflect on their communication strategies and consider their effects not only on productivity but also on employee well-being. The number of communication channels and the frequency of interruption needs to be carefully managed to avoid the pressure of being ‘always-on’ resulting in staff being unable to cope.