COVID BROKe down the work-home divide. here's how you can reclaim it.

COVID-normal life is anything but normal. Our digital world has expanded, filling the gaps in a physically distanced world. People are working from home as much as they are living where they work.

Living through a pandemic has become an unplanned social experiment with repercussions for our physical health, mental wellbeing and productivity. But the growing list of digital dilemmas also leads to new opportunities.

"We've got to have a cultural reframe," Dr Kristy Goodwin said during a recent Women in Super and J.P. Morgan partnered event about how COVID-19 is leading to new digital approaches to work and culture.

We've got to shift this outdated, industrialised model of productivity that time in the office equals productivity.

"We've got to shift this outdated, industrialised model of productivity that time in the office equals productivity. We are at this unique juncture where we can focus on the tasks that need to be accomplished, and then match them to the right technological tools that help, rather than hinder us."

 

Counting the cost of screen time

Dr Goodwin, who researches digital wellbeing and productivity, says COVID-19 has created a world where we spend more time online than ever before.

A recent study of digital communications across 21,000 companies as the pandemic hit (March to May), found the average work day increased by more than 48 minutes, with a significant increase in email activity[1].

As the pandemic hit, the average work day increased by more than 48 minutes.

"While these patterns have started to trend back down to pre-lockdown levels, we still know the work day is about 10 to 20% longer on average for most of us. This sets unique challenges for our physical health and for our mental wellbeing."

The health costs of this turbocharged digital lifestyle include higher risks of myopia (short-sightedness) from excessive screen time, musculoskeletal issues from poorly designed workspaces, reduced duration and quality of sleep, and mental burnout.

"We're seeing elevated levels of stress and often this can be attributed to techno stress, burnout and fatigue. We're tethered to technology around the clock," said Dr Goodwin.

 

An always on work culture

So-called 'digital presenteeism' – where staff feel pressure to be available online 24/7 to prove they are actively working at home – remains an issue across many organisations, according to Dr Goodwin. But there can be a wide range of responses to what is an acceptable response time to an email even within teams.

Sunsuper's Head of Employee and Workplace Experience, Adam Fitzhenry, said rather than micro-managing staff online behaviour, they encourage teams to talk about their expectations of each other and the unique situations they each face.

"Trust is the foundation of our values – how do we ensure that we have really strong bonds of trust between each other? It begins with the right intent and an ongoing open dialogue and feedback."

J.P. Morgan Senior Relationship Manager, Platform Sales, Adam Snyder, said some of the firm's younger staff had initially expressed similar concerns about being seen online enough when working from home.

"We created a few events with our senior leaders to pass down their knowledge around creating a healthy separation between work and home," he said. "We also wanted to create that sense of comfort that it's okay to have kids and even pets make the occasional cameo in a Zoom call."

J.P. Morgan staff also received support such as an extra five annual leave days, while its popular Working Family Network – launched last December – gave staff an avenue to connect and support each other.

Women in Super Chief Executive Sandra Buckley said the pandemic had quickly forced a more flexible working environment. For example, some call centre fund employees had asked to work over the Easter break because their partners could more easily look after their home-schooled children. The timing also worked for funds which were inundated with calls about early release.

"It is interesting to see how those barriers are being knocked away – we still have to navigate the challenges but we'll get there."

 

Managing attention in a sea of distraction

This digital world places an even greater strain on our attention spans. Studies have shown that the average knowledge worker can focus for less than three hours a day on deep productive work.

"One of the chief reasons why our productivity growth has stagnated over recent years is because of the dent in our productivity being attributed to distraction," Dr Goodwin said. "We have a whole plethora of digital technologies that have been engineered to hijack our digital attention."

The price is lower productivity, poorer retention of information, and more frequent errors. This is the reason why US airlines instituted a 'Sterile Cockpit Rule', which prevents pilots from being distracted during critical phases of a flight.

It takes an intentional plan to make technology work for us rather than against us, such as blocking out scheduled time for deep work, batching common tasks (such as checking email), switching off notifications, and making better use of calendar scheduling tools.

"I believe that being able to manage our attention in this digital context is going to be the super skill of the 21st Century," Dr Goodwin said.

 

Avoiding the online meeting trap

Virtual meeting tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams have helped connect people who are working from home.

Online meetings also make it far easier to invite people to meetings at the click of a button. This 'zero cost of inclusion' leads to a greater number of meetings. It fulfills a deep psychological need for connection but, even when you don't need to be there, it's harder to say no and risk being socially ostracised.

Our brains also process information differently during online meetings, working overtime to assess the limited social cues, different backgrounds, or even our own image.  

"This is the very first time in history where we have been in a social context where we can physically see ourselves. If you've caught a glimpse of yourself and those strange idiosyncrasies you've adopted along the way, this can often be what's mentally depleting," said Dr Goodwin.

"We are trying to compensate for the absence of social cues. If we were there in person there'd be a whole lot of body language, tonal language that you would be able to interpret". Organisations and staff need to get the balance right and continually reassess how they're using technology. For example, organisations could record and transcribe meetings and distribute key points to staff rather than asking them all to join a meeting.

However, there are ways around these challenges. Dr Goodwin has identified four pillars of peak performance that can help people use digital technology without being overloaded.

 

Four pillars of peak performance in a digital world  

  1. Parameters and policies

Organisations and their staff should agree on digital boundaries or 'tech-spectations'. For example, what is the best way to communicate time-critical decisions without requiring staff to hover over their email around the clock? Can email autoresponders or including an FAQ for common enquiries help staff carve out time for deep work? Dr Goodwin recommends a 20:20:20 policy: every 20 minutes on a device, look away for 20 seconds, look at something 20 feet away, and blink at least 20 times.

  1. Neuro-productivity hacks

We need to make the communication tools we use work in conjunction with the way our brains are naturally wired. For example, each person has a chronotype depending on when their energy levels peak. Try to align deep work activities to your natural body clock, whether that’s the morning, middle of the day, or night.

  1. Disable digital distractions

Building a fortress around our focus is crucial to protect time for deep work through simple tactics such as switching off common notifications such as email or apps or putting our phones in 'do not disturb' mode. Another potential solution is to hide common screen icons that grab attention or simply maximise the application window.

  1. Digital disconnection

Reserving time for our minds to wander is essential for our wellbeing and productivity. This may involve batching and bundling certain work or email/app responses, scheduling Zoom-free meeting days, and time blocking the calendar for screen-free time. The coronavirus era has quickly changed the nature of work and culture, accelerating digital trends that promised much but didn’t always deliver. Sunsuper's Fitzhenry says there are positive changes that will last through the pandemic, such as a new conception of what the workplace is.

The awareness that we've been able to bring to the topic of mental health, isolation and community is going to be one of the positive by-products of COVID.

"I also think the awareness that we've been able to bring to the topic of mental health, isolation and community is going to be one of the positive by-products of COVID – there's a lot more conversation, a lot more connection."

 

[1] DeFilippis, E., Impink, S. M., Singell, M., Polzer, J. T., & Sadun, R. (2020). Collaborating During Coronavirus: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Nature of Work. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series. Retrieved from https://www.nber.org/papers/w27612

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