People Management

The Realities of Hybrid Work and Digital Exhaustion

May 24, 2023 | By Jenna van Schoor
Man exhausted working from home at night

Hybrid work is the new normal for many people. However, many organisations have not defined exactly what this means for their business and employees. The associated “productivity paranoia” is leading to digital exhaustion.

In this post, we’ll talk more about what hybrid work is, what digital exhaustion is and the link between them. We’ll also share some tips for dealing with digital fatigue, and how to incorporate these into an effective employee wellness programme.

What is hybrid work?

Hybrid work has become a reality since the pandemic. Many employees were forced to leave the office and work from home during the lockdown. Now that things have returned to a semblance of “normal”, it has been seen as an ideal way to have the best of both worlds. However, what works for one business, or one employee, might not work for another.

Gartner, a prominent market research firm, defines hybrid work as “…a work model where employees are expected to attend the office at least one day per week while being permitted to work from a location other than the office some of the time.” However, it’s implementation is open to interpretation, which can lead to challenges in productivity and employee wellness.

What is digital exhaustion?

Also known as digital fatigue, digital exhaustion can result from spending too much time behind a screen. This can be exacerbated by demanding work schedules, personal commitments and also overworking due to “productivity paranoia”. 

Psychology Today defines productivity paranoia as the disconnect between employer and employee perceptions of productivity. Since so many businesses have shifted to working remotely, it seems a sense of mistrust has developed between managers and their teams, which has resulted in a need for employees to constantly prove that they’re doing enough work.

This is made worse by the fact that most people have felt a sense of digital overwhelm anyway as a result of the pandemic, both in the “office” and outside of work. Deloitte’s 2021 Connectivity and Mobile Trends Survey shares that while many people appreciated being able to connect online, they felt overwhelmed by the number of devices and subscriptions that they had to manage, especially if they had children.

How are hybrid work and digital exhaustion linked?

We’ve discussed what hybrid work is and how the pandemic may have increased feelings of digital overwhelm, but is there a solid link between new working models and digital exhaustion? If we consider that people feel largely overwhelmed by devices and online subscriptions, how does this impact working mostly remotely and being able to access office resources 24/7?

According to Microsoft’s recent Work Trend Impulse Report, there is a huge disconnect between managers and employees when it comes to being productive. Managers don’t fully trust that their employees are doing their jobs. On the other hand, most employees think they’re being just as productive while working from home. 

This disconnect has led to productivity paranoia, which affects morale and productivity in hybrid working environments. Microsoft’s research shows that employees are spending more time in meetings than ever before. So, the reality is that employees might be working more. However, if managers aren’t able to see them doing it, it seems like it will never be enough – unless businesses establish grounded expectations with employees and value employee wellness.

Tips for dealing with digital exhaustion

On an individual level, dealing with digital fatigue is similar to how you would manage any kind of burnout. This includes taking care of your mental and physical health and learning to set boundaries between work and personal life. 

Of course, this is easier said than done, so here are some tips:

1. Take regular breaks

If you find yourself sitting at your desk for hours at a time, try to incorporate regular breaks into your work schedule. When there are deadlines to meet, it can be tricky. But, even just taking regular 10-minute breaks to avert your eyes from a screen, and to get up and walk around, can be helpful.

2. Communicate

Burnout results from overstretching yourself, which can be a result of not communicating your needs or a sense of overwhelm. In a virtual work environment, it might not be so easy to turn to others for help. Therefore communicating your need for assistance, or clear guidance, is important.

3. Prioritise

Prioritising tasks and deadlines is essential for managing digital fatigue and preventing burnout. If everyone is clear about what tasks are a priority, the most important work can get done with minimal stress. However, the risk of digital exhaustion increases if team members focus on “busy work” and are not doing anything meaningful.

How to implement employee wellness strategies as a manager

Managers also experience burnout and overwhelm, so it’s critical to develop a culture that supports employee wellness and open communication. Employee wellness programmes should not just pay lip service to individual needs, but actively support everyone. This is especially the case when there is minimal interpersonal contact.

In addition to the points raised in the previous section, managers can do the following to ensure that there is a healthy hybrid working culture in place to minimise digital exhaustion:

1. Define exactly what hybrid work means

One of the points continually raised about hybrid work is that while the concept of working between home and the office might seem simple, there is no one size fits all approach. To create a constructive work environment, both at the office and virtually, businesses need to define what “hybrid” means to them, and how it is going to be implemented.

A BBC article titled “Why hybrid work is emotionally exhausting” shares the story of an account manager in London who eventually decided to work fully remotely as she found this working model too disruptive. This kind of anecdotal evidence suggests that hybrid needs to be adapted to the needs of the business and employees, and less frequent office time might suit certain roles better.

2. Leverage technology for better productivity

As much as no one needs any more screens to look at or apps and software to manage, leveraging more effective technology can help reduce digital exhaustion. For example, using collaborative and workflow software can help streamline workflows to reduce multiple email threads.

This approach also helps to reduce stress as all tasks can be in a central location. Managers can then easily gauge what needs to be done, without having to micromanage and follow up on individual tasks via email or personal chat. Making sure that everyone has access to the same technology, and uses it, also ensures that there is little room for proximity bias, as all employees communicate with each other in the same way.

3. Co-create clear expectations

Over and above what technology a team uses to communicate, it’s important that all members co-create clear expectations to ensure that no one feels they have to overwork to prove that they’re doing their job. This creates a solid foundation for any hybrid work scenario, and takes the pressure off of employees to “be seen”, as they understand exactly what needs to be done, and who to turn to for help if they are struggling with a task. 

This forms a core part of integrating employee wellness into everyday working life, and not just handing out superficial wellness perks, which although well-meaning, couldn’t amount to little more than window dressing if underlying issues are not addressed.

Learn more about employee wellness

Managing a hybrid team is challenging in a complex and competitive marketplace. However, with the right skills and tools, managers and companies can develop a healthy working culture. One that supports productivity and individual growth by prioritising employee wellness. 

To learn more about how to implement employee wellness strategies in your business, register for our Employee Motivation and Wellness. You can also learn more by registering for our comprehensive Intro to Business Environments short online course.

Get in touch with our team to find out more about these specialised courses.

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