When remote work abruptly became the new normal in 2020, the digital intensity of the workday suddenly became even more… intense. While teams scrambled to stay connected, meetings became longer and more frequent, virtual chats became constant, and work hours became undefined. Now, as it becomes clear that flexible work is here to stay, employers must address the digital exhaustion that employees feel. Here’s what employers need to know about digital intensity and how to reduce it:

The digital intensity continues to increase.

Even as many institutions are reopening, the amount of time spent communicating online continues to increase at an unprecedented pace. During the early months of the pandemic, while we were confined to our homes, Zoom reports that users spent 79 billion annual minutes in virtual meetings. Today, that number is more than 3.3 trillion annual minutes. The amount of time spent using Microsoft Teams software is trending the same way. Since February 2020, the number of emails delivered has increased by over 40 billion. The average employee sends a whopping 45 percent more chats per week and 42 percent more chats after work hours. In addition to constant emails and chats, weekly meeting time has more than doubled, increasing by 148% and still on the rise.

The big problem is that most of this communication is unplanned and unstructured.

Sixty-two percent of calls and meetings are unscheduled, occurring on the fly. And despite the dramatic increase in the number of daily meetings and chats, employees feel obligated to respond as quickly as ever. According to Microsoft, 50 percent of workers respond to chats in under five minutes, a metric that has not changed in years. Therefore, it’s not surprising that fifty-two percent of employees report experiencing burnout in 2021. The challenge is this—as offices reopen and transition to a hybrid work environment, employers must find ways to combat digital burnout, while keeping remote employees connected.

Employers can reduce digital intensity by optimizing communications.

In order to maximize the benefits of remote communication while minimizing stress and fatigue, employers should optimize virtual communication. First and foremost, that means evaluating current communication strategies with a critical eye and eliminating any meetings or chats that are unnecessary.  

Use video meetings sparingly.

Research shows that video communications are especially exhausting because of a psychological phenomenon called the “hyper gaze.” When everyone on a video call is staring into their screen, it feels as if the group is staring at you, even when you’re not the person speaking. The hyper gaze is exhausting in itself but is amplified by the experience of watching ourselves on screen. Although we see ourselves in mirrors all the time, watching ourselves behave socially is a different experience entirely.

Set clear expectations and boundaries.

Let employees know exactly what is expected of them in terms of virtual communication and set guidelines for how employees should communicate with each other. This will help alleviate the pressure to respond quickly at all times and make it easier for employees to actually unplug and relax. These expectations will look different for every organization, but open communication eliminates any employee guesswork, which is another huge load off.  

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