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Why workplaces must establish digital guardrails in 2023

By Dr Kristy Goodwin | |6 minute read
Why Workplaces Must Establish Digital Guardrails In 2023

Numerous studies are confirming that burnout rates are rising. 2022 Microsoft data revealed that 62 per cent of employees and 66 per cent of Australian managers are experiencing burnout. The digital behaviours we’ve adopted as we’ve embraced new ways of working are significant contributing factors to why burnout is increasing in the workplace. 

We’re using digital technologies in unsustainable ways. Many of us have adopted digital behaviours that aren’t congruent with how we’re designed to operate as humans — our neurobiology.

The pandemic ushered in permanent and significant changes to how we work. We’ve seen radical shifts in how, where and when we work. These changes happened almost instantaneously and without a lot of guidance regarding best practice. Many of us walked out of our office in March 2020 with our laptops under our arms and were thrust into remote work. Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella stated that organisations underwent two years of digital transformation in two months.

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The rise of digitisation due to remote work — and now hybrid work — has brought with it a perceived need to always be on, and with that, our wellbeing and productivity have taken a hit. We’ve adopted digital behaviours that are incongruent with our neurobiology — how we as humans actually operate, which is our human operating system (hOS).

This is why many people are experiencing “digital burnout”. Digital burnout results from unhealthy and unsustainable digital behaviours that leave us feeling stressed. We spend our days bouncing between emails, WhatsApp messages, Microsoft Teams meetings, Trello boards, Slack chats, and social media direct messages (DMs). The potential productivity gains that remote and hybrid work promised are under threat from the barrage of digital distractions, and from remote work norms and practices that conflict with our basic biological needs. For example, research with EEG machines confirms that brain fatigue sets in between 30 and 40 minutes into a virtual meeting, and stress accumu­lates after two hours of video calls each day. Yet, people are spending their workdays going from one Zoom meeting to the next. (I’m sure you can relate!)

The shift to distributed teams and hybrid work has resulted in more people experiencing digital burnout, for the following reasons:

We’ve seen an increase in our digital load: Microsoft users alone sent 40.6 billion more emails in February 2021 than they did in February 2020.

We’ve adopted digital work practices that are incongruent with our biological blueprint: We’re spending our days multitasking, triaging our inboxes during virtual meetings and working on three projects at once in different tabs. That simply doesn’t work for our brains and bodies — it’s draining our brains and denting our productivity!

We have adopted an always-on, busy culture: This culture dominates most workplaces (and did even before the pandemic). Remote work has heightened this culture and created “digital presenteeism”, where your productivity and performance are superficially gauged by how responsive you are to emails or Teams chats.

As we’re reconceptualising new ways of working, now is the time for us to map our growing knowledge of how the brain and body work best in a digital context to the work practices and norms we’re embedding.

If organisations want to make hybrid work, work, then it’s critical that they articulate their digital guardrails. These are the accepted digital norms, practices and principles that underpin how technology is used in organisations. These guardrails provide clarity around an organisation’s digital expectations (or, as I colloquially refer to them as, “tech-spectations”). They are team agreements explicating how quickly employees are expected to reply to Teams chats or internal emails. How do you handle “after-hours” emails? Are cameras enabled for all virtual meetings? Do you have a communication escalation plan so employees feel like they can psychologically switch off from work, knowing that if there’s an urgent matter, there’s only one mode of communication through which they’ll be reached?

If organisations aren’t on the front foot and establishing these guardrails, then we could possibly see legislation around the “right to disconnect”. The Call Me Maybe (not) report published by the Australia Institute suggested that 84 per cent of workers expressed support for the federal government to legislate a right to disconnect. Now is the time for organisations to co-establish their organisation’s digital guardrails if we want to make hybrid work, work.

Dr Kristy Goodwin is a digital wellbeing and productivity expert who works with senior business leaders and HR executives to promote digital wellbeing and performance in their organisations. She is the author of Dear Digital, We Need to Talk: A guilt-free guide to taming your tech habits and thriving in a distracted world.