Pursue What Matters
Episode 197: What to do About Digital Exhaustion
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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
Are you digitally exhausted? Do you even know what that is? In the past two years, our use of technology has skyrocketed. And along with that there are some big impacts.
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the Pursue What Matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. So are you digitally exhausted? Chances are Yes. So in the past two years, our use of technology has shot through the roof. And while that has allowed many of us to continue working productively, it doesn’t come without some consequences. So don’t worry, I’m not here to tell you to throw your desktop in the trash in favor of paper and pen. But I do want to share some numbers from a large scale survey to help you assess how you are doing when it comes to digital interface, right, and digital exhaustion and what you might want to do moving forward. Now, this has big impacts for us both individually, but also our teams, right, we’re all impacted by that, to some extent. And we had such a big change in such a short period of time, right, the whole world had to pivot very quickly. And so you know, this wasn’t a gradual shift over time. And so right, sometimes the impact of that can can be felt even more severely. And so it is something we do want to pay attention to. So of course, every week with the podcast, my goal is to help you pursue what matters by strengthening your confidence to lead. So I tried to do that in one of three areas first, leading with clarity, what are you doing? And why does it matter, second, leading with curiosity, where we really cultivate more self awareness and self leadership, and then leading and building a community. And so today, primarily, we’re really going to be focusing on this third area, leading and building a community. Of course, if you are an individual contributor, if you’re just thinking about your personal life, your individual work style, this will be really helpful for you. But we also really want to focus on the impact that this has had at work for our teams, the way that we do work, our productivity, all of those good things. And so let’s jump right in with our first point, which is to ask the question, Are you digitally exhausted? And what does that even mean?
So let’s start by taking a closer look at this term. So I’m bringing a lot of information to you today from the March 2021, annual report of the Microsoft work Trends Survey. And so Microsoft does a lot of work Trends Survey, it’s a really great resource to really kind of get a snapshot of how, how individuals and teams are working across the globe. Now, if you think about Microsoft, right, it is a global company, and they have a lot of Microsoft 365 tools that I suspect many of you are using everyday, right? So we think about Microsoft Word, we think about PowerPoint, we think about Excel, right? We think about chat, and so many of us use these tools every day. And so Microsoft is able to see what’s happening with the use of its tools. And so the study that I want to share with you today is a study of collaboration activity across all Microsoft 365 tools for a one year time period. And this was from February 2022, February 2021. So think about those dates, right? That’s right in the heart of the pandemic, right. For many of us, in America, at least, things really shut down about the second or third week of March. And so we saw a huge shift in how we do work, right? We think about lockdowns, we think about remote work. And so this is a really, really intriguing survey that really looks at what was happening, that work and with collaboration across this time. And so some of the tools that they looked at, they were looking at email, right, so that’s a big one right there. They were looking at chat documents, video conferencing, right, we saw a huge growth in that all the ways that you interact with your teams, right is what they were looking at.
So let’s go ahead and take a look at the findings and see if the findings can help you understand how digital exhaustion may be at play for you. Now, these are some real results that I have shared as part of keynote addresses and it’s been really, you know, very intriguing for people to hear some of these findings because it on one hand, it really validates their experience of like, Oh, my goodness, I’m always on a screen. But it also really is an opportunity has been an opportunity for people to be reflective and to really be intentional about, do we want to continue working this way. And so I hope that it can be helpful for you, in in that respect as well that you can, you know, can can get some validation of what’s been going on for you. But also, it’s a chance for you to be intentional about what you want to do moving forward. Okay. So what we, what we can all speak to what we all know, and certainly was found in this survey survey is that the digital intensity of worker stays has increased substantially with the average number of meetings and chats, steadily increasing over that time period, right. And what we know and Microsoft has done a little bit more work on this is that those numbers continue to rise, right. So it wasn’t just an anomaly of the pandemic, but it’s represents a bit of a reset, and how teams are working together. And so again, they’re looking at collaboration trends on these tools between February 2020, and February 2021. And so those are the results that we’ll talk about. And when we think about digital intensity, I want you to think about screen time. So it could be face to face virtual screen time with colleagues, it could be working in, in shared documents, it could be video conferencing, it could be sending and receiving emails, it could be chatting with team members. So when you think about digital digital interaction, that’s what we’re really looking at. And so let’s take a look at some of the findings.
So first of all, with meetings in that one year period, time spent in meetings has more than doubled globally, okay. So if you feel like you’ve experienced death by meetings, you’re not alone, that’s definitely a thing. So we’re spending two and a half, a two and a half times the amount of time that we used to spend in meetings. So think about that. And just think about what that does to the rest of your work week. What does that do for focused? Individual Work? Right? It really plummets it. And so another finding is that, that weekly meeting time has more than doubled for teams, but it continues to rise. So on average, 148%, more meeting time across organizations. And so just take a minute and think about your, your teams, right? And if that that fits for you, right? And this isn’t necessarily all bad, right? I want to be really clear about that. It’s first understanding what’s happening. And then looking at, you know, does this still work for us, because, for example, when it comes to meetings, and the pandemic, one of the recommendations that I certainly made others may is that during that period of time, where everyone had to move to remote work very quickly, there was a strong recommendation that you increase the amount of meetings that you have, right, and that that was important, we need to increase the face time, because some of the natural and casual collaboration that would happen when you’re together in the office, of course, wasn’t happening. Another reason that we may be recommended to increase meetings was to ensure that team members had support that it was easy to ask for help, it was easy to check in on the status of projects. And again, those are activities that, you know, could happen pretty naturally, when you’re all in the office together, but not not happening when you’re in your closet working. And so, you know, an increase in meetings was an appropriate response to pandemic conditions. And the question that I have for you now is, is that still so right, so maybe, maybe your work has continued to be fully remote. And so having more touch points, with meetings makes sense. Maybe you’re moving towards more of a hybrid model. And so it looks like it might be time to back off on some of those meetings. And some of you may be back to, you know, mostly faced in office work. And so maybe you don’t, you don’t have a need for as many meetings. The other finding is that the average meeting is 10 minutes longer. So not only are we in more, we’re having more meetings, but each of those meetings are longer. So they’re increasing from an average of 35 minutes to 45 minutes.
So I think the big point here is is when you’re spending time in meetings, you’re not, you’re not necessarily getting work done right now, depending on the nature of the meeting, right? We can, we can have work meetings where you can get a lot done right. But it requires a lot of focused attention. But for the vast majority of us, when we’re in meetings, right, we’re providing updates, we’re making decisions, we’re not actually in the work, making progress on it. And so that’s something that we just want to be really careful of, because where, where are you pulling that time from? And what we saw over that year, and I think we’re continuing to see it, is that people are just working more, right, they have fewer boundaries around time. And that, you know, that’s particularly true. When you think about working from home, it’s easy to respond to emails at all hours, it’s easy to you know, pick up the laptop after hours. And so where are people making up this time where, you know, they’re spending more of their time in meetings, while they’re just working more? And if we do that long term, right, that can really be a recipe for burnout. And at the very least, that digital exhaustion, which we’re talking about. So now let’s move to another format, which is emails. So what did they find in that year? So the number of emails delivered in that year increased by 40. Point 6 billion emails. So if the meeting doesn’t kill you, the emails will. So you know, maybe you feel like, Oh, my goodness, I can’t catch up with emails I’m bombarded. That would be accurate. We had a massive increase in the number of emails sent. Again, this makes a lot of sense. If you’re not in office together, how are you communicating a lot of that communication is moving to email. And email is a very, very good tool. But it’s only one tool. And so if email is really, you know, one of the only tools that you have because everyone’s working remotely, while communication can suffer, right? Like, things get lost in translation, we don’t pin things down as specifically. The other thing about email is just trying to chase down an email chain. I, you know, like I feel pretty confident with with email, but there are times where I am looking for an email chain. And I’m like, What on earth is happening? Like, where did it go? I know it was here just a minute ago. And so there’s some extra energy required around just managing your inbox and managing communications that are happening via email. So now let’s look at another format, which is chat. So many teams rely on chat for just quick in the moment communication. And it can be a really useful tool, right? And it can, it can be a nice alternative to email. It can be some of those just small touch points, making sure we’re doing these micro communications, as we move through projects.
Of course, this is also really important when we have project based work where we’ve got many hands in the pot. And so what what did they find in this year, what they found is that their use of Team chats was up by 45%, and solarizing. So not only did we have more meetings, but we also had more emails, and then we we had a lot more chat happening. And so let’s just think about all of those different channels, you have an increase in all of those channels. That is a digital burden, right? That’s that’s one of the theaters of digital exhaustion is that not only do you have to keep up to date on email, but you need to check your chat, you need to make sure you’re participating in this meeting. And so in many respects, it is a recipe for for distractibility, and inattention. And at the very least, we’re not getting focused work done, because we’re just we’re kind of reactive, we’re just jumping from platform to platform. And so the average team’s user is sending 45% More chats per week, and 42% more chats per person, after hours. So that’s the big one that I want to highlight here. And then of course, chats per week is still on the rise. So it’d be interesting to see what that number looks like, at this point. Because it is a good form of communication. But the thing to really pay attention to is so chat is that informal, those micro communications, but people are using them a lot more after hours. And so what does that mean, right? We’re working more we’re not respecting boundaries between work and home life. This leads to not only digital exhaustion, but it also leads to burnout. And so it can feel so easy like oh, there’s a chat. I’m just going to quickly respond. It’s kind of the same way that social media works right like this behavioral reinforcement, but it becomes a tether it becomes You know, a leash around your neck if you’re not careful. And so we want to learn to respect boundaries between work and home to be able to silence the chat function. So you’re not getting notifications. Because if you’re getting notifications, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll get pulled into the chat. And that takes away from family time it takes away from recovery time, takes away from leisure. And so then let’s talk about the last platform that they really highlighted. And that was documents. So think about shared documents, and what they found during that years that there was a 66% increase in the number of people working on Office documents. So for each of these platforms, meetings, emails, chat documents, everything was increasing, right, there was more of all of those. And so you can see pretty clearly how this absolutely can lead to digital exhaustion. There’s more productivity, but there’s also more burnout. And I think over time, what we see is productivity can fall off of a cliff, because it’s really hard to manage the increase in all of those domains. Well, for long, you can do that in short term. And that’s kind of what we think about in terms of like a crisis response, which is the pandemic was, but now, right, we’re in 2023. And if you’re still operating in that crisis response mode, you’re doing work wrong, right? Like that is a recipe for disaster for your team for productivity, for profitability, all of that. So now let’s head to the second point, which is, what is this mean for you and your team? So I’ve already mentioned this, what we did find over this time is that there is higher productivity, right? When people are working more. First, it means we are working longer and harder than ever before. So what they found in this study is that productivity remains high or higher for 82% of team members over that period of time. So people really showed up to the work, which was, which is incredible, right? Like people had buy in, they cared about the work, they cared about showing up to work, even despite significant challenges.
The other thing that we can also recognize is there’s a potentially high human cost, okay, so team members feel like their leaders don’t really care about their work life balance. So one in five of the respondents felt that way, that there wasn’t really respect for work life balance, that communications, the productivity requirements, really didn’t respect that, which is a problem, right? Because that really shows the seeds of resentment, frustration, a desire to not be working at that place anymore. 54% of individuals feel overworked, for good reason, they were working a lot more 39% feel exhausted, again, no surprise there. And so the trillions, right, trillions of these productivity signals that Microsoft looked at, really point to the intensity of digital exhaustion that team members are experiencing. And so yeah, you get higher productivity, people are able to keep businesses online. But there’s a very high human costs that that you might not see in the short term, but absolutely shows up in the medium and long term. And so specifically, let’s look at this digital exhaustion, the majority of the communication that they looked at, was unstructured and mostly unplanned, okay, that, to me is a big red flag, because that makes it harder to really lead your day, it makes it harder for you to be successful on accomplishing your top priorities. And so work becomes communication. And workflow becomes ad hoc, it becomes reactive, it it, it becomes chaotic, it lacks a cohesive direction, potentially. And that’s a big problem that wreaks havoc on our brains, our brains, we don’t multitask. Well, this isn’t this is not a thing. I’ve said that so many times. So 62% of calls and meetings were unscheduled or conducted ad hoc. So think about that. You might start your day. And and this certainly has happened to me where you’re like, Okay, I have maybe a two hour block to work on to do a deep dive on a project. And that feels really important, right? There are some projects where it’s like you need, you need that kind of time to really dive in. But then right, you have people requesting calls, you have people saying, Hey, we all need to jump on a zoom call for this or I need you to give your feedback on this document. And so the time that you thought you had to really make progress on goals disappears into the ether. And so we have more distractions, difficulty focusing on projects. Work time is on unprotected. And so this is where I’m talking to you hierarchical leaders, you need to protect the work time of your teams. I’ll have more to say about that in a moment. And so when we think specifically, again about digital exhaustion, team members don’t feel like they can say no. And that’s a big problem, right? So during this period of time, team members really felt like they needed to, they needed to say yes, to these requests, they needed to be in the meetings, they didn’t feel like they could say, No, there’s a pressure to keep up.
So what does this mean, there was a lot of pressure for people to keep up to not slow down to not look like they were not working. And we know they were working people were really working. But even with the meeting and the chat overload, so 50% of people who responded said that they would respond to a chat within five minutes or less. And so you might be in a meeting, you might be in a chat with someone, and yet, you’re responding to other people within five minutes. And so again, it just shows how, how our attention is really being pulled all over the place. And it proves the intensity of the work day, as you think about how, how the meetings, emails, chat, and document time has exploded, we’re just working a lot more. So in a nutshell, what is expected to team members during this time has increased significantly. And, and so again, in the medium term, in the long term, there are real problems with that. And so I want you to, you know, I’ve got some solutions for you. And I want the goal is to recognize and combat digital exhaustion. And I’ve got three ways to help you do that. So my first solution is to prioritize needs, so teams are doing less. So in the heady days of the pandemic, when all work was remote, we did what we had to do. This often meant more meetings, more collaboration, more face to face, time, virtually right in order to coordinate efforts, keep projects moving, and ensure team members had the support they needed. But this resulted in a lot more work and fewer boundaries between work and home. And so if you’re not careful, right, I’ve already kind of mentioned this, if you’re not careful, this survival mode behavior, which absolutely was functional in the uncertain first few months of the pandemic, if you’re not careful, this survival mode behavior can become your new default mode, even though you’re no longer in crisis. Right. And this is, I think, this is the biggest concern, because it really sets our default mode for our culture. So a culture where we respect boundaries, a culture where we protect, work time, gets obliterated, and it happens unwittingly, right? Because it was what you needed to do in response to the pandemic, but it’s no longer functional. And that can be true in lots of things. If we just look about look at childhood trauma, right, we think about childhood dysfunction in relationships, children in those situations can have a response to the trauma that in those moments in those years is absolutely functional, right, it keeps them safe, it keeps them protected. But the problem is, when they carry that dysfunctional coping strategy into adulthood, it’s no longer functional. And so something that at one point was adaptive, is no longer adaptive, right, it becomes maladaptive. And so that’s exactly what I want you to pay attention to to see. Okay, what are we doing? Is it does it continue to be adaptive, or is it maladaptive? Right, because our context has changed the, the, the facts on the ground have changed. And if we’re not responding to that, then we can get stuck in survival mode, which,
which really, it by default of survival mode, we’re missing things. We’re pushing too hard. We’re pushing our systems too hard. And that’s on an individual basis, that’s also on a team basis. So humans and businesses are not meant to run long in crisis mode. When that happens, our system shut down, productive productivity falls off a cliff, team members burnout and our ability to execute against our mission falters. And so as a leader, you must prioritize needs to ensure your teams are freed up to focus on what they do best. So some of the things you might consider or at least assess fewer meetings, discipline meetings, restructuring, meeting schedules, shortening, meeting times, asking, Is this necessary, right? Is this meeting necessary? Asking what would make this process better? Collaborate with your team’s about needs and desires. You don’t have to figure it all out on your own. And in fact, if you try to do that, you won’t probably come to the best solution. But that also doesn’t mean that we make to decisions by consensus, because you’ll probably have people in very different places in terms of their perspectives on this. And so you, as a leader need to have clarity about what matters most. And that’s your guiding principle. As you move through that decision making process. The other thing you need to do is provide clear priorities to your team members. What’s our what’s our first what’s our second was our third priority, and then empower them to challenge you and others when lower priority items are added to their plates. Wait, that looks like we’re spending a lot of time in these meetings, which isn’t one of our top three priorities. And that means that we’re spending less time face to face with clients, we need to reassess that and that everyone on the team is really freed up to challenge what’s happening. So now let’s move to the second solution, which is to embrace both synchronous and asynchronous collaboration.
So here’s what’s true. Not all collaboration needs to happen face to face, whether that’s virtually or in the same room. So for example, brainstorming is better when it includes an individual component, right? When we give direction to individuals, they brainstorm individually come up with some responses, and then we discuss together as a group, you’ll get a lot farther on brainstorming. We want to provide clear directions for questions and brainstorming topics. But then leave everyone alone to consider the question. Of course, like I said, then collaborate together as you review findings, this will focus efforts and save a ton of unproductive brainstorm time, it gives people their time back. You also can you share documents with clear responsibilities. So that’s something our team uses a lot we will, you know, when we’ve got a collaboration project, one of the first things we do is we create a shared Google Doc. And we have clear responsibilities. We have timelines, we have tags, this type of asynchronous collaboration, helps you start the process, even when it’s in rough draft form. So just this morning, I was on a meeting with a couple of other individuals, you know, we identified what needed to happen, the next step, someone’s going to create that Google document and keep us all aligned. And then we can we can all be working in that document, document, inputting our information, our findings, and, and that that serves that feeds the work of everyone else. And you’re not held up by other people. And the other thing about that is that seeing the contributions of others can spark your ideas and help you add to what is already in place. Right? Collaboration serves to make the work better. And so let’s not forget about the power of asynchronous collaboration to do that. Comments, allow good questions, redirection and new ideas. So you might want to consider a brief face to face collaboration for direction. And then and after the fact face to face collaboration to assess progress and determine next direction.
So for example, the meeting I had today, it was about 25 minutes, where we really kind of outlined what are the big points that we need to cover? Why do we need to make sure we’re addressing who’s going to be responsible for what, and now all of that work is moving to a Google document where we can all input our information, we can update one another. And it saves us, it saves us a lot of meetings, right. And I’m sure at a point along that timeline, we will check back in with a meeting. But the work isn’t slow down like we actually have good direction. And so don’t assume that communication can only happen when you’re in a virtual or face to face meeting. leverage the power of shared documents really help with that. Asynchronous collaboration also respects individual team members time, it helps to it protects focused project time, it decreases distraction, it increases that focus, all of which results in higher job satisfaction and individual productivity, right? This is what this is what we want. And now let’s head to our third solution, which is cultivate a culture where breaks are respected and encouraged. So as mentioned above, you may need to reset or redirect your culture away from the survival mode to a thriving mode system. So consider your organizational values. Are you living them? Or have you kind of gotten off track in the past couple of years? So how are your organizational values showing up in the daily work? Are they so one of our organizational values is simplicity. Now if we’re creating a lot of extra work, a lot of complexity to our systems, we’re not living to that value, and so that’s a cue to reset. reassess to take a step back and really consider what makes the most sense. The other thing to pay attention to is it’s really important not to, not to micromanage we can see with these findings from this survey is that people don’t need micromanagement, because everyone stepped up and worked, more productivity went through the roof. So you want to pry provide guidance on what needs to happen. But leave your team members the autonomy to determine how things will happen. This leads to greater satisfaction at work for everyone, both the leaders and the team members, and higher productivity. And then lastly, is you want to provide plenty of flexibility to team members so that they can address work life balance, and be more productive. So for example, that asynchronous collaboration, in terms of Google Docs can be really helpful, because then someone you know, if they know, hey, I’ve got carpool, but I can work in that Google document, you know, once I get home later, that that leads to greater satisfaction, greater quality of life. And so making sure that you provide that kind of flexibility, so that people can, you know, the flexibility so that it respects that people have lives outside of work. And so head on over to my website to check out the show notes with the resources for this episode. Again, we had three solutions for you first, prioritize needs. So teens are doing less, more is not always better, right solution to embrace both synchronous and asynchronous collaboration. And solution three, cultivate a culture where breaks are respected and encouraged.
And so if you want to, if you want to learn more about this, head on over to my website for those show, notes at www.drmelissasmith.com/197-digitalexhaustion and of course, any resources that I have will be there, I’ll have a link to the survey. And then of course, join me on Instagram where I always have more information about these topics. I’d love to interact with you there. So again, www.drmelissasmith.com/197-digitalexhaustion. In the meantime, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember, love and work, work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.
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