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Why your hybrid team needs digital guardrails

The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have ushered in permanent and significant changes to how we work. We’ve seen radical shifts to how, where and when we work. These significant changes to work practices happened almost instantaneously and without a lot of guidance regarding best practice (let’s face it, many of us walked out of our office last March with our laptop under our arm and were thrust into hybrid work). 

This has resulted in an increasing reliance on digital technologies to augment and facilitate tasks that were once predominantly performed in an office, with people, in a synchronous fashion. Formal meetings, water-cooler conversations, informal meetings and presentations have been digitised as we’ve tried to replicate our traditional, in-office ways of working. These traditional work activities are now occurring both synchronously (virtual meetings, phone calls) and asynchronously (Teams chats, emails and Slack messages), adding to people’s digital load.

This is why many people are feeling digitally depleted. They spend their days bouncing between emails, What’s App messages, Teams’ meetings, Trello boards, Teams’ chats and social media DMs. The potential productivity gains that remote work offers many people now feels like it’s under threat from the barrage of digital distractions vying for our attention.

Hybrid work poses both opportunities and threats to organisations. Hybrid work has brought a range of benefits to employees and organisations: better work-life blend, less time spent commuting, potential opportunity for deep, focused work and a broader non-geographically bound talent pool. However, hybrid work has also posed new challenges: increases in our digital load (look at your calendar littered with virtual meetings), potential concerns with digital burnout (from constant digital onslaught and an inability to psychologically and physically detach from work) and obstacles to real-time collaboration and communication to move projects forward.

Two of the biggest challenges facing many individuals (and their employers) is (i) an inability to digitally disconnect and switch off from work and (ii) constant barrage of digital distractions putting a dent in their productivity and compromising their digital wellbeing. It’s therefore imperative that employees are provided with professional training on how to work productively in a hybrid capacity with a plethora of digital tools. This training needs to be complemented by company policies and practices that articulate the organisation’s digital parameters: I refer to these as Guiding Principles for Productive Hybrid Teams or colloquially as Digital Guardrails.

Those organisations that support their teams, employees and leaders to develop healthy and sustainable digital practices in a hybrid and/or remote context will have a competitive advantage.  Employees and teams need guidance and clear parameters about how they can work effectively online in a dispersed environment. This requires an intimate understanding of how the brain and body works online. This requires an understanding of digital and hybrid work practices that will support, not stifle productivity.

To achieve this goal organisations must clearly articulate the digital parameters and best practices associated with hybrid and/or remote work.  It cannot be assumed that employees will automatically know how to work productively in a hybrid capacity. Nor can it be assumed that teams will know how to communicate, collaborate and work efficiently in a distributed, asynchronous environment, with a plethora of digital tools potentially demanding and diverting their attention. These skills require explicit instruction and to be complimented by guiding principles that clearly articulate how digital technologies and tools can be best utilised.

Why hybrid teams need digital guardrails

Organisations need to be proactive and explicit in this space. There are mounting concerns that there may soon be legislation enforced to protect employees’ right to digitally disconnect from work (see recent articles on the right to disconnect) because the boundaries between work and home have now evaporated. 

However, there’s also a performance factor that should drive organisational support with establishing digital guardrails, or ‘managing people’s tech-pectations’, as I sometimes refer to it. Employees, teams and leaders who cultivate healthy and sustainable digital practices and behaviours in a hybrid context will be more productive, have better physical health and psychological wellbeing outcomes (which will in turn drive performance).

Benefits of Digital Parameters

1. Productivity gains – focused attention is a key component of a knowledge-driven economy, vital for ideation, creativity and problem-solving. It’s also critical for deep work that requires uninterrupted periods to think and engage in cognitively-taxing tasks. However, for many knowledge workers, the reality of their workdays in a hybrid work context consists of constant digital interruptions (virtual meetings, Teams/Slack notifications, checking emails) that prevent them from finding time for deep focused work.

It has been estimated that an average of 581 hours per knowledge worker annually is lost to distractions according to a report published by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in conjunction with Dropbox. Disruptions translate to US companies losing $391 billion annually in lost productivity in the sectors analysed, or roughly $34,448 in salary costs per knowledge worker. The EIU paper found that companies could potentially gain as much as $1.2 trillion in untapped employee output with designing optimal work arrangements that tackle employee distraction. 

“Focus is the engine of knowledge work,” according to Michael Gold, managing editor from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). Increasingly, knowledge workers’ professional lives are fragmented by continual digital distractions that increase employees’ stress, increase error rates and inhibit them from achieving peak-performance. Those organisations that create sustainable digital, hybrid practices will leverage the myriad of benefits offered by technology and remote work practices, whilst simultaneously driving productivity.

2. Mental wellbeing The pandemic has certainly exemplified the critical importance of organisations acknowledging and supporting employees’ mental health. There are a myriad of programs and EAPs targeting stress, anxiety, depression, resilience and sleep just to name a few. These are all essential offerings and need to continue. However, it’s also imperative that organisations consider the role our digital behaviours play in potentially hampering mental health. You can read more about simple things people can do to boost their mental health here.

Employees need to be empowered to understand the importance of taking a psychological break from their work (informed by brain science). They need to be informed about how their digital habits can potentially elevate their stress and adversely impact their sleep and interpersonal relationships. To ensure that supportive and sustainable digital behaviours are implemented, organisations need to clearly delineate digital best practices and establish digital norms and parameters that will support mental health.

3. Physical health improvements there’s been an increased reliance on digital tools, particularly email and communication tools like Teams and Slack, to support distributed, hybrid teams.  Some research suggests that adults are spending an average of 13.28 hours/day on screens. This can have a serious and negative impact on a range of physiological functions including vision, and musculoskeletal health.

Concerns relating to eye strain (headaches,  blurry vision, tired eyes), ‘tech neck’, sedentary behaviour increase and other physical ailments related to excessive time being online and/or incorrect ergonomics are mounting. Organisations need to provide critical upskilling and education in these domains to support employee’s physical health. Firm policies and suggested best practices for hybrid work are also essential to ensure that these practices and habits are embedded at a cultural level.

The pandemic has created a unique opportunity for companies to establish more productive work arrangements, congruent with how the brain and body works best online. There’s tremendous opportunity for organisations that address employees’ and teams’ digital wellbeing and improve employee focus in a dispersed context brimming with digital distractions. 

A simple solution to tackle hybrid productivity and wellbeing problems is to clearly provide guidance on how to work productively in a hybrid context that is predominantly online. This is why your organisation needs a plan for Guiding Principles for Productive Hybrid Teams: Brain-Based Solutions to Boost Employees’ Productivity and Wellbeing. Please contact me if this is something you’d like some help with for your organisation, or use some of the ideas here to formulate your own team’s Digital Guardrails.

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