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Protecting teams from digital fatigue

Originally published:|Last updated:|Joana Fernandes

I should have seen it, but my daily routine got in the way.

One of my previous team members was unusually emotional, tired and hardly making any progress on his tasks. Early signs of depression were showing right in front of me, but I wasn't aware of the signs to intervene and provide support.

Scenarios like this are becoming more and more common. To better prepare ourselves for the workplace challenges ahead, in this article we will discuss the following themes and steps you can take to help you and your teams avoid digital fatigue:

  • The remote workforce has been growing more than ever as a result of COVID-19
  • Handling multiple virtual interactions puts a strain on peoples' cognitive load
  • With increased levels of virtual fatigue, new strategies and policies are needed
  • Focus should be given to simplifying workflows and increasing awareness of mental health at work
Photo credit: Prostock-Studio

Global expectations around remote and hybrid workforce have experienced a massive shift as a result of COVID-19.  The flexibility to more easily meet personal needs, improve work-life balance and even work from across the globe are among the reasons why many people prefer remote work. Despite all the benefits, this new remote reality is increasingly linked to high levels of virtual fatigue — a mental state of exhaustion caused by an excessive use of multiple digital tools and screens. 

The struggle is real 

Digital fatigue is not part of our imagination, nor is it a new phenomenon.

It is now becoming increasingly difficult for businesses to handle the impacts of digital fatigue on their workforce. Since 2020, the number of video meetings has increased by 50%1 , which is cited as one of the main reasons for remote employees to quit their jobs.

Recent studies where researchers performed brain scans confirmed that video chats demand greater cognitive effort than in-person conversations, due to higher eye contact engagement and fewer non-verbal cues2.

On top of all that, remote workers are now feeling more pressured to quickly reply to instant messages and calls coming from multiple platforms. Digital tools have always been lifesavers, especially for tech companies, but constant switching between apps and screens can impact productivity and contribute to mental health problems. 

Know the symptoms

As virtual communication became increasingly intense, people started to experience some negative psychological and sometimes even physical effects. In some extreme situations these symptoms lead to employees burning out altogether.

The most common symptoms of digital fatigue are:

  • General lack of energy
  • Difficulty handling simple tasks
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Feeling more emotional
  • Frustration and irritability towards other colleagues
Photo by Uday Mittal on Unsplash

How to deal with digital fatigue?

In the end, it's all a matter of finding the right balance and making employees’ lives easier.

Here are four tips to help protect yourself and your teams from digital fatigue:

Streamline your personal schedule

In fast-paced environments it is crucial to take time analyzing your calendar at least, a few days in advance.

Ask yourself, "Where am I spending most of my time?". Are all of those upcoming meetings necessary, or could you apply alternative approaches? 

Re-frame and prioritize situations in advance together with your co-workers, so that everyone makes the best use of their time. Maybe there's room to reduce the length and/or frequency of some meetings.

Make sure you get a meeting agenda in advance and politely decline if your presence seems to be unnecessary. Some companies even encourage their workers to restrict synchronous events to predefined days of the week, giving more room for everyone to focus on personal tasks without constantly being interrupted.

Never forget to allow yourself some small breaks during the day.

Get rid of excessive weekly check-ins 

It's tempting to add weekly check-ins with the entire team for multiple reasons: e.g. to update project progress, to ask further feedback, present a learning topic...the list is endless.

The truth is, grouping together your teams every single week won't solve most of your problems. There are plenty of other ways to encourage team members to contribute without constantly jumping into face-to-face conversations.

Instead of a 1-1 Zoom call, consider sending group messages where team members can opt-in to calls if they need it to discuss an issue they're having or a blocker they want to resolve.

For status updates on projects or specific tasks, both Trello and Jira boards could be great asynchronous options for remote teams, as they allow everyone to contribute at their own pace in a single space. As a result, teams avoid losing work traceability and feel more engaged on their own tasks.

When it comes to more instant thread discussions or 1:1 side chats, Slack is still one of the most recommended apps. It provides different communication opportunities like private or public channels and integrates with different collaboration tools, which helps reduce the need for frequent video call syncs.

Embrace innovation

A tool like Miro provides several opportunities for either synchronous or asynchronous collaboration in one space. Dashlane teams have taken advantage of this tool for activities ranging from project estimation and planning, team bonding activities, to more strategic exercises such as Value Stream mapping.

A project planning board is a useful tool to guide teams to brainstorm and rethink their working items, before jumping all the way to roadmapping. I especially recommend it during important team transition stages that require more in-depth alignment around estimation and planning (e.g. after going through several staffing changes, at the start of new big projects).

Team Canvas is a visual technique used to enhance team alignment on important key working concepts and goals. I’ve previously applied it to increase overall cohesion when onboarding newcomers to a team and to better clarify team purpose as part of a larger organization.

Value stream mapping is a lean-management tool that provides a visual representation of current process flows that a team or organization aims to optimize (maximize value, while reducing waste). This has been applied at Dashlane to identify major bottlenecks within our teams’ delivery workflows, so that it becomes easier to point out specific needs for continuous improvement.

Re-think your tooling portfolio 

There's no point in overloading teams with too many tools and complex workflows. Start by identifying your team’s needs for communication, work and knowledge management. Do you need a better platform to collaborate on ongoing project tasks? Are you struggling on where to handle private conversations? Provide vision and direction on how teams could take advantage of existing tools and re-think internal workflows across your organization. Get rid of tools that are too specialized or create redundancies. Ensure that your tools have the right level of visibility and are used across teams, by focusing on a single source of truth. For example, adopting a leading Jira board or rolling roadmap across your organization should reinforce visibility on high-level strategy items.

Takeaway checklist for reducing digital fatigue 

  • The next time someone sends you a meeting invite without an agenda, engage them in a discussion about how to best use your time on calls. Suggest an async alternative like creating a Slack channel to engage people involved in the same project or prepare a Decision log to help facilitate your next steps.
  • Cut back on recurring meetings like 1-1s and instead do a check-in on your messaging app to see if others have a need to talk virtually, or if async follow ups are better suited.
  • Audit your tools to see what’s providing real value and what’s causing you to do extra work. Do your research, simplify workflows and think outside the box when introducing new collaborative practices.
  • Remember, we’re all going through this massive shift towards remote ways of working. Show compassion towards yourself and your co-workers by being aware of any potential mental and physical issues brought on by digital fatigue at work. 

Suggestions for further reading on related topics: 

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