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NEW YORK — When the pandemic blended our professional and personal lives by forcing many of us to work from home, we learned a valuable lesson about tech. It can be an incredibly useful tool for communicating with colleagues.
But when used without care, it can hurt our productivity and our relationships.
Now as some white-collar professionals prepare to return to the office, many businesses are planning a so-called hybrid model, in which workers split their hours between the office and home. And therein lies a new tech challenge.
Instead of one work environment, many of us will have two. We’ll be constantly switching between them, collaborating with some colleagues in the office while others are at home. It may feel chaotic to figure out which tools to use — from email to video calls — for working together in each situation.
“What I’m seeing in the literature is more and more evidence of how important it is to be intentional and deliberate about the way we’re using technology,” said neuroscientist Emiliana Simon-Thomas, who teaches courses about the science of happiness at work for the University of California, Berkeley.
“How is it supporting what I really want to do rather than pulling me in 15 different directions?”
I consulted experts on workplace well-being for their advice on how to deal with this new hybrid setup. Using tech (or unplugging from it) to establish boundaries will be of paramount importance to our new home-and-office lifestyles, they said.
Despite the popularity of remote-work apps like Zoom and Slack during the pandemic, studies have found that the most effective communication tools are still the most low tech. That means that in the office we’ll probably thrive with more face-to-face interaction, and that at home the phone is usually best.
TO TEXT, CALL OR ZOOM
During the pandemic, the number of phone calls doubled, according to data provided by phone carriers. The phone proved to be a superior method for feeling closer to people and enjoying conversations more, according to a study last year by the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Another study found that as the use of video-calling exploded in the last year, “Zoom fatigue” became a real concern. Maintaining close-up eye contact and seeing yourself in real time during a video chat can be exhausting, according to Stanford researchers.
Plus, sitting stiffly in front of a webcam limits our mobility.
So how do we apply these lessons to a hybrid environment?
When working with colleagues in the office, we can resist the temptation to converse via email or Slack. To make the best use of being near one another, consider a face-to-face conversation or, if you work on separate floors, a phone call.
When working with colleagues from a remote setting, a text or an email is probably fine for quick conversations, like setting up a meeting. But for more serious discussions, a phone or video call is probably better.
Video calls can get tedious, so they should be used sparingly and mainly when there is a clear purpose for video, Dr Simon-Thomas said. That could be a meeting with visual aids in a presentation. Or a first-time introduction to a colleague, when it’s nice to see a face.
Whether in the office or at home, if you’re going to write to your colleagues, be thoughtful, Dr Simon-Thomas added. Avoid terse notes, and add nuance and context to your message. Whenever possible, show curiosity when discussing solutions to problems to avoid coming off as a harsh critic.
“We don’t have the intonation, the facial expression and the postural cues that we normally rely on,” she said. “The most mundane response can mean a universe of things to a person that receives it.”
Regardless of our rank in an organization, our time is precious. When our work is interrupted by a digital distraction like a message, it takes 23 minutes on average to return to the original task, according to one study.
So in a hybrid work situation, respecting boundaries will be crucial, said Ms Tiffany Shlain, a documentary maker who wrote 24/6, a book about the importance of unplugging from tech.
There are powerful tools, like scheduling emails and setting a status message, that you can use to let others know you are busy and to set boundaries.
Let’s say that you work a 9-to-5 job and that at 7pm you have an idea to share with a colleague, so you jot it down in an email.
If you shoot off the email, two things happen. One, you have removed your own boundary by letting others know that you work during supper time. Two, you have potentially interrupted a colleague during his or her downtime.
Scheduled emails are a convenient solution. Gmail, the most popular email service, has an arrow next to the Send button to let you schedule an email for a specific date and time; Microsoft’s Outlook app has a similar tool.
Scheduling the memo to be sent at 9am tomorrow would probably make everyone happier.
On the flip side, when you are busy or clocked out, there are methods to prevent others from bothering you.
In Slack, you can set your status to “away” and write a description like “On deadline.” For email, the out-of-office responder can be turned on to let others know you are in meetings.
Most smartphones also have a “do not disturb” option to silence all notifications.
In the next version of Apple’s iOS, set for release this fall, iPhone owners will be able to set a status message in iMessage to show others when they are busy. It will also include tools to allow notifications to appear only from specific groups of people, like family.
There are also methods that do not rely on tools. Ms Shlain makes a social media post letting people know that she is unplugging for the weekend so they can expect to hear from her later.
“It’s a great thing to communicate but also to let people know that they can do it, too,” she said.
KNOW WHEN TO SIGN OFF
On days when you are working from home with no physical separation between your work and personal lives, you will need to make a more deliberate effort to sign off.
Sometimes the best way to set a boundary is to have no tech at all.
One method for turning off work mode at home is to create physical distance, said marketing professor Adam Alter at New York University’s Stern School of Business and author of the book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.
For example, you could set an alarm to go off in a bedroom at 5pm, forcing you to leave your office space to clock out both physically and mentally.
Ms Shlain has a more extreme approach. For the last 11 years, she has practised a tech version of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. Every Friday evening, she and her family power down their devices, and for 24 hours they do all the things that energise them, like hanging out with friends, painting and taking the dog on a long walk.
“For one day there’s no expectation for me to respond,” she said. “You clear the noise and the space to think bigger picture about your life.”
Then when she’s feeling refreshed on Sunday, she writes emails to her colleagues and schedules them to send Monday morning.