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During the pandemic, collaboration vendors provided always-on communication between workers and managers, dramatically increasing employee burnout. In 2022, tech firms will address the problem by helping people unplug when the workday ends.
After-hours emails and chat messages have invaded workers' personal lives for years. But the pandemic has supercharged the problem, said Andrew Pakes, research director for the U.K.-based Prospect, a trade union representing engineers and scientists.
"That's been a real hit on well-being, mental health, and people's ability to switch off," he said. "It's really shot to the top of the agenda during the pandemic, as more people have felt themselves reach levels of burnout or become frazzled."
A September survey of 672 professionals by consulting group Korn Ferry found 89% suffering from burnout and 81% more mentally exhausted than before the pandemic.
The lack of boundaries between work and free time has affected retaining employees. Burned-out workers are 2.6 times more likely to leave an employer than those with a more balanced life, Gallup research showed. Holding onto employees has become more critical as unhappy workers have started leaving employers in droves, in a movement now dubbed the Great Resignation.
Enabling the employee right to disconnect
To help companies keep workers, tech firms have introduced features to promote employee wellness. In 2021, Cisco, Slack and Zoom introduced video messaging to cut down on live meetings. With video messages, employees can consume information at a time that works best for them.
Microsoft started questioning the impact Teams had on mental health after its research found that the average user of the collaboration platform sent 42% more chats after hours during the pandemic. As a result, Microsoft added wellness features to its intranet-like platform Viva to help employees unplug, said Sunita Khatri, senior director of product marketing for Viva.
"More remote work is great because it gives us flexibility, but it's also challenging our well-being," she said. "Some of our [research has] shown us that employees are overworked and outright exhausted."
Viva's virtual commute feature creates a hard break between work hours and home life to encourage people to unwind. Employees activate the software at the end of the day to review their completed tasks, plan for the next day and start a meditation session to close out work.
Outlook lets workers and managers choose when to send emails. People who work after hours can delay sending messages until the next workday, eliminating the expectation of an immediate response. Future features could do the same to other forms of communication, including Teams chat, Khatri said.
"There are definitely opportunities for us to start evolving [in 2022]," she said.
Opeyemi AkanbiProfessor, Ryerson University
Nevertheless, technology can't solve the problem alone, said Ryerson University Professor Opeyemi Akanbi. Employers must accept that workers need personal time.
"A lot of knowledge workers, especially, find that their identity is entangled in their work," said Akanbi, an expert on the digital workplace. "What typically results from that is a tendency to work more than you would if you define it as just a job."
Even legislation recognizing the right to disconnect won't help when overwork is part of a company's culture, she said.
To change the expectation that employees must be constantly available, companies need to tell workers that proper rest is as important as work, Pakes said. Managers must encourage employees not to answer non-emergency emails after hours.
Good work culture is more critical to combating burnout than any tech feature, Pakes said. "If you have a lousy boss in the office, you probably have a lousy boss on Zoom."
Employee tracking concerns
Some workers fear that employers could spy on them using the tech features that ensure wellness. Fearing remote work would drain productivity, many companies decided to track employees when the pandemic hit. The European Commission reported that global demand for monitoring software jumped 108% year-over-year in April 2020.
Microsoft angered privacy advocates last year when it introduced Productivity Score. The company built the service to track Microsoft 365 usage on computers.
However, critics accused the company of providing customers with a tool for tracking the activities of remote workers. In response, Microsoft stopped the product from displaying personally identifiable data.
"Insights are aggregated in terms to make it easy for organizations to spot patterns and trends, but de-identified to make sure you can't uniquely identify an individual," Khatri said.
Other tech vendors are also adamant that their wellness features are not surveillance tools. Cisco makes the same claims as Microsoft with its Webex People Insights.
Prospect believes that using technology to check on remote workers effectively places a surveillance device in employee homes. "We'd argue that productivity doesn't come from squeezing workers until the pips squeak," Pakes said.
Demand for employee monitoring has started to wane among companies with people working too many hours from home, said Metrigy analyst Irwin Lazar.
"More often than not, people are moving to outcome-based management," he said. "[Managers are saying] 'I don't care if you're at a desk eight hours a day. I care if you get your work done.'"
Mike Gleason is a reporter covering unified communications and collaboration tools. He previously covered communities in the MetroWest region of Massachusetts for the Milford Daily News, Walpole Times, Sharon Advocate and Medfield Press. He has also worked for newspapers in central Massachusetts and southwestern Vermont and served as a local editor for Patch. He can be found on Twitter at @MGleason_TT.