Working remotely: digital wellness tips
Learn what digital wellness means for you and create a plan for healthy remote working.
Covid-related or just a natural shift in the way people and businesses want to work, we are increasingly working remotely instead of in an office environment. Not everyone can work remotely but up to one quarter of the workforce in advanced economies can. With this shift to remote work, we are more dependent than ever on technology and our digital devices during our work day.
Covid may have only accelerated the shift to remote work rather than caused it, but this acceleration has meant that very few businesses have had the time to consider what this increased dependency on technology means for employees and their wellness.
This leaves the onus on the individual to understand what healthy remote work means for them, and how they can set themselves up for remote work digital wellness.
Outsourcing our real world lives to tech
If, like most, you were used to working in an office environment or similar before hastily moving to full-time remote work, you likely didn’t have a chance to transition in a healthy way. This means that your natural instinct to socialise and connect with other humans was still strong but you had to quickly find a way to fulfil this when real world opportunities were removed.
Enter technology, from video calls to virtual coffees to increased time spent chatting on apps like Slack. Technology stepped in and immediately filled the human-shaped void in our lockdown work lives.
And it wasn’t just our office social life that got hijacked by tech. Facebook, Snapchat and Messenger are amongst just some of the social networking and messenger apps that all saw an increase in downloads during the pandemic. Our non-work social lives got a digital makeover too.
Aside from socialising, we found digital ways to make up for other irl freedoms we lost. Workout apps grew in popularity during the first half of 2020, with a near 50% increase in downloads as more of our “real” life got outsourced to tech.
So what is the impact of moving our physical lives online at such a rapid pace? And how can we make sure we are setting ourselves up for healthy remote work?
The impact of remote working and increased dependence on tech
We are using technology more for work which means an increase in incoming digital communication, such as messages, emails, calendar invites and more. Naturally then we have more of an urge to check for notifications and updates. In an office environment there might be real world cues that something needs your attention, like a colleague coming to talk to you. Without these cues we might feel pressure to keep checking that we aren’t missing anything. The more we reflexively check for digital communication and updates, the more this becomes an automatic habit rather than a conscious decision. A study by London School of Economics and Political Science found that 89% of interactions with smartphones are unprompted so not the result of a notification or other prompt. The downside of this is constant attention switching, multitasking and distraction which can lead to unhealthy digital habits and higher stress levels.
Even if we have back-to-back meetings in the office, we likely still get a break by switching meeting rooms or location. In the world of remote work and constant virtual meetings this doesn’t happen, we close a tab and open another, physically we remain in the same place, staring at our computers.
Microsoft conducted a study and found that people who did not take breaks in between meetings had higher levels of beta wave activity — those associated with stress. Conversely, study participants who rested and meditated between meetings had decreased levels of the stress-inducing beta waves.
Staring at people in the eye is intense, and therefore unsurprisingly takes a toll on our energy levels. We’ve gone from physical to video interactions and as a result we now spend an inordinate amount of time staring into people’s eyes. We’re also less able to subconsciously read and parse non-verbal cues, such as body language and gestures. All of this combined is a perfect storm for feeling totally wiped out by the end of a day’s remote working.
So what can we do to set ourselves up for productive and fulfilling remote work whilst prioritising digital wellness?
Tips for healthy remote working
- Make conscious choices
89% of interactions with smartphones are unprompted. Checking for messages and updates has become an ingrained habit which can lead to distraction and stress. Be conscious of when and why you check your devices and set boundaries. For example, make a conscious decision to only check Slack and Gmail at set times during the day rather than at regular, random intervals.
2. Out of sight…
Keep digital devices that you aren’t using out of sight. A study by Harvard University found that participants performed best in tasks when their smartphone was in the next room. Your smartphone and other devices can be a distraction even when not in use so do yourself a favour and keep it out of sight (and reach).
3. Schedule breaks
Your brain is not wired to be in constant virtual meetings. It’s stress inducing, tiring and generally unhealthy. Plan your work week in advance and schedule plenty of meeting breaks and focus time (to actually get work done) into your calendar.
4. Prioritise healthy offline habits
Related to the above, decide which healthy habits you would like to include in your work day in place of constant meetings. Meditating, exercising and fresh air are all great things to include in a work day and should not be considered luxuries or slacking off. They may appear non-work related but if they improve your stress levels, happiness and focus then they’re likely making you better at your job.
5. Cues and rituals to end the day
Have a cue that it’s time to stop working and create a ritual around it. For example, set your favourite song to come on at 5 pm. Use this as your cue to end the work day by writing down a list of work achievements for that day, or things you’re grateful for. Make a conscious effort to then close out the work day (log off) after completing the ritual.
6. Set boundaries
Before tech infiltrated all parts of our working life and remote working became the norm, it would have (hopefully) been pretty unusual for your colleagues to come to your house after hours to ask you about a project or remind you about a task. We now sadly can expect Slack messages, emails, invites at all hours. Whether we’re expected to respond then and there is not the point, our personal and work lives are being blurred. Be strict with yourself about when you check or respond to work communication. Tell your team your boundaries, or even better workshop them together so you’re all on the same page.
The rapid pace at which our work lives have changed recently has given us very little time for reflection or to prioritise our digital health. We’ve been expected to react to unprecedented changes in all aspects of our lives whilst maintaining our productivity and work/life balance, so technology has conveniently stepped in and allowed us to live our pre-pandemic lives virtually. The problem with this is that we as humans are not wired to spend our lives online so at some point we have to stop, take stock and make a concerted effort to learn what digital wellness means for us and how we can apply rules and boundaries to help us and those we work with us adjust to this new way of life.
These rules are just a start, trial them, adapt them and create your own. Keep a journal of what works for you and share your tips with those around you. The more we all talk about the potential hazards of online remote working the faster we’re likely to find a better, healthier tech/life balance.