With the dramatic increase in remote work in the last few years, many of us are actually working longer hours, ricocheting between communication platforms, learning new systems on the fly, and struggling to fix our own tech issues.
It’s all adding up to a new kind of burnout.
It’s also focusing renewed attention on the digital employee experience (DEX), and the tools needed to monitor, manage, and improve it.
According to McKinsey, nearly 60 percent of employees work at home at least one day a week, and more than 30 percent are full-time remote. But what we save in commute times, we more than make up for with longer workdays. And it seems to be taking a toll: Aflac’s 2022 WorkForces Report found six out of 10 American workers had feelings of moderate to severe burnout. Gallup estimates that at least half of the U.S. workforce are “quiet quitting”—giving less than their maximum effort at their jobs. The cost of lost productivity from disengaged employees is enormous; per Gallup, it saps some $7.8 trillion from the global economy.
A mix of factors have traditionally contributed to employee burnout, says Dr. Jacinta Jiménez, vice president of coaching innovation at BetterUp, a leadership coaching platform. She cites work overload, a lack of control, insufficient reward mechanisms, high levels of workplace conflict, inequities in workload or pay, and organizational values that fail to align with those of employees.
But other key factors are higher levels of stress, frustration, and distraction. Tools designed to help remote workers be more productive by connecting them to their office colleagues often do the opposite, overwhelming them with notifications.
Studies by Dr. Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California at Irvine, found that employees switch tasks an average of 566 times each day, and that it typically takes 25 minutes or longer for people to return to a task after being interrupted.
What can organizations do about it? While there’s no silver bullet, enterprises can make work life easier for their employees by reducing unnecessary distractions, consolidating their collaboration tools, and changing expectations about what it means to be “at work.”
To improve the digital employee experience, anticipate problems, automate solutions
According to a 2023 survey by workplace experience management firm Qualtrics, 38 percent of employees are experiencing symptoms of burnout due to ineffective processes and systems. They often suffer through a range of digital annoyances, but unless the annoyance is so bad that they need to call the help desk, the suffering often happens in silence. The dramatic increase in remote workers over the last three years only exacerbates the problem—there’s no genius bar in the guest bedroom where they can get their laptops fixed.
It’s a nightmare when you are trying to remember where you saw that document that was shared with you—was it in Slack, a Zoom chat, email, or text?
A relatively new type of software, DEX platforms, can help relieve some of that stress, notes Karyn Price, industry principal in Information and Communications Technology for Frost & Sullivan.
These platforms combine technical information (endpoint and application usage and reliability) with sentiment analysis (asking employees what they are thinking and feeling) to identify and address digital problems before they turn into long-term issues.
DEX systems enable IT teams to monitor and manage employees’ daily interactions with the digital tools in their workplace, thus delivering more-effective support. By collecting and analyzing telemetry data from networks, devices, and apps, these systems can detect common problems, send notifications, or provide real-time automated fixes.
If a particular condition is detected—for example, performance slows because there are multiple instances of an application running in the background—the employee gets an alert describing the problem with an offer to fix it, which they can accept to self-remediate the issue. Some DEX products can warn people proactively when their hard drives are nearly full, letting them delete unnecessary files by clicking a button, or detect when their anti-malware software has failed and automatically restore it.
Furthermore, the IT team can learn how employees feel about these interventions via sentiment-analysis features in the DEX software. Some tools ask workers questions in the midst of an activity; others send surveys post-remediation to determine if actions taken by the employee, IT, or the help desk were effective. The collected data can then be used to improve employees’ digital experience (it can offer training or additional fixes going forward) and inform the help desk of missed opportunities—instances where they can do better with the technology and services they provide.
Your digital employee experience should feature fewer interruptions, more communication
The overwhelming array of collaboration tools, accelerated by the increase in remote workers, has created additional cybersecurity risks and—for employees—a new source of stress.
A survey of 2,000 U.S. employees by remote-collaboration platform vendor GoTo found that 56 percent use three or more tools to collaborate at work. Six out of 10 report that having to switch between tools impairs their ability to get work done.
Consolidating the tools used for internal communications can help, says James Brogan, CEO of PepTalk, a platform that enables teams to work together better.
“The abundance of productivity tools has, not surprisingly, led to less productivity,” he notes. “It’s a nightmare when you are trying to remember where you saw that document that was shared with you—was it in Slack, a Zoom chat, email, or text?”
The real key to effective collaboration is communication, Brogan adds. Managers need to have ongoing conversations with their employees about their work experience, not just quarterly or yearly.
“You have to measure how energized, distracted, or burnt-out people are feeling,” he says. “Asking people how they’re doing four times a year is no longer enough. You need to ask on a more regular basis, and to demonstrate that action is happening based on their honesty.”
Corporate culture’s role in the digital employee experience
There are other common-sense steps companies can undertake to reduce the burden on their people. Shortening meetings, setting up prompts that remind people to take breaks, and using time blocking to set aside times where no distractions are permitted can all help, says BetterUp’s Jiménez.
Encouraging employee wellness, such as the adoption of meditation apps, can also boost both employee morale and productivity. That benefits the company as well as its personnel.
“Employees with the best well-being are five times more likely to be rated a top performer, have 25 percent higher productivity, and 34 percent higher engagement,” Jimenez adds.
Ultimately, the biggest change has to be cultural. Companies need to downshift their expectations about what it means to be ‘at work’ and embrace asynchronous communications, says Price. They can’t expect people to be chained to their computers 12 hours a day or respond immediately to every message on Slack.
“Businesses need to put more trust in their people,” she says. “If employees are meeting their performance goals, creating an environment where they’re allowed to ‘unplug’ will help alleviate the stress and distraction technology can cause.”