Our Relationship with Our Devices in an Always-On World

By Mary Ann Yule

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a significant catalyst for the work-from-home revolution. Many people have questioned for years whether traditional offices would give way to remote working arrangements. But this pandemic has proven that our technology is truly a powerful and connecting force as more than 40% of Canadians found themselves working from home as lockdowns were enforced (Statistics Canada).

This increased our reliance on technology as it became our lifeline to each other from inside our quarantined homes. In this always-on world, it is important to be mindful of our relationship with our devices — how we use them, how much we use them, and when we even need to unplug.

Now, as we slowly and safely begin to reopen parts of our country, it is important to consider how we strike the right balance with technology.

Avoiding Potential Pitfalls

More than 85% of Canadians who shifted to remote work want to continue working from home to some extent following the pandemic, as noted in a recent survey by Robert Half Canada Inc. Business leaders must equip employees with resources to do so effectively and in ways that support their physical and emotional health.

According to a recent study by ServiceNow, many remote Canadian office workers report challenges of loneliness and isolation. Conversely, others report an inability to disconnect and step away from their work once the day is done. In both scenarios, we need to ensure our devices and our behaviours are working in service of creating healthier and happier environments for our colleagues.

My advice to any business leader is to take a regular pulse of their team members. A one-size-fits-all approach will not suffice, as each person’s circumstances are unique, but there are certain behaviours that can provide clues on how to help. For example, if an employee who’s normally energetic and engaged has turned off their video during a conference call and is unusually quiet, sending them an email just “checking in” could be extremely meaningful. It could go a long way to re-engaging that person or simply helping them through whatever they are experiencing.

Meanwhile, many of us have probably heard of or even experienced what is being called “Zoom fatigue.” For employees who have a difficult time disconnecting, leaders should consider implementing practices encouraging people to adhere to “quiet hours” or reduce the length of meetings scheduled.

Life Balance

As the leader of a technology company, we closely examine the relationship we have with our devices and we have seen the lines become increasingly intertwined between work life and personal life.

We see this especially among younger generations who are adept at toggling between multiple devices. For other generations, COVID-19 is driving a similar behaviour change. With the ability to be more fluid in how and when work gets done, research is beginning to show that many remote workers are able to maintain—or even increase—their productivity while working fewer hours, making organizations consider shifting to a four-day work week.

Our relationship with devices is evolving even further during this time. The dissolution of work and play has naturally accelerated. Given this, it is more important to intentionally have a more flexible work-life balance and prioritize moments of mindfulness.

It is the responsibility of leaders to encourage employees to find a balance between their digital life and real-life by acknowledging the importance of prioritizing time offline in the “real world,” with families and loved ones, as well as time alone. Personally, I try to implement this type of mindfulness in all aspects of my life. I find meditation incredibly helpful in keeping me grounded in the moment, especially on the days when I am working long hours. It can be as simple as taking a minute to pause, absorb and check in with myself and be aware of everything that is happening around me.

Empathy-Driven Organizations

Empathy and grace should extend beyond just ourselves — to our families, friends, children and coworkers. Our kitchens are now our conference rooms. Our bedrooms are doubling as after-work yoga studios. Our dogs are barking in the background during video conferences while working parents are pulling double duty as home-school teachers.

A new level of intimacy has arisen especially as we have invited our colleagues into our homes, digitally. In fact, I have met more of my team’s kids and pets in the last three months than I have in the last three years. It adds a special human element to this remote work experience that I truly value. This closeness and understanding with one another will not only make us better in our work, it will also make us all better and more empathic leaders.

As a result of this intimacy, it means as leaders we need to be mindful of the balance between inclusion and intrusion. Technology has given us the power to stay connected with our teams remotely, but we need to be respectful of employees’ lives and the fact they might not feel comfortable sharing their homes. Additionally, while background noise of children might not be an inconvenience to a colleague on the other end of the video chat, for the individual parent, it can take a toll on their perceived professionalism. This requires additional leadership to check in with employees.

Even as we slowly return to office environments, it will be important to lead with empathy—especially because many experts predict that we could soon be facing a mental health crisis due to the residual economic and social effects of COVID-19.

As leaders, we need to support the physical, emotional and mental needs of our employees. Many employees are working in isolation and juggling competing obligations through a pandemic. We need to be flexible and supportive by acknowledging and respecting vastly differing circumstances. My advice to leaders during this time is to reinforce the importance of not letting physical distancing constraints prevent deep engagement with employees and teams.

In the same way, there was no blueprint at the beginning of this pandemic, there is no blueprint for what lies ahead. Especially now, as many organizations move to hybrid models in which some employees will return to the office while others will not, it is important to consider how technology can facilitate the same level of closeness, empathy and productivity even as we physically become further apart.

Mary Ann Yule is President and CEO at HP Canada.