Raise your hand if you’ve ever sent a work email after 11:00 p.m., on the weekend, or even while on vacation. If your hand is in the air, you’re not alone. Many Americans feel compelled to respond immediately when their employer reaches out with 55% checking their work email after 11:00 p.m. Although checking work emails, 5-6 hours after the end of the workday may sound outrageous, it has sadly become the norm, particularly as the workplace shifted online throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

While there are countless benefits associated with working from home (no commute, more time with family, and endless puppy cuddles), a survey conducted by Monster.com found that over two-thirds of employees are experiencing burnout symptoms. Despite these levels of burnout, an overwhelming 80% of employees want to continue to work from home for at least a portion of the workweek. Select companies such as Dropbox have already made the shift to remote work permanent while countless others will likely adopt a hybrid model, allowing employees to split their time between the office and home.

As we slowly enter into the flexible post-pandemic workplace, digital wellness will become imperative for organizational success, and the onus will be placed on our leaders to ensure their employees have the skillsets needed to thrive.

Leading By Example

Over the past year, 76% of employees did not receive any training to support them in the transition to remote work, even though half of them had never done it before. Now, a year later these employees are burned-out, isolated, and looking to their employers for guidance.

While employee burnout is certainly not a new phenomenon, the ‘always-on(line) culture’ of remote work coupled with extended periods of pandemic lockdowns has created an unhealthy expectation of 24/7 availability. Not only is this troublesome in regards to mental health, but research shows that constant connectivity can be counterproductive for engagement and productivity levels as well. Even brief moments of task switching (like answering a Slack message while drafting an email) can cause you to lose as much as 40% of your productivity.

So, how can organizations improve productivity and employee engagement while supporting their remote employees in the long term? Two words, digital wellness. Much like other areas of wellness, digital wellness is measured on a spectrum and represents the optimum state of health and well-being that each individual is capable of achieving while utilizing technology. Digital wellness will look different for each person, so it’s important to provide the tools and flexibility needed to create boundaries that work for your team’s unique needs. Fortunately, organizations like the Digital Wellness Institute now offer courses designed to upskill employers and employees alike to manage the challenges of the hybrid work world.

When it comes to setting these communication boundaries, “do as I say and not as I do” just doesn’t cut it. This is because employees tend to conform to the actions of the majority, and corporate culture starts from the top. Here’s an example of how communication without boundaries trickles down in an organization.

Let’s say that the CEO of Company X sends an email to their VP of Marketing at 9:00 p.m. on Sunday night in an innocent attempt to get a head start on Monday morning. Little does the CEO know that their VP is doing the same thing, reads the email and sends out three related emails, assigning tasks to their team. Subsequently, those three mid-level employees receive an email notification and feel compelled to respond. Within the hour, a single email has spawned into nearly 10 others and drawn five employees online during their personal time.

Now, this example isn’t intended to shame the CEO or VP for sending an after-hours email, but to demonstrate why our leaders must lead by example when it comes to setting communication boundaries and establishing a Team Communication Charter is a great place to start. A communication charter clearly outlines an organization’s policy on when and how employees are expected to respond. It also allows employees to share their expected working hours, preferences for how they prefer to be reached (email, text, phone, etc.) for different levels of urgency, and what the expected response time may be. When utilized properly, it can drastically improve employee satisfaction and productivity by restricting digital distractions and allowing for more uninterrupted time to focus. Without an established communication charter, it’s easy to fall back into unhealthy patterns of sending emails, texts, and instant messages whenever the desire strikes, so taking the time to create one is critical for the long-term success of your team.

Over the past year, with lockdowns and travel restrictions in place, employers have been spoiled by the hyper-availability of their employees. However, when it comes down to it, being available 24/7 simply isn’t sustainable. While having a long list of employees that will jump online at a moment’s notice may help you in the short term, empowering those same employees to set digital boundaries that protect their mental and digital wellbeing will pay you back tenfold in the long run.

As we adjust to a new post-pandemic business culture, digital wellness will become essential to organizational success. Employees need guidance and assurance that the remote office is a healthy and viable option. The good news is, it’s never too late to take the lead. How will you alter your communication tactics to support your employees in the post-pandemic workplace?

— Originally published on Forbes.com on July 25, 2021


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