Working from home wasn't supposed to be a thing that most people did for more than a few weeks. It was just a temporary situation in response to what most people thought would be a short-term circumstance. That was the idea, at least at first. Now, six months later, there's very little end in sight, and it's starting to take a very real toll on both individuals and organizations.
One of the biggest problems is that the boundary between work and everything else in our lives has blurred considerably, now that we do almost all of it in the same space. People who used to commute for 20 or 30 minutes (or in many cases even longer) now walk from the bedroom to the kitchen, where they set up their laptop on the dining table.
As a result, Microsoft's latest Work Trend Report shows that people are spending, on average, 25 percent more time working than they were pre-pandemic. A lot of that involves sending messages to colleagues later into the evening and on the weekends.
That might sound like people are being more productive, but more time spent working isn't the same thing as productivity. In fact, the opposite may very well be true. It's not that people are more productive. Instead, there are troubling signs that many employees are suffering from burnout.
The data is really quite staggering. According to Microsoft's research, a third of remote workers say the lack of separation between work and life is negatively impacting their well-being. Over 30 percent of frontline and information workers say the pandemic has increased their feelings of burnout at work.
I had an opportunity to speak with Emma Williams, corporate vice president of modern workplace transformation at Microsoft, and Kathleen Hogan, the company's chief people officer. They spoke about features the company is announcing today, that are helping companies and organizations change that.
Microsoft's solution is to bring back the commute, at least virtually. It's about as simple as it gets, but it could be a total game-changer for your team. Here's how Hogan described it during our conversation:
How do you take that time that you've lost, where you get to shut down? You walk out of your house, you drive, you get to think, you prepare for the day. Or at the end of the day, you shut down, you listen to music, whatever that is. How can we recreate that? I love the idea that via the tool, we can legitimize the language that is shared among our employees, to give them permission to say, "I'm taking my virtual commute."
One of the most difficult things for many people right now is that there is no separation between the time we spend on work and everything else. The reason is that when you work in an office, you get up in the morning, get ready, leave your home, travel to the office, and sit down at your desk. There is demarcation both in terms of time and geography.
That may not seem like a big deal, but it turns out that it makes a very real difference. Our brains use that time to think, prepare, and to organize our thoughts and our list of tasks. Especially on the way home: Your commute provides a boundary that signals you're leaving work, giving you permission to leave it behind.
Except a lot of us haven't left our homes in a few months, which means everything runs together, leaving us with very little margin for much of anything.
"We're bringing into Microsoft Teams an experience that we call virtual commute, which is going to allow you to separate your work and your life, and help you with that boundary in your workday," Williams told me.
For example, you might set aside 20 minutes at the beginning of your day, not to work, but to think through the things you need to accomplish. You might think about the conversations you need to have, or you might listen to music or a podcast--any of the things you used to do on your way to work to prepare for your day. The same is true at the end of the day.
I've written before that one of the most important things you should plan each day is when to quit. If you don't, you simply won't. Microsoft is making that easier by building it into a tool that 75 million people are already using.
The company is also adding prompts for things you can do during your virtual commute, including an interesting partnership with Headspace, the meditation app. Microsoft's report suggests that 30 days of using meditation can reduce stress by 32 percent, and that just four sessions reduced burnout in frontline workers by 14 percent.
"The way we work has absolutely changed forever," said Hogan. "I would say it this way: well-being is an imperative, and we think that technology can help." If working remotely is something we're all going to be doing for a while, we can use all the help we can get. Fortunately, one of the most effective ways to do that is as simple as bringing back the commute.