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. Now, almost a year later, working from home has become a new normal for a lot of people.
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. That might sound like people are being more productive, but more time spent working isn't the same thing as productivity. But, it's not that people are necessarily more productive. Instead, there are troubling signs that many employees are suffering from burnout.
Microsoft's solution to this sort of burnout 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.
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 organise 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.
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.
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.
First off, I think it’s important that we acknowledge that this is a little bit absurd. ISS CEO Dr Adam Fletcher noted that this can be looped into the group of concepts invented because of the pandemic, like Zoom fatigue or maskne (mask related acne). “One of the things that was really interesting out of this for me, was just the fact that some new concepts have literally been invented because of COVID-19. If at the start of this year, someone had said, for people that work from home, you can have a virtual commute on your computer, I think mostly people would laugh,” he says.
Nevertheless, we can sing the virtual commute’s praises for recognising the value of reflection and thinking at the start of the day, and the unpacking and switching out of work-mode at the end of the day. “It’s potentially a tool that helps create really healthy boundaries, even though there’s not physical boundaries, especially for people that don’t have a dedicated office and are trying to work from a room that serves at least one other function,” Adam says.
Despite this, I think we’ve all learned the importance of flexibility over the last year when it comes to work. Just as it could be a helpful tool to avoid burnout for some, Adam notes that it could become a “distraction or added stress for others with a different set of life conditions.” It’s crucial that these sorts of initiatives are available to employees, but not mandated.
You can read more about Microsoft's burnout strategy here.