Rethinking the Calendar to Avoid Massive Burnout

It’s no secret that the current health crisis has caused an explosion in the work-from-home (WFH) movement. As a matter of fact, some studies show that by the end of 2021, 30% of the U.S. workforce will be remote (up from 3.6% prior to COVID-19), which could end up being a conservative estimate when all this is said and done. While this new normal takes hold in society, our team noticed a troubling trend in digital behavior while looking at our datasets:

Managers are sending 20% more messages “after hours.”

As the line between work and home evaporates – and as people grapple with homeschool and juggle other family dynamics – it’s easy to understand why the work day has expanded. Microsoft also recently explored this topic and their data showed that the average time between a person’s first use of Microsoft Teams and their last use each day had increased by over one hour during the health crisis.  

While more research is needed on this subject, the likely reality is that employee’s are probably “plugged in” more hours in the day.

Unfortunately, most employees don’t tend to control their own work productivity. The workplace and/or company or managerial pressures traditionally dictate employee productivity and subsequent obligations to be online and plugged in. For example, does an employee or team member need to be “available” all day to answer pings in digital channels? 

What we do know is that the increase in remote working is currently having an adverse impact on employees’ wellbeing. According to Qualtrics, stress and anxiety has spiked during this health crisis, with 52% of workers feeling MORE anxious working from home. But is this a new trend? No, the trend of digital “creep” has been causing employee’s additional stress long before this novel virus (but it’s now amplified). Just look at this article from The Wall Street Journal (back in July of 2019) with the headline, “Some employers are banning weekend and late-night emails to prevent employee burnout.”

Even before this dramatic WFH shift, employees were sick of always being “plugged in,” and now it’s even worse. Are we trending toward a massive increase in employee burnout if we all continue down this path?

Houston We Have a Calendar Problem

What is driving this “always connected” culture? Today’s standard company calendar is driven by a 5-day, 40-hour work week. This is pre-built into most enterprise calendar applications. Interestingly enough, this work schedule was adopted by Ford Motor Company back as early as 1926. Our notions of work and productivity, that are used as the basis to organize our time at work, were created nearly 100 years ago! Do they really fit in with our changing connected and mobile world? Unfortunately, the general consensus has been to expand on that traditional 8-hour workday, not manipulate it.

Today, many offices are virtual, yet we still plan our time around a static century-old calendar system, which lays a foundation for implicit consent of when to communicate or send employees messages. But that foundation may no longer apply to every situation or every employee. Some want a family break; some want to work later in the day. We need to have a better understanding of each employee’s unique work situation so we can better empower them to perform optimally. And the great news is, we have the technology to start doing that.

The Solution: Unbundle the Calendar

At Cultivate, like many other companies, our teams also feel the stress of balancing work and personal life. We realized that our structure was tied to a traditional calendar, but our teams are anything but traditional. So, we unbundled our calendar. What does that mean?

First, our team identified an opportunity we refer to as “explicit messaging consent.” It’s the idea that we can know when each person on our team “wants” to be contacted during the day. Without this approach, an organization simply defaults to the standard 100-year old calendar norms. Sounds simple, right? In theory it is, in practice it is not. 

Employees inherently want to show company commitment. That’s usually at odds with voluntarily setting boundaries with your employer, team or manager. As a result, it’s critical that this sort of calendar unbundling be made into a top-down initiative and rolled out with actual infrastructure that empowers employees to feel comfortable participating.

Once employees are empowered to give explicit consent, you have the opportunity to not think of the calendar in static 8-hour days, but rather multiple blocks within a day.  Each employee can configure their day based on their optimal message availability (for example, my calendar shows a block of two hours in the middle of the day where I log off to participate in homeschooling with my children).  Aggregated together, we now have created a new company calendar, built on the explicit understanding of everybody’s optimal work times.  

The Future Calendar

Today, our teams are working to facilitate the unbundling of schedules for other organizations. In the not-so-distant future, we will be sharing tools – and a comprehensive platform – that allows teams to share and automate workday preferences. Using AI and data analytics it’s now possible to optimize message sending, dynamically schedule meetings, apply context filters for priority action items, and much much more. 

While we all hope this new health crisis ends soon, the new normal surely won’t. How organizations choose to deal with continued WFH and digital burnout trends will be key in building on employee happiness and productivity. Companies that can install new systems and technologies to help combat the stress associated with these workforce dynamics will become the most productive companies in the new future of work.