Imagine a global pandemic before video calls, messaging apps, collaboration software, cloud storage, and remote access to servers. Or without online shopping, telemedicine, social media, and video streaming. Undoubtedly, technology has made the COVID-19 pandemic much easier to endure than if it had happened 30 years earlier. Even just one month into the pandemic, in April 2020, more than half of US adults said the internet had been essential to them, according to a Pew Research Center survey. And with the rise of remote work and remote learning, people have spent even more time online. By the end of 2020, a report from OpenVault found that monthly data consumption was up 40% on average, compared with 2019. Now, more than a year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, vaccinations are helping us shift into a less distanced existence. It’s time to take stock of our relationship to personal technology. How has it changed our minds, bodies, and behaviors? And what’s the best way to move forward?
HOW MUCH MORE ONLINE ARE WE, EXACTLY?
Remote work and learning haven’t been equally accessible to everyone. But where they’ve been available, they’ve helped people keep their jobs and further their education. As thankful as we are, though, the transition has been bumpy. Teachers and students have had to learn to use unfamiliar software and hardware on the fly, which has sometimes led to longer and more frustrating online experiences. Parents and caretakers became impromptu IT support for school-age kids.
For those working and schooling from home for the first time, the lines between when the workday or school day starts and ends have blurred. A full third of people working from home all or most of the time say they’re putting in more hours at work than they did before COVID-19, according to a December 2020 report from Pew Research Center.
People have also been depending on their devices more for personal use. In 2020, US online merchants saw more than $860 billion in sales, an increase of 44% year over year, according to estimates from Digital Commerce 360, a media and research firm. That figure is nearly triple the increase seen from 2018 to 2019. Specifically, online sales of sporting goods, puzzles, games, and craft supplies all rose sharply. And internet shopping during the pandemic hasn’t been just for entertainment. Online grocery revenue surged to more than 350% higher in late March 2020 compared to pre-pandemic levels and has since leveled out to be around 230% higher, according to the Digital Economy Index by Adobe Analytics.
The amount of time we spend on mobile devices has also increased, suggesting an overall rise in online activity that isn’t solely related to working and learning. In the US, adults spent, on average, 229 minutes per day on their phones in 2020, compared with 223 minutes the year before, according to Statista. Kids are spending more time online, too—and likely not just for school. A survey by Super awesome, a company that works on technologies to make the online world safer for children, found that more than half of US kids say they’re using screens at least 50% more now than before the pandemic.
Technology has allowed many people to keep working, learning, socializing, and shopping safely this past year. But there are no best practices for how to handle our increased screen time, because we’ve never been in this situation before. And it’s hard to settle into a healthy routine when the conditions and theories keep changing—how best to keep ourselves and others safe, vaccine efficacy, vaccination rates, details about variants of the virus, and so much more. What’s the right way to live in a pandemic and maintain a healthy relationship with technology?
For adults working from home, especially those doing so for the first time, burnout and work-related stress have been a huge problem. A Harvard Business Review survey of nearly 1,500 people across 46 countries found that 89% felt their workplace well-being declined since the start of COVID-19, and the biggest contributor (56%) was increased job demands. Twenty-five percent pointed to the loss of work-life separation as a major factor, 23% mentioned unmanageable and increased workloads, and 21% cited longer work hours. Being forced to work from home unexpectedly and with no planning is hard and is taking a toll. To exacerbate the problem, many organizations that have asked employees to work remotely hadn’t thought about how to adapt their practices, company culture, and tools for a remote environment.
“The biggest problem—and there’s no question in my mind—when it comes to digital overload in the world of remote work is ‘meeting overload,’” says Dr. Alexandra Samuel, Ph.D., co-author of Remote Inc.: How to Thrive at Work Wherever You Are.
“Even before the pandemic, even before remote work, people complained about having too many meetings, but the problem is dramatically exacerbated when those meetings go online,” Samuel says. With in-person meetings, a host might not invite people who would have to travel to attend or who are only tangentially involved in the work. But there’s a tendency when working remotely to invite every possible party to an online meeting, because there are fewer barriers to attending. Samuel recommends that people who feel burned out should push back on meetings before anything else.
For organizations, a little planning and adjustments for a remote environment would go a long way, too. “Working at home has some amazing advantages for individuals and for teams that you can only take advantage of once you rethink your work processes and your team processes and learn to work more asynchronously,” Samuel says.
A majority of remote workers have discovered some of these perks. Another finding from Pew Research Center is that 54% of remote workers would like to continue working remotely after the pandemic ends. And roughly 20% of respondents in the HBR survey said their workplace well-being improved in some way since the start of the pandemic.
While remote workers have complained about too many Zoom meetings and longer hours, there haven’t been many reports citing burnout from excessive technology use in other realms, such as social media, games, and streaming. That doesn’t mean it’s not happening—just that people aren’t citing it as a top reason for burnout. Before the pandemic, some researchers suggested that adults may suffer from “screen guilt,” negative feelings associated with taking breaks that don’t get them away from screens, such as using social media. But again, remote workers seem much more overwhelmed by meetings and increased work demands.
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