Simple tweaks to your calendar apps and email can help fight burnout

More time for me time.
More time for me time.
Image: REUTERS/Antonio Bronic
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Let’s not delude ourselves: Almost everyone is experiencing some level of burnout as we hit the one-year mark of entering the “new normal” created by Covid-19. For me, the pandemic has been a stark reminder that a lot of things live outside my control; however, for the things still within my purview, I’m all the more motivated to stay firmly in the driver’s seat.

As the productivity and collaboration lead of Google’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer team, it’s part of my job to understand how technology can help improve well-being and work-life balance. While that might sound counterintuitive as screen fatigue becomes all too common in the pandemic, there are ways technology can help you safeguard personal time and avoid the burnout so many of us are feeling after an unimaginably long year.

Drawing from my own personal experience and work with customers, here are some of the ways we can use workplace tools to help keep our lives a bit more balanced.

Use your calendar to set boundaries

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my career is that you, and only you, are responsible for scheduling personal time, whether it be a midday walk or a much needed week off. At Google, employees generally have access to one another’s calendars, giving them visibility into when a colleague has an important meeting or a personal appointment. It’s a lifesaver for scheduling meetings, but this idea of transparent scheduling and communicating via your calendar can also be helpful for setting boundaries with co-workers.

For example, I have a (socially distant) running group I attend each week. I used to block the time on my calendar with an empty meeting, but I would still end up getting meeting invitations from colleagues scheduling over these blocks (usually for larger meetings where it’s harder to accommodate everyone’s schedules). I learned that specificity is key when carving out personal time. I now mark that time as “Running: No Meetings,” and generally since specifying, my colleagues have respected the boundary I’ve set.

I realize not everyone feels comfortable providing this level of transparency into their personal lives via their calendar. If that’s the case, consider leaving the block as simple as “Personal Time—Emergencies Only.” As long as you’re communicating the level at which you want this time to be respected, it will do wonders for ensuring personal time isn’t playing second fiddle to work meetings.

For those who don’t work all day on sensitive matters, I encourage you to consider adopting shared calendars. In calendar apps like Google Calendar, you have the option of sharing your calendar with specific people through the Settings menu, allowing you to designate who can see your schedule and to what level visibility is provided (i.e. whether others can see your calendar event details or only calendar blocks marked as “busy”). In my experience, greater transparency improves communication around boundaries.

Meetings don’t have to be purely work focused

Nothing is worse than joining a call while everyone remains silent for the first few minutes before the meeting reaches quorum. Imagine entering a conference room where people sat in silence around the table waiting until everyone arrived. We didn’t do this when we were in person, so why are people doing it now?

Many of us have fallen into this idea that we need to cut meetings down to the bare minimum for better efficiency, without taking into account the lack of social interaction and overall distance we’re feeling from our colleagues. When we start a meeting by diving straight into the work, it can suck the energy out of the (virtual) room and we lose our creative spark. No wonder so many of us are tired of remote meetings.

As a new practice, I’ve started scheduling some of my meetings for longer than I know the discussion will take, to allow time to catch up with one another and discuss topics other than work. I usually include a note as part of the calendar invite, giving meeting attendees a heads up about why I set the meeting for the length of time that I did. That way, if their schedule is hectic, they can let me know that while they’d love to chat, this is not a good time.

My team at Google has also started to infuse more fun and energy into our remote meetings with meetings themes like “funny hat” day. It’s a lighthearted way to bring socialization back into meetings and loosens everyone up for the task ahead.

Embrace asynchronous working

Although the past year has thrown us many curveballs, working from home also has urged businesses to accept more asynchronous working styles, which can better accommodate employees’ creative flow.

Research suggests the average worker is only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes within an 8-thour work day. Allowing workers flexibility outside of strict 9-5 hours can have a positive impact on both work-life balance and productivity. For example, at Google, I have colleagues who sign on early in the morning for calls and plug into their workstreams, but then sign off for an hour or two to take a walk or make lunch for their kids, before signing back on in the afternoon.

However, this flexibility can both help and hinder digital well-being. Some co-workers feel freed in having a more autonomous schedule, while others feel like there is no concrete end to their work day. This is where technology can help both parties.

Easy hacks for asynchronous communication

For those who prefer a more flexible schedule, optimize for asynchronous communication tools like email, where you can use features like “schedule send.” That way you can have an email sent during normal business hours even though you might have drafted it at 10pm.

For emails that come through during the work day, but which you’d rather dive into later that evening, just press “snooze’ in Gmail to have them come back to your inbox when it’s convenient.

For those who like to keep stricter hours, you can set your status on most messaging platforms as Do Not Disturb, which will mute notifications while letting others know you’re not online after 5pm, or whatever your boundary may be.

You also can set your working hours in your calendar to a set time, so that if someone tries to schedule a meeting outside your work day, they will receive a prompt letting them know that meeting falls outside your working hours.

Tech as a tool

For better or for worse, technology’s role in our day-to-day has been significantly elevated. And although workplace technology is often pegged as a top offender of work-life balance, you can use these very tools to safeguard that much-needed morning walk or meal time with your family.

My hope is that these tools will continue to help usher greater transparency and respect for colleagues’ personal lives into the workplace, long after the pandemic has passed.