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Why is it so difficult to stay focused on video calls? And why do you end up feeling so drained afterwards? Two researchers, including NEOMA’s Agata Mirowska, provided a new answer to these questions in a recent article: it’s called “techno isolation”, and it’s triggered by distance working and digital tools.

Telecommuting isn’t just about shifting your work environment from your office to your home. It also involves making intensive use of digital tools: email, chat, video-based meetings and conference calls, all of which can stress workers and impact their productivity.

The scientific literature identifies five key “techno stressors”: employees feel overwhelmed and are forced to work at high speed and put in longer hours. In addition, they have the impression that their private space is being invaded. Then there is the technical complexity of some IT tools, which require a huge effort to master, together with the fear of being replaced by colleagues who are more at ease with all things digital. Last but not least, employees have to deal with the uncertainty generated by IT systems that are in constant flux.

Whether you’re working in the office or at home, there’s no escaping digital technology

Digital tools have become the norm since Covid, even for office-based employees, who still need to communicate with their remote colleagues as members of a hybrid work organisation.

While studying the effects of digital technology in more detail, the two authors of the article identified a further techno stressor: techno isolation. They identified this previously unreported phenomenon after carrying out qualitative interviews with 36 employees in French companies in May 2020. These interviews were followed up by interviews with three human resource directors.

When processing the data, the researchers differentiated between lockdown-related stress and isolation, and factors specific to remote working and digital technology.

When work becomes “difficult”, “frustrating” or “boring”

What did participants in the study say? First, heavy dependence on digital tools for professional social interactions made teleworkers’ work increasingly difficult, with more time and effort needed to achieve the same outcomes. Secondly, they mourned the loss of the social interactions that made their job easier (informal discussions between colleagues) or that they regarded as a bonus: drinks to celebrate the end of a particular project, a departmental meal out together, and so forth.

In their own terms, participants described digital-intensive remote working as “difficult”, “frustrating”, “strange” or “boring”. Certain physical symptoms also emerged: heightened fatigue, migraines and eyesight problems, for example. They also stated that they were “cut off” from other people and “less committed” to their work at times.

Video conference facilitators don’t get a “feel” for their audience

The interviews shed light on the previously-unreported stress factor known as techno isolation, which has three causes.

First, digital tools inhibit personal interactions and the transmission of useful information, making it difficult to get immediate feedback or pick up on what your interlocutor is thinking and feeling. It is also much more difficult to find an ad hoc expert in a hurry to solve a problem. What’s more, it is difficult to pull a group together, take decisions or sort out disputes. Video conferencing facilitators don’t get a “feel” for their audience, meaning they can’t adapt what they are going to say.

The demotivating monotony of 100% digital

Digital technology necessitates a very monotonous physical work environment. In short, video conferencing consists of a screen, and when participants switch off their camera, they’re no longer visible. It’s easy to get distracted, and staying tuned in requires a great deal of effort and concentration. If there are lots of people taking part in the remote meeting, many of them will stay in the background: “I don’t even have the energy to speak up”, explained one employee: “It’s so easy to say nothing”.

Techno isolation can also be attributed to the growing scarcity of informal interactions. Informal interactions  – such as spontaneous coffee breaks, bumping into a colleague in the corridor or chats that veer into less-work related territory– no longer exist, and impromptu get-togethers are a thing of the past. Social life at work becomes all the poorer, depriving employees of the framework and support to which they’ve grown attached.

The ideal video conference: short and with a limited number of participants who all know each other

Given this analysis, it’s easier to understand why video conferences are so difficult to follow. It is difficult to feel involved and engaged. And it’s impossible to make eye contact or have a conflab with a participant or decode his or her body language. You can’t see how people react, which is an obstacle to decision-making and problem-solving.

On the other hand, techno isolation can be rolled back if the video conference convenes a limited number of participants, preferably who have interacted in person in the past; ; if it tackles concrete subjects that demand an immediate response; and if the session doesn’t last too long.

How, in general terms, can managers stave off techno isolation and its ill effects?

Organise dedicated get-together days and reduce digital interactions

The first thing to do, according to the researchers, is to boost digital training and technical support. You can also give colleagues a break from digital overload by planning days when all employees are on site, and cutting back on the length and chain of digital interactions.

Last but not least, the authors suggest that managers should be given training in best practices for moderating virtual teams in order to revive informal interactions. Alternatively, more sophisticated digital tools could be employed, such as immersive virtual worlds and online collaborative software. But this may be a double-edged sword, as these may be the same types of digital tools that already create cognitive overload and exhaust users, potentially compounding the problem.

Find out more

Agata Mirowska and Tuba Bakici, Working in a Bubble: Techno-Isolation as an emerging Techno-Stressor in Teleworkers, Information Technology & People, May 2023. DOI: 10.1108/ITP-09-2022-0657