Alysha Love, a freelance writer with expertise in the tech and future-of-work space, commissioned by Storyhunter Studios
August 18, 2021
More than 7 in 10 (71%) knowledge workers reported feeling burned out during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a survey conducted by Asana and Sapio Research.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Around 9 in 10 (87%) workers have put in longer hours during the pandemic, averaging an extra two hours a day, according to Asana’s Anatomy of Work Index 2021. Over the course of a year, those employees are effectively putting in dozens of additional workdays — likely at a detriment to their well-being.
The world’s knowledge workers are also averaging less than seven hours of sleep each night, according to the global survey of 13,000 professionals. All of this likely contributes to less balance between work life and home life, diminished well-being and a rise in burnout.
“It's no wonder workers are burned out,” says Alex Hood, chief product officer at Asana. “Employees have been trying to balance the demands of their home lives, which were completely upended by the pandemic, with the fuzzy boundaries, constant pings from email and chat, and lack of clarity about what needs to be done at work. Businesses need to be proactive to take care of their teams.”
That burnout may be steering the workforce toward a negative outcome for companies in 2021: loss of productivity.
“Unfortunately, the burnout numbers we have been seeing have been steadily rising since May 2020 and are likely to have a massive negative impact on businesses,” says Sahar Yousef, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley who partnered with Asana to glean insights from the survey results. “Our research suggests that unless organizations take a proactive approach, productivity is projected to decrease in 2021.”
“Let’s jump on a video call” may be one of the most well-worn phrases among knowledge workers during 2020. Video conference fatigue set in less than three months after the COVID-19 pandemic sent employees scrambling to set up home office spaces. Yet hours spent in unnecessary meetings and video calls increased by 42% during the pandemic over the previous year.
Global workers reported spending 157 hours in unnecessary meetings, which means weeks of lost productivity per employee for companies. Many of those meetings fall into the category of “work about work” — the activities employees do throughout the day that aren’t the actual skilled work they were hired to do.
The Anatomy of Work Index 2021 found that 60% of employees’ time is spent on work about work, like communicating about work, getting status updates, managing shifting priorities, searching for information and switching between apps. That leaves individuals with 14% of their time to focus on strategy and only 26% of their time to do the skilled work they were hired to do, respondents report.
“That is sort of the tax of work, and it's a 60% tax,” Hood says.
Nearly a third (29%) of respondents say employers can improve the workplace by cutting down on meetings and setting guidelines to make them more effective.
Hood suggests leaders take an intentional, scrupulous approach to topics that warrant a meeting. Setting the example from the top creates a culture of fewer meetings, empowering employees to focus more time on strategy and skilled work.
“We’re rigorous about how we spend and share our time together,” Hood says. “When we do get together, it's for content. We brainstorm, we make hard decisions, we discuss trade-offs, we interview new teammates.”
Work-about-work topics, like knowledge sharing, status updates and getting on the same page, are documented and kept up-to-date in a single source of truth. In Hood’s case, unsurprisingly, he keeps his team on track and out of meetings by using Asana.
“The process of who is doing what, what's the status of X, Y and Z — those are the meetings that people really hate, those are the energy drainers. We don't do that because we don't have to. The process happens in Asana,” Hood says.
No one wants to unintentionally spend chunks of each workweek doing work that someone else is doing or that’s already been done. And yet, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Global knowledge workers are spending 236 hours a year on duplicative work or work that is later deemed a waste of time.
Communication and clarity are crucial to resolving duplicative work issues.
“There are some things that you want about work — like the plan of record — to not be perishable, to have a single source of truth across an organization,” Hood says. “If [employees] knew the well-communicated strategy and where their work fits in, how they contribute to their team and how others contribute to them — off to the races.”
Nearly a quarter (24%) of respondents say switching between multiple apps, like chat, spreadsheets and email, leads to work being duplicated.
Global workers report using an average of 10 apps throughout the day to get their work done. Bombarded with distractions, 72% of global respondents feel pressure to multitask. And, well, humans aren’t good at multitasking.
“Multitasking is a myth,” Yousef says. “In reality, it’s rapidly switching from one task to another, and then back again. And every time you make that switch, you pay a ‘tax’ on both your time and your energy.”
Employees should be encouraged to block off time on their calendars to focus on work and shut off apps like email that ping, distract and demand constant attention. Twenty-eight percent of survey respondents say employers can improve work by encouraging uninterrupted focus time. And the proof is in the pudding: These daily focus sprints lead to a 43% increase in productivity, according to productivity research at Yousef’s Becoming Superhuman Lab.
Responsibility for setting boundaries around apps and encouraging better work processes lies with leaders, Hood says.
“Employees around the world are bombarding each other with notifications of status every two minutes from every different tool that's on your phone or computer,” Hood says. “It's difficult because businesses haven't really set norms around employees’ workdays or what the boundaries are.”
Jumping between apps and context-switching creates other issues: Some respondents say they’re less efficient, others have a harder time prioritizing work, and still more say they miss messages or tasks. In fact, respondents reported that over one-quarter (26%) of their deadlines are missed each week, and 27% of respondents say that’s because of a lack of clarity from unclear processes.
Hood suggests streamlining apps to get work done while setting clear guidance about the team’s processes.
“We provide and set norms about the tools we use,” Hood says. “We ask that employees share their availability. We have tools to balance workloads. We provide the ability to share progress without asking for a progress report or setting a status meeting up. All these things reduce the anxiety and the tax on actual progress, which helps.”
Almost half of respondents cite being overworked as a key contributor to burnout — and nearly a third (29%) of those knowledge workers say that’s because of a lack of clarity on tasks and roles.
Knowledge workers have a resounding message for organizations in 2021: One-third say to make technology that helps teams work efficiently a top priority. Another quarter of respondents say employers can make work better by investing in new tools and technology for collaboration.
Knowledge workers transitioned from office to home for the pandemic, and they’re geared up for yet another change to work processes. As organizations plan varying models for the future of work, there’s even more to figure out about how to work clearly and productively.
“Some companies are going to continue to work remotely, and some are going to return to the office. Many are going to do something in between, and they’re going to have to learn across that spectrum,” Hood says. “When employees have the connectivity and the information that they need about the work at hand, the things that they're dependent on, and the work that others depend on them to do, it creates greater trust and more shared victories.”
Companies will need to be open to new ideas, workstreams and technology to make hybrid work models efficient and sustainable, Hood says.
“It is really the time to experiment with new avenues of doing your work,” he says. “You might want to think about being open to stretching beyond just the applications that showed up on your laptop when you started your job two years ago, before any of us even knew about the pandemic. You may want to consider setting new norms for your team.”
Tied with making technology that helps teams work efficiently a priority, 33% of employees also say companies should prioritize flexibility on working hours. Another 35% of respondents say more flexible working hours would improve their work.
Technology to work efficiently and work flexibility go hand in hand, so it’s no surprise that these tied as knowledge workers’ top priority for organizations.
“A lot of the work that is traditionally done in status meetings of trying to catch up with each other is done asynchronously, which means it really can be done on your own time,” Hood says. “That would allow people more flexibility to use their asynchronous time or their off time as they please in a way that’s most efficient for the multiple roles in their life, mine being dad and product team leader.”
Flexibility can mean choosing the time of day to get into flow state with work tasks or to focus on home life, which should make it easier to balance roles and improve overall well-being. In fact, over a third (34%) of knowledge workers say remote work has helped them focus more because of the flexibility.
“Flexibility is key for a resilient reset for all of us as we get back together,” Hood says. “Tools that enable flexibility and adaptation are essential for bringing clarity to the chaos of work, resetting for resilience and flourishing as we move forward.”
Asana’s Anatomy of Work Index 2021 reflects the attitudes of knowledge workers around the globe in the midst of the pandemic. Dig in with your employees and co-workers to understand how they’ve been affected. Building trust, encouraging sharing and creating a culture of communication can help combat burnout and increase resilience.
“You need to be able to create a space where people feel safe, are empowered to speak up and feel heard. Help people find their communities and create a buddy system, all those places where employees feel like they belong. Set norms where parents and caregivers can ask for help,” Hood says. “Communication needs to be really intentional. It's a real means of creating culture.”
Asana’s Anatomy of Work Index 2021 methodology: In October 2020, Asana and Sapio Research surveyed the behaviors and attitudes of 13,123 adult knowledge workers across Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Japan, Singapore, the U.K. and the U.S. The survey consisted of 45 multiple choice questions. Respondents identified as professionals who spend the majority of their time in an office, co-work space or working from home and who spend 50% or more of their time at a computer or device to complete tasks. They represent over 18 industries, all company sizes and all levels of seniority.