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It’s been almost four years since the coronavirus pandemic inaugurated a period of sustained upheaval for knowledge workers. The first wave of change came in early 2021, with the Great Resignation—a mass exodus from the workforce that saw, at its peak, millions of Americans quitting their jobs each month. Then, in 2022, we got the Remote-Work Wars, in which bosses who’d thought of working from home as a temporary measure were surprised when employees claimed it as a right. “Stop treating us like school kids who need to be told when to be where and what homework to do,” a group of disgruntled Apple employees wrote in a letter to management after their C.E.O., Tim Cook, proposed repopulating the company’s offices, including its headquarters, which had opened only five years earlier at a cost of five billion dollars.
Eventually, in many organizations, the fervor of the Remote-Work Wars settled into an uneasy truce that was based on hybrid schedules. But then, last summer, a third wave of disruption emerged. “I recently learned about this term called quiet quitting,” the narrator of a viral TikTok video began. “You’re not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond.” Many young professionals embraced the idea, filling social platforms with sympathetic declarations before they, in turn, weathered a derisive backlash. The over-all impression, throughout these years of turbulence, was that knowledge work was broken: somehow, its expectations, rhythms, and burdens needed to be redefined.
Today, at the close of 2023, there no longer seems to be a revolutionary project roiling the knowledge sector. The business-news cycle is dominated by coverage of A.I. or old-fashioned labor strikes, with little apparent excitement left for reforming knowledge work as a whole. Office workers seem to have retreated into a pervasive atmosphere of fatigue. “I just feel that I am tired of working,” a representative post on the /r/work subreddit reads. “I am tired of meetings, brainstorming, expectations, dealing with people, figuring out neverending problems.” The most notable change of these tumultuous years, the ability to spend more time working from home, hasn’t been a cure-all. Something’s still wrong, above and beyond the usual challenges of office life. Everyone’s tired. What started with the Great Resignation has become the Great Exhaustion.
How can we understand this vibe of weary disappointment? It’s useful to start with a simple question: What instigated these successive waves of knowledge-work disruption in the first place? The obvious answer is the pandemic, which introduced significant new strains into professional life, from the deranging challenges of juggling child care and work to the dulling ennui of domestic confinement. But, even as these specific pressures began to lessen, the mood of frustration only increased. Something deeper seemed to be unfolding.
Beyond the showy disruptions generated by the pandemic’s arrival was a more subtle but arguably even more important trend: a sharp increase in how much time the average knowledge worker engages in digital communication. A recent report from Microsoft found that users of its office-productivity software now spend close to sixty per cent of their time using digital communication tools—e-mail, chat, and videoconferencing—with only the remaining forty per cent left for “creation” software, such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. One in four workers studied was trapped in an even grimmer communications spiral, spending the equivalent of a full workday (almost nine hours) each week on e-mail alone. Meanwhile, time in online meetings increased by more than two hundred and fifty per cent between February, 2020, and 2022.
It’s hardly surprising that the rapid transition to widespread remote work led to a greater quantity of digital communication. Especially in the early weeks of the pandemic, Zoom and Slack offered a lifeline of sorts for newly isolated members of the cubicle diaspora. But it’s striking that, even as work returned to a more stable rhythm, with more time spent back in physical offices, the amount of digital communication has remained high. (The Microsoft researchers found that the trend lines measuring communication volume show a sharp increase when the pandemic begins, followed by a continued slow rise.) The problem with this new reality is that research connects increased digital communication with decreased satisfaction. This effect can be uncovered by broad surveys, such as a 2019 Swedish study that found correlations between high communication-technology demands and poor health outcomes. It can also be seen in narrow experiments: when researchers at the University of California at Irvine, M.I.T., and Microsoft connected forty knowledge workers to heart-rate monitors for almost two weeks, they discovered that the subjects’ stress levels rose higher the longer they spent on e-mail.
A never-ending stream of new messages and calendars clogged with meetings force us to constantly switch our attention from one target to another, creating a debilitating feeling of mental fatigue and overload, and leaving little mental space for sustained effort on important objectives. Seven out of ten people surveyed by Microsoft complain that they “don’t have enough uninterrupted focus time during the workday.” This deluge also blurs the line between work and home. When your in-box grows at a rate that’s faster than you could ever hope to keep up with, it’s difficult to shut down and recharge. Work becomes inescapable.
The bottom line is that the abrupt rise in digital interaction following the arrival of the pandemic made knowledge work more tedious and exhausting, helping to fuel the waves of disruption that have followed. If we accept this interpretation of events, however, we must also accept the necessity of continuing to seek change. So long as these new and excessive levels of digital communication persist, more haphazard upheavals will inevitably follow. We need to get serious about reducing digital communication—not just small tweaks to corporate norms but significant reductions, driven by major policy changes.
There are many ways to make things better. One possible first step would be for business owners to set new ground rules. For instance, they could declare that, from now on, e-mail should be used only for broadcasting information, and for sending questions that can be answered by a single reply. One implication of this system would be that any substantive back-and-forth discussion would need to happen live; to prevent an explosion of new meetings, managers could simultaneously introduce office hours, in which every employee adopts a set period each day during which they’d be available to chat in person, online, or over the phone, with no appointment needed. Discussions that seem likely to take fifteen minutes or less should be conducted during office hours, minimizing the number of intrusive meetings and freeing everyone from endless back-and-forth e-mail threads.
For those used to a culture of immediate responsiveness, the idea of having to wait to get an answer might seem radical—even unworkable. But people who have actually experimented with this approach have found that it can lead to a better allocation of time for everyone. “It turns out that waiting is no big deal most of the time,” the tech founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson explained, discussing their implementation of office hours at their software company, Basecamp. “The time and control regained by our experts is a huge deal.”
Where do instant-messaging services, such as Slack, fit in? The need to constantly monitor ongoing chats can be even more disruptive than frequent e-mails and meetings. These tools can seem unavoidable, but they don’t have to be. The e-commerce company Convictional—which employs around thirty people and offers supply-chain software—made the bold decision to opt out of chat services completely. In a 2021 interview with the (now-shuttered) tech magazine Protocol, Roger Kirkness, the company’s C.E.O., explained that the move was a response to the “resentment” expressed by employees about unending interruptions from Slack and meetings in their past jobs. “Most of the most valuable work,” Kirkness said, “actually happens” when employees are undistracted.
New employees at Convictional sometimes have difficulty adjusting, Kirkness said, and often try to use e-mail as a substitute for Slack, attempting to create rapid-fire discussions. The company encourages employees to abandon this “hustle-oriented” mind-set. Kirkness also planned to introduce periodic in-person gatherings to Convictional, which is otherwise fully remote, to help facilitate the emotional connections that might be lost in a setting that relies less on real-time collaboration. The details of how this particular company operates without chat, however, are less important than the general point that major reforms in how we communicate are possible. Just because a tool is popular doesn’t make it inevitable.
In the spring of 2020, during those first terrible weeks of dislocation and confusion, I wrote an article about the pandemic’s emerging impact on knowledge work. I argued that the abrupt shift into telecommuting was going to make office-style jobs harder and less satisfying, owing in large part to the frustrating inefficiencies of digital communication. But I also found a silver lining: perhaps the pain would force reforms that would make knowledge work more sustainable and satisfying in the long term. Over the next several years, only half of my prediction was realized. Work did get harder, but leaders and business owners did little to counter this reality. As a result, we experienced one ill-fated revolt after another.
But even if we are now mired in a Great Exhaustion, we shouldn’t give up. In recent years, we’ve tried dramatic individual changes, such as quitting and moving to the country, or publicly declaring an intention to put in the minimum effort, but lasting improvements are likely to come from less romantic reforms. Communication overload got worse in 2020, and it’s still getting worse today. This matters. Fortunately, it is a problem that we can fix, if organizations and leaders are prepared to make bold changes. Full in-boxes and endless meetings are not intrinsic parts of office work in a digital world; they’re instead a response to an unexpected crisis that subsequently spiralled out of control. The turmoil in knowledge work following the arrival of the pandemic showed the unsustainability of this state of affairs. Maybe the year ahead will be the one in which we start to change it. ♦