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While remote and hybrid working arrangements have revolutionized the modern workplace, they’re also fuelling unrealistic expectations for office communications, leading to what some have coined the ‘Great Exhaustion.’

In the pre-coronavirus pandemic office environment, employees understood that it would take a couple of days for colleagues to respond to an email or phone request, says Janet Candido, founder and principal at Candido Consulting Group, noting employees are now expected to respond to requests right away via email or another chat messaging system and the time spent following up is cutting into their workplace productivity.

Read: Employers contending with impacts of triple-peak work hours amid rise in flexible working

“It’s not unusual for [employees] to spend an entire day answering emails or chats, which means they’re often catching up on work at home in the evenings.”

Being inundated with email requests for their time can be overwhelming, frustrating and tiring for employees, she adds. “In many cases, people are working far in excess of what would be considered a normal workday. And it’s not unreasonable to assume that people who are working remotely may be a victim to that even more than [in-office workers]. If they’re spending too much of their day on internal communications, they’re not actually getting their work product done during working hours.”

Indeed, the average employee spends 57 per cent of their time communicating (in meetings, email and chat) and spend the remaining 43 per cent creating (in documents, spreadsheets and presentations), according to a May 2023 survey by Microsoft Corp. It found the heaviest email users (those in the top 25 per cent) spend more than eight hours a week on email and the heaviest meeting users (also the top 25 per cent) spend 7.5 hours a week in meetings.

This exhaustion is also creeping into the office culture, says Candido, noting it’s making employees hesitant to socialize with co-workers or participate in social work events. “They just want to get their work done and go home so the culture becomes much more sterile [lacking] . . . camaraderie.”

Read: How employers can manage employee productivity in a remote working environment

But a full return to the office may not be the best solution to this problem, as in-office workers are also experiencing this exhaustion due to long commutes or having to balance caregiving duties with their work hours. While they recognize working in-person is better for collaboration and, in some cases, productivity, she says there’s a real disconnect between what’s better for employees and what’s better for the company and their colleagues.

No matter the preference, people are entrenched in their preferences for working remotely or in-office, which is permeating into other aspects of the workplace, says Candido. “That may be part of where . . . microaggressions [are] coming from, with remote employees feeling [pressure] from leadership who really want them to come into the office.”

She says it’s important that employees — whether working remotely or in-office — have quiet time to focus on their work product. Many employers have addressed this need by blocking off a day or certain hours once per week in their staff calendars for focused work or they’re establishing email etiquette to guide employees on reasonable times and ways to communicate virtually.

Candido doesn’t recommend employers draw a line in the sand and mandate all staff to work in the office five days a week. “Try to do it in a more . . . staggered schedule [and] give people notice, so they can plan around their childcare . . . or elder care. Otherwise, [they’re] all going to come in on those days . . . put [their] head down and not emerge until the end of the day.”

Read: Return-to-office plans should focus on flexibility, health and safety: experts