How to unplug when working remotely


By Jane Sparrow 

38% of British workers who are currently working full-time from home say that an inability to unplug from the “always on” virtual working day is the main reason for their increased anxiety levels. It’s a topic that’s coming up more than ever in every Leadership session we run, every panel I appear on and, of course,  our wellbeing and performance Bank of Me Programmes.  

With 18% of professionals in the UK working an extra ten plus hours a week on top of their normal hours at the moment, and three in five HR leaders feeling that the mental toll of homeworking during the pandemic will result in staff taking time off due to burnout in the future – it’s clear that too many of us are struggling to switch off. We know it’s a similar picture elsewhere in the world from the organisations we’re working with. 

The battle to unplug

The battle to disconnect from our digital devices is nothing new – in fact there’s a great piece on how to have a digital detox our colleague Jo wrote last year here. However, there’s no doubt that the pandemic has compounded the challenge, particularly where work is concerned. Who hasn’t heard someone mention Zoom fatigue in the last week?

Constant communication with others via digital channels, particularly video calling, can be exhausting. The reality is that being on a video call actually requires more focus than a face-to-face chat because we need to work harder to pay attention to and process non-verbal cues, like facial expressions, tone and pitch and body language. Our minds may be together but our bodies are feeling that we’re not – and that’s tiring, as is a constant anxiety that the tech will fail or our broadband will drop out!  

Tips for unplugging when working remotely

We’ve been talking with lots of clients about really practical ways in which they can support their people to unplug – both actually and mentally. Here’s some of the tips we’ve been sharing:

1. Transition between work and non-work at the end of the day

When your home becomes your workplace, the spatial, visual and audible cues you’ve grown accustomed to in your office disappear. You aren’t walking out of your building at the end of the day, you aren’t waving goodbye to your colleagues, you aren’t sitting in traffic — all of which help you switch from “I’m at work” mode to “I’m at home” mode. Instead, it’s one last task or one last email that bleeds into your evening. Whether it’s getting some fresh air, a hot shower at 5pm or a run around the block – put something into your routine that helps you to decompress and transition from work to home.

2. Put breaks and pause points in your diary

It sounds obvious but how many of us have begun to get backache and have realised that we’ve been sitting at our computer for four hours at home? When we’re in the office, or in any working environment with our co-workers, breaks happen more easily – we grab a coffee and have a chat with a colleague, we arrive at a meeting a few minutes early and catch up with others, we take a trip out with team members at lunchtime. Without any of these natural pause points, breaks can disappear – diarise them so you get a reminder. They’re essential to your productivity. Also, how about mixing it up and working in a different room? There’s a lot of chatter about ironing boards being the ideal height for a standing workstation! 

3. Agree team curfews

Agree as a team that no-one will send emails (or texts or WhatsApp messages), between 6pm and 8am (or whatever timings work) unless it’s an emergency. This completely removes the pressure and expectation on people to respond. If it can wait until tomorrow, respect each other’s home space and let it wait – or use the delay send option. If you manage people, a little message at the agreed time to wish people a lovely evening can also work really well to help your people give themselves permission to log off and power down. If you’re working in a global team – respect your colleagues’ wider lives and think about the time zone before you send anything. Use the ‘delay’ function on many systems so you can write your emails but delay the delivery time to reduce pressure on others.

4. Team physical challenge

Something we’ve been doing a lot with people joining our virtual development sessions is encouraging them to take on a short, shared team physical challenge during the breaks we give them. Depending on the group, it might be a walk around the block, it could be spending five minutes out in nature and observing what they see or we’ve even done 20 burpees! This is a brilliant way to make sure that people get some movement, it’s a great talking point, brings some fun into the mix and it rockets the productivity in the next working section. The other thing we’ve found is that we undoubtedly learn something new about people as a result of what they share.  

5. Taking holiday

A huge number of us have had holidays cancelled this year or never got to book the break we’d planned – the result of which is that many of us have had no holiday at all! With so much still to navigate and the huge pressure many of us will continue to face, the prospect of a holiday right now may seem unrealistic. However, it’s absolutely essential that you take some in order to stay productive, effective and able to support those around you. Given how uncertain the future is, I don’t think anyone can guarantee how far away a ‘good time’ for holiday is – so be proactive and get some time out, firmly booked in. You may not be able to have your usual sunshine getaway but there are plenty of pretty cool stay-cation ideas about. 

6. Switch video to audio 

Something I’ve been doing a lot of is ‘walk and talk’ meetings and conversations. When the weather is dry and the nature of the conversation allows it – ditch Zoom for a bit, go back to the richness of audio and enjoy good old phone calls whilst walking out and about. It gets you and your fellow call participants out, your mind is freed from watching and can focus on listening and you’ll really feel the benefit. This works particularly well for one to one conversations, coaching and mentoring conversations and calls where you’re likely to be exploring concepts, thinking and approaches. We’re definitely not denying the benefit of face to face (including virtual) but mixing it up and doing audio only for a change can work really well. 

7. One unplug doesn’t fit all 

Ultimately, like most things, what works for one person won’t work for another here – but one thing that is absolutely common to all of us, in order to unplug, is the need for a plan. Intent is brilliant but without a plan, a goal is just a wish. Think about what you need right now and how you can create a plan to unplug that is going to work for you. You won’t regret it.

For more top tips and brilliant approaches on homeworking and leadership development check out our podcast with Frank Cunnane, Vice President & Regional CIO EMEA for Sony Pictures Entertainment. Frank successfully leads his remote European team, working remotely himself and has some brilliant insights to share.