How to stay sane online (especially now) – tips from Shine Offline’s Laura Willis

Depending on where we live, we’re now up between two and three weeks into Covid-19-caused confinement, meaning most of us with ‘non-essential’ jobs are stuck inside, working from home. Which brings its lot of non-digital challenges (home schooling, anyone?) But above all, we’re more dependent on technology than ever. All interactions with colleagues are limited to videoconferences and emails — which we often end up managing at the same time — and, combined with the ambient stress, our workload seems bigger than ever. Not to mention the constant flow of WhatsApp messages, so handy for checking your friends are OK. So how can we stop this digital weight from becoming overbearing? 

Shine Offline is a UK-based training & consulting company whose objective is simple: improve digital wellbeing in the workplace. Founded four years ago, it works with companies like PwC and telco O2 to help their employees mitigate online stress, and thereby reduce risk of burnouts. 84% of Shine Offline trainees accept that technology causes them harm, says Co-Founder Laura Willis (below). Largely because “there are no guidelines in place to make sure you’re using tech properly.

Laura Willis Shine Offline Sept 18 2

Willis was inspired to start the company when observing underground passengers in London, all glued to their phones. “I saw all these people living without purpose or control, and had a lightbulb moment: why isn’t anyone helping these people?

That help doesn’t involve the temporary cold turkey of digital detox, insists Willis, but rather “reframing your relationship with tech on a day to day basis, and working out where it’s causing you stress. There’s a tangible link between digital distractions and your ability to perform at work.” And none more so than when vast swathes of the workforce are made to work from home…

So digital burnout is now a thing? “Preventing burnout is now a top priority in the UK”, insists Willis; it’s an increasingly important issue in sectors like law, she says. “People graduating now don’t want to work for big global firms, because the word on the street is they will kill you. One lawyer just told me they used to cancel holidays for big cases; now they take the work with them! We need to sort this out, or the business won’t survive.”

So with that in mind, how can we make our professional online environment less harmful, and improve our digital wellbeing, especially at the moment? Willis’ advice can be resumed as three Cs…

1. Control: you are in charge of your tech

  • Create hard edges in your day“, says Willis; set times when you’re not connected, essentially
  • Minimise distractions by working offline (Outlook has this option); getting your personal phone off the desk, and turning off its notifications. For help leaving your phone alone, try apps like Forest, where more trees grow the longer you don’t pick up your device
  • Set aside 25 minute slots to get key tasks done – something Willis calls “deep work” – without digital distractions
  • Check news at specific times in the day; “straight from news sites, not from social media”, insists Willis.

2. Collaborate: think of others first

  • Focus on what Willis calls “purposeful use of technology,” e.g. talking to people rather than over-relying on email or messaging
  • We should also be aware of Continuous Partial Attention; “our minds are always partly on our phones, and so never fully on the people we’re with,” notes Willis
  • Videoconference meetings are a key sector here. 65% of people on conference calls do other work; 47% go to the toilet; and 6% make another call, according to Intercall. Don’t be that person! “be fully present” throughout the meeting, insists Willis
  • Similarly, when we finally get back to face-to-face meetings, “take opportunities to develop relationships”, advises Willis. “Control your attention. Ask yourself: ‘do I really need my phone in this meeting/lunch?‘”


3. (re)Charge: give your mind a chance to recover

  • “Creating hard edges in your day” can also entail taking coffee breaks without your phone, says Willis
  • When inclined to reach for your phone, write down why (e.g. “text Mum”) and do it later instead. Similarly, advises Willis, “if you feel the urge to check Twitter, stop, breathe for 30 seconds and see if the urge goes away”
  • Get your phone out of bedroom: buy an alarm clock! Why? Because one third of people check their phones during the night, according to a Deloitte study
  • Don’t check work emails out of office hours, because “excellence does not equal always contactable
  • Practice mindfulness to exercise your brain and improve your attention.

We’d also add, after 3 weeks’ working from home, that with most of our exchanges now happening via text — apart from during prearranged conf calls — we should consider that ‘humour’ or ‘sarcasm’ is never as clear written down as it is face-to-face; and that, in that same spirit, we should take time to talk to colleagues for other things than meetings. What about a virtual coffee break?

We’re in the strangest time we’ve ever been in, so take care of yourself,” concludes Willis. We couldn’t have put that bit better ourselves…

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