Digital Overload is crushing us. Can A.I. fix it?

Our workday is wasted by chatting, mailing, and meeting – rather than creating and doing results-driven work. Can AI save us from digital overload?
Daan van Rossum
Daan van Rossum
Founder & CEO, FlexOS
I founded FlexOS because I believe in a happier future of work. I write and host "Future Work," I'm a 2024 LinkedIn Top Voice, and was featured in the NYT, HBR, Economist, CNBC, Insider, and FastCo.
March 15, 2023
min read
Communication overload AI scale

I love this visual. 

It shows how much of our workday is wasted by chatting, mailing, and meeting – rather than creating. No wonder people feel their work isn't meaningful

In new research, Microsoft describes how this amount of wasted time due to digital overload makes us feel well:

"The pace of work has increased exponentially—along with the crush of data, information, and always-on communications. People are struggling to shoulder the weight of it all, while business leaders feel pressure to increase productivity amid economic uncertainty."

Some of the findings from the study:

  • We spend more and more of our days separating the signal from the noise—at the expense of creativity. 64% of employees don't have the time and energy to do their job. Employees in A.P.A.C. struggle even more at 72%, with developing markets like Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand having up to 89% of employees struggling.
  • 68% of employees don't have enough uninterrupted focus during their workday. This number peaks in Singapore (82%), Taiwan (80%), and Thailand (84%.)
  • Because they're overloaded, employees are 3.5x more likely to need help with innovation and strategic thinking. 60% of leadership is concerned about their team's lack of innovation or breakthrough ideas. Here as well, A.P.A.C. is way more concerned: 65% versus Europe (52%) and North America (53%.)
Sadly. (via Linh Pham)

It's the digital paradox: team communication is now more convenient than ever thanks to messaging tools, virtual meeting platforms, and virtual workspaces, but staying up-to-date is becoming increasingly challenging.

Meetings are the culprit of Digital Overload.

As I wrote in my viral piece, "Meeting Overload? Cut your week in half with this framework," meetings are to blame for much of our misery. 

Inefficient meetings rank number one among employees' key reasons to be unproductive, while too many meetings rank number three.

Communication overload AI meetings

Research shows that employees spend an average of 23 hours per week attending meetings, but more than half of that time is unproductive. Meetings consume almost one-third of the workweek and fail to produce meaningful results. And it's getting worse: since February 2020, people are in 3x more Teams meetings and calls per week (192%).

Being in meetings where you don't deliver value, or worse, don't participate actively at all, is one of the worst offenders. The new Microsoft research also confirms this: only 35% of people say colleagues would miss them in most meetings if they couldn't join. 

Some reasons people find meetings so unproductive include: 

  • It isn't easy to brainstorm in a virtual meeting (58%)
  • It's hard to catch up if they joined a meeting late (57%)
  • The next steps at the end of a meeting are unclear (55%)
  • It's hard to summarize what happens (56%)

Hybrid and remote employees need protection from Digital Overload.

According to research by Deloitte, 75% of employees feel more overwhelmed with digital communication since they started working from home

Hybrid and remote workers suffer more from digital overload because messaging, emailing, and video conferencing are their main communication methods. 

Companies need to protect employees who work from home from the digital deluge. They can help them focus on the positives, like better integrating their work and personal life thanks to flexible work arrangements, which The New York Times described well in "Work from 9 am to 2 pm and then again later in the evening."

This approach, called Microproductivity by Jaime Teevan, Chief Scientist at Microsoft, involves finding several timeslots in the day to blend work with personal activities. But it also means that the workday can become unnecessarily long and that we extend the time we get messages, emails, and meeting requests. 

And while 87% of employees report being productive at work in a hybrid work environment right now, 85% of managers believe the opposite. This discrepancy is what Satya Nadella calls “productivity paranoia.” 

We need to straighten out this difference.

A culture of spying?

Is modern tracking software a solution?

Nir Eyal, the author of Hooked and Indistractable, reshared an HBR piece he wrote in January. In it, he describes how with the increased remote work, some corporate leaders have become worried about maintaining productivity and need to monitor their employees' digital activity. But, that this is missing the point.

"While people often zero in on Facebook, TikTok, or Netflix as potential sources of employee distraction, in truth, we’re often more distracted by how we work today." – Nir Eyal

Nir writes how eight of the ten largest American companies surveil their employees with tracking software and that global demand for employee monitoring tools increased by 65% from 2019 to 2022

His main gripe is that these tools often focus on time typing rather than time thinking and creating. And that it's the way we work, not how and when and how long we spend on our computers.

He quotes Brian Elliott, Slack senior vice president, who said,

"Measuring productivity based on surface-level activity like 'messages sent' gives us an extraordinarily limited view into a person's contributions to their organization."

Talk, or better, Listen.

What's a better solution than spying on employees?

Last Friday, I spoke with Home Credit's Chief People Officer Alexis Pham on a C.E.E.C. panel discussion about hybrid work, performance, and wellbeing. As the closing question, organizer Vlad Savin asked what one piece of advice I'd have for leaders. I said, "Listen."

Daan and Alexis

People (and yes, that's what employees are) typically know very well what's blocking them from being productive. The best teams trust each other and have frequent touch points for mutual understanding. A simple daily prompt about blockers people encounter is enough.

Nir agrees, saying:

"A big problem with distraction at work is that we can't easily talk about it. Asking employees for feedback on the most significant work distractions won't work if they fear reprisal for sharing their thoughts."  – Nir Eyal

Psychological safety plays a significant role here, says Nir. "Only when people feel safe discussing their workplace problems will you be able to find solutions to fix them. Chances are, if your workplace can't talk about distraction, there are all kinds of other skeletons in the closet you can't discuss either."

The need for psychological safety also answers the question why are managers important – more than ever. According to Humu, teams with great managers tend to have 78% more psychological safety, which is one of the essential factors behind the effective performance.

Teams that trust each other can also discuss how they plan to spend their time, who is over- and underutilized, and where the team can best support each other.

Facilitating these conversations and creating a safe, open space, is a better antidote to productivity paranoia than any tracker. 

Can A.I. save us?

So on the big question. Can A.I. save us from digital overload and technostress?

Microsoft says yes: "To date, A.I. has mostly been on autopilot. Next-generation copilots will work alongside people, freeing us from digital debt and fueling innovation."

Their CEO Satya Nadella added: "This new generation of A.I. will remove the drudgery of work and unleash creativity. There's an enormous opportunity for AI-powered tools to help alleviate digital debt, build A.I. aptitude, and empower employees."

Managers seem to agree and believe that employees with A.I. will:

  • Do better work faster (33% of managers agree)
  • Learn more quickly (30%)
  • Improve how they spend time (26%) and energy (25%)
  • Not have to absorb unneeded information (23%)
  • Spend less time on email (23%)

(Note: AI is developing rapidly. Take a look at our six must-know AI trends in 2024.)

For example, meetings.

One of the biggest opportunities is in meetings. We already know that we organize and attend meetings because we want to do a good job

The Microsoft study gives more context. Asked what makes meetings worthwhile, people's top motivation was, "I will receive information that will help me do my job better"—before giving feedback, making decisions, or advancing their career. 

With the advances in A.I., attending meetings to capture information is no longer needed. 

A.I. meeting bots like Fireflies, MeetGeek, Otter, and Grain can join and take meeting notes on your behalf and are the perfect starting point for how to use AI. Meeting bots also help make information searchable and minimize information asymmetry between those who did and didn't attend. 

These A.I. meeting bots are part of my 27 A.I. tools every manager should explore to work smarter, not harder, today. Other meeting principles still stand – via my meeting framework F.A.I.R.:

  • Have a good format
  • Have a clear agenda
  • Have the right people attending
  • Results in a report that helps everyone.

According to Microsoft, we can then radically rethink the workday. As A.I. frees up time and energy, it protects focus time for the creative work that leads to innovation. For this, we need larger blocks of time to do deep work – a maker's schedule, rather than a manager's

How to start? Train A.I. aptitude.

An AI-powered future where we spend less time on meaningless work, have fewer messages to deal with and can be our intelligent, creative selves. Sign me up.

But... how? Where?

Microsoft advises that it starts with training. "Leaders we surveyed said it's essential that employees learn when to leverage A.I., write great prompts, evaluate creative work, and check for bias. 

As A.I. reshapes work, the human-AI collaboration will be the next transformational work pattern—and the ability to work iteratively with A.I. will be a crucial skill for every employee."

In another installment of her fantastic series on Generative A.I., H.B.R. editor Amy Bernstein speaks to the formidable Tsedal Neeley about "How Generative A.I. Changes Organizational Culture." 

In the episode, Tsedal says that organizations must ensure people fully understand the technology and create "A.I. fluency."

The share of U.S. job postings on LinkedIn mentioning G.P.T. are already up 79% year-over-year. And 82% of leaders say their employees will need new skills to prepare for the growth of A.I.

But it's not just A.I. itself that needs to be understood and mastered. Many other skills need to be developed.

Communication overload AI skills

Working alongside A.I. will be as normal as using the internet. Skills like critical thinking, analytical judgment, complex problem solving, creativity, and originality are new core competencies—not just for technical roles or A.I. experts. 

On a practical note, I like Tsedal's point about people documenting what they learn as they adopt A.I. tools.

Writing aligns with what Chris Dyer told me about how the best remote organizations work in our Future Work podcast episode "The Secrets of Managing Remote Teams." Too much time, he says, gets wasted on different people asking the same questions repeatedly.

Making it a habit to document learnings and then making short guides and video instructions available means the knowledge builds over time across the entire association. It also provides opportunities for new team members to train themselves by browsing the knowledge database. 

A.I., defeat the monster

To conclude: we're trapped by a monster we created. Hopefully, A.I. will get us out of the digital deluge before we get crushed fully. But as Microsoft says, "AI won’t simply “fix” work—it will create a whole new way of working." It's now our job to get everyone ready as soon as possible.

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A weekly column and podcast on the remote, hybrid, and AI-driven future of work. By FlexOS founder Daan van Rossum.