Posted: 01 Apr. 2020 10 min. read

Taking back control

How to get off the energy sapping (COVID-19 driven) tech runaway train

Paying attention to diversity is critical to navigating COVID-19. That might sound like an unlikely statement to make, but we need diversity of thinking so we can innovate our way out of this crisis and ensure that our society doesn’t splinter into fractious groups.  

But paying attention to diversity, even wanting to pay attention to diversity, requires mental energy and that’s in short supply. Every day brings a new major decision, we’re on a steep learning curve with new tech platforms and our heads are filled with deep primal anxiety. 

The paradox is that at the very moment when we need to be cool, calm and collected, we are nervous, distracted and overwhelmed. And that is a recipe for slipping into tunnel vision, group-think, defaulting to no, or any one of the hundreds of biases that limit who we connect with and how we make good decisions.   

And virtual working - at least the way we are embracing it - is making things much, much worse. Firstly, because work has suddenly become a deluge of back-to-back interactive conference calls (full of simultaneous chats, presentations and multiple faces), overflowing inboxes and check-in calls. And secondly, because it is literally harder to make good decisions on virtual calls compared to face-to-face. In particular, it’s harder to piece together fragmented information from disparate participants (O’Neill et al, 2016) and it’s harder to engage in meaningful conversations. Communication through a screen mutes subtle emotional signals by which we judge and adjust our interactions, and the slight lag between what’s said and what’s received undermines verbal fluency. All of this adds up to calibrations and recalibrations of what we might say, what we did say, what we heard and what they meant, how we appeared and how we want to appear. It’s exhausting.

If all of this resonates, but virtual working is the only option we have right now, then we need to take control of its energy-sapping form. And this is critical, because deep wells of mental energy are needed to do the labour-intensive work of empathy, emotional self-control and complex thinking. Indeed, it is even necessary to ensure we optimise the good things that can come with virtual working, such as the rebalancing of power between extroverts and introverts, a greater share of voice for those who are sometimes left behind (there’s nowhere to hide on a screen) and opening the aperture on who we are by sharing a view inside our homes. 

The research on cognitive depletion offers insights and six practical ideas:

  1. Motivate through a focus on purpose. Providing people with a strong motivation to exercise self-control or achieve a target will stave off the effects of cognitive depletion. At least for a while. Just like running a marathon, seeing the finish line motivates runners to draw on their last ounces of energy. In the business world during COVID-19, this means focussing people on the organisation’s purpose or economic survival. And in relation to virtual working, we could rally people to stick with the current level of clumsiness on a promise that things will improve. Just remember, you can’t run marathons back-to-back, and at some point (sooner than you think) a constant rallying cry to put in a little more in the name of a higher purpose, will be ineffective.  
  2. Routinise the trivial. When in Office, President Obama’s advice was to “focus your decision-making energy” on matters of significance. He said,  “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits…I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make”. (Lewis, 2012). It’s good advice. We need to build new daily routines, like when to start work, as well as when to switch off and disconnect. These routines will ensure that we don’t waste energy thinking about trivialities. And we need look no further than the dilemma of greetings now we have lost the routine of handshaking (e.g. namaste, elbow knock, or shoe kick?) to see how that plays out.
  3. Avoid tech overload. Tech options have exploded, and each day is a diet of email, texts, calls, instant messaging, Skype, Teams, WebEx or Zoom (but usually all four), liberally sprinkled with social media such as Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. As we get across the features of each platform, the promised efficiencies have morphed into tech overload (Delpechitre & Black, 2019). To conserve energy, we need to make choices about which tech best suits which type of communication, and then leave some behind to create space. It’s ok to say no.
  4. Pause and refocus. Each day feels like we are dancing frenetically on the dance floor, when we also need to spend time on the balcony to gain some perspective. Mindfulness is another practice that helps shift focus and build energy. By way of practical example, the Deloitte Digital team in Australia have set up a daily meditation stand-up during which team members from around the country dial in to attend a short medimatation session led by rotating members of the social committee. Other strategies include shortening webinars to 25 minutes (instead of 30) or scheduling breaks, to build in a buffer to decompress.   
  5. Practise small acts of self-control. It’s almost impossible to increase the size of our mental energy reservoir, with one exception. Practising small acts of self-control (like resisting a temptation) actually builds mental resources (de Ridder et al, 2019) plus it has the added benefit of creating feelings of being in control. These acts can be as small as sitting up straight or only reading social media once a day. But of course, at some point cognitive depletion will kick in – a strategy to build capacity is just delaying that moment a little longer.
  6. Engage in energy-giving activities. Working from home carries the risk of becoming all consuming, with no boundaries between home and work. Studies point to the restorative value of nature, which is why we've seen an increase in people bike-riding and in parks on weekends, as well as buying pets. Additional options include hosting virtual team breakfasts: at the start of the day you could invite team members to enjoy a bowl of cereal together and connect informally. Or you could host Friday drinks with storytelling, inviting team members to reflect on their week with an optional drink. Or perhaps start a group chat: a rolling conversation throughout the day that mimics the in-office discussion dynamic – the sharing of memes or jokes can help to break up the monotony. Essentially, do more of the things that give you energy to balance the drain from virtual working.

In the rush to keep our physical distance from each other during COVID-19, most office-based workers are now working from home and using virtual technologies. This is as it should be. What needs to change is our management of those technologies by taking a more human centred design approach. In sum, people led technology.  At present, work has become an exhausting ride on a (COVID-19) tech-driven runaway train. And this cognitively depleting context is jeopardising our ability to attend to diverse ideas, as well as care for and collaborate with a diverse network. Being more deliberate about how we preserve, use and generate energy is key to redressing this trend. The irony is that the more cognitively depleted we become, the less we will care about being thoughtful, consultative and empathetic. So the move to control our new way of working has to be made now.

Juliet Bourke is a partner at Deloitte Human Capital and the author of “Which two heads are better than one? How diverse teams create breakthrough ideas and make smarter decisions” (2016) AICD. Thanks to Andrea Espedido and Adrian Letilovic for feedback.

Delpechitre, D. & Black, H., (2019) Just Do It: Engaging in Self-Control on a Daily Basis Improves the Capacity for Self-Control. Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing. 34: 317–337.

Lewis, M. (2012) Obama’s way. Vanity Fair. October 2012.

O’Neill, T. A., et al  (2016) Team Decision Making in Virtual and Face-to-Face Environments. Group Decis Negot. 25: 995–1020.

More about the author

Juliet Bourke

Juliet Bourke

Partner, Consulting

Juliet leads Deloitte Australia's Diversity and Inclusion Consulting practice and co-leads the Leadership practice. She has over 25 years' experience in human capital, management and law. Juliet works with Executives and global organisations to improve workplace performance through cultural change, focussing on D&I, leadership and culture. Her latest book, the acclaimed ‘Which two heads are better than one?: How diverse teams create breakthrough ideas and make smarter decisions’, helps leaders understand how to systematically create diverse thinking and take team performance to the next level. Juliet is a member of the Australian firm’s Diversity Council, and sits on a number of boards and award panels, such as the Telstra Business Awards, Harvard’s Women’s Leadership Board, Navy’s Diversity Council and Macquarie University’s Global MBA Board. Juliet’s own awards include Women Lawyers Association of NSW (Achievement Award), University of NSW (Alumni Award) and Centre for Leadership for Women. A highly engaging public speaker, Juliet has keynoted at hundreds of global conferences, including TEDx.