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What happens to our senses in the hybrid workplace?

When I was a research student I came across David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World, an ecological philosophy book. At the time, I was deeply interested in phenomenology, and as part of my research in Anthropology I was learning much about how human beings relate to and experience the world. Specifically how we relate to the world through our senses as embodied beings.

From the articles and blog posts on his website, it looks like David Abram’s thinking has evolved much since then, and he is now a visiting Senior Visiting Scholar in Ecology and Natural Philosophy at Harvard University. Lots of fascinting things to dig into if you’re interested in these topics. Meanwhile my interest in this topic has also evolved, from thinking about human beings and the material world and landscape to human beings in the workplace, specifically in the increasingly hybrid workplace.

Which brings me to considering what happens to our senses when we work in a hybrid or fully remote setting for long periods. How does our embodied experience of work change as we spend more time in front of screens, alone in our studies or on kitchen chairs? And also, how does our perception of work shift as our senses of sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing adjust to hybrid working?

I am curious to start exploring some aspects of this and how our embodied experience of hybrid working may influence of sense of wellbeing.


The sense I read the most about in the context of hybrid working, digital wellness and technology is sight. Given the amount of time spent in front of screens, scrolling, staring and not blinking, implementing screen time limits or wearing blue-light-blocking glasses to alleviate eyestrain is becoming more common. Mobile phones now offer a different light mode closer to bedtime and monitor screen time in order to alert us when levels increase, and smart watches can remind you to move a little every hour. Other tips include taking a break from the screen, going outside to adjust to daylight, look into the distance or look at something green/natural to help your eyes relax and recover. The traditional 5-10 minutes of screen breaks every hour is part of every Display Screen Equipment safety training I have come across.

Hybrid working typically provides fewer distractions and more reliance on online interaction for communication and collaboration, making it less likely that regular screen breaks are taken. Even when we step away from the screen, notifications and messages on mobile devices usually stay switched on, making it more likely that we end up with more screen time.

Hybrid working has also led to more hybrid and online meetings. Depending on the role you work in, you probably find meeting free hours have become more rare and back-to-back video calls more common. Zoom fatigue impact us beyond our sense of sight alone, this article in Medial News Today summarises how “headaches, migraines, eye irritation and pain, blurred and double vision, excessive tearing and blinking are the most common and immediately visible physical symptoms of Zoom fatigue”.

This week, how many times have you taken a 5-10 minute break every hour? For me, I would estimate I take a short break for each hour less than half of the time. On busy days maybe 10-20% of the time, but generally somewhere around 30-40% of the time.

Healthy habit: step away from the screen

If you are looking to improve your digital wellness by taking more regular screen breaks, here are some tips to get started:

  • What is your starting point? To begin with, reflect on how regularly you step away from the screen for a short break at the moment. If you are spending 8 hours a day in back-to-back video calls, then even one or two breaks a day might seem like a stretch. If you are already taking a break at lunch or making tea mid-morning, building in a few extra breaks might feel more achievable. Be honest with yourself about where you are starting from so that you can set yourself an achievable goal.
  • Easy does it. No matter where you are starting from, find the least busy time of your working day or week. It might be Friday afternoon or Monday evening. It might be the hour after lunch when there’re fewer meetings. Whenever it is, focus on that time first and plan in an extra break.
    You can use your calendar, phone reminders, post-it notes or whatever else will help you remember to take a break.
    Then, when the time comes, step away from your screen and do something that is not screen related for 5 minutes.
    I often go downstairs to get some water, water my plants or make a hot drink. If the weather is nice I might step outside. It doesn’t matter what you do.
    As you get up and start to move, notice how you feel. Are you stiff? Is there any part of you (or all parts…) that feel tense?
    Get back to work after 5-10 minutes.
  • Make it a habit: you might decide to set yourself a goal to take an extra break every day or a number of breaks a week to begin with. Observe any physical symptoms of taking regular breaks away from the screen or how your mood changes. If you have a busy day or a busy week and you end up forgetting to step away from the screen or you don’t have time, just get back to it when you can. The overall aim is to get into the habit of having breaks, and even one additional break is better than none.
  • Share your habit: one of the best ways to make this habit stick is to share and normalise stepping away from the screen. If you use direct messages or chat at work, post a quick update like “Just stepping away from the screen for a break” or “Back online in 10 minutes. Taking a screen break”. It’s a powerful way to promote digital wellbeing in any workplace, and if you happen to lead people or projects, your example can help others, too.

In the next post in this series I’ll be focusing on a different aspect of embodied hybrid working and share a new healthy habit to try out.

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Image credit: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

One Comment

  1. Alan Levine Alan Levine

    Will the next segment focus on sound? It’s easy to overlook.

    In 2006 I left a full time office job in higher ed to be working from home for a distributed organization. I thought the change would be easy, as pretty much at the previous work I mostly stayed in my office in front of a computer screen. I did not wander to chit chat.

    It seemed like working at home would be easy.

    A few weeks in my energy dropped and felt tinges of depression. Another remote working friend asked if I was working in silence. They suggested just putting on the radio to public radio just to have background sounds of people talking.

    It made all the difference, as even if I did not socialize much at the office, there was something missing about the lack of people just in the vicinity.

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