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Hybrid Working & our senses: Part 2

In this series I explore 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?

The short course in digital wellbeing I run for the University of Oxford explores some of these issues and it’s helped me appreciate even more how important these aspects of hybrid and remote working really are. In the course we only have limited time to dive into each of these, so this series of blog posts builds on some of my thinking from the course design, and expands these further. If you’re new to this series, you might find it helpful to first read Part 1 focused on our sense of sight, Zoom fatigue and healthy habits for stepping away from our screens.

There are also accompanying podcast episodes, starting with this episode:

In this post, part 2, I want to turn my attention to hybrid working, digital noise & overwhelm.

Our sense of hearing and hybrid working

Similar to our sense of sight, our sense of hearing works hard when we work online more often: from wearing headphones for long hours to listening to the radio or music in order to block out unwanted noise, quietude and silence are rare during a busy working day. There’s lot of medical research into the risks of wearing earphones or earbuds over prolonged periods, but I know too little about this to include specific studies here. From what I have read it seems clear that one should avoid prolonged use and take regular listening breaks, set limits on volume and monitor exposure to loud noise.

The prolonged use is specifically problematic when you are in video calls all day long, as we rely on our sense of hearing to fill in the gaps when video connectivity is poor, and we often use it to multitask during meetings, listening whilst checking emails or working on documents. In the first post in this series I talked about the impact of staring at screens without breaks and there is a parallel with our use of earbuds or headphones here, too. Most headphones and mobile devices now monitor routinely for noise  and environmental sound levels and alert you when you are exposed to excessive noise. Wearing noise cancelling headphones or earplugs can help as can moving to a quieter area to work. However, I am not sure how much choice we have in our exposure to sound.

The auditory equivalent of Zoom Fatigue is called Listener fatigue (also known as listening fatigue or ear fatigue) and this is a phenomenon that occurs after prolonged exposure to an auditory stimulus. Symptoms include tiredness, discomfort, pain, and loss of sensitivity. Listener fatigue is not a clinically recognized state, but is a term used by many professionals.

Personally, I hadn’t come across the term before now, but I certainly have experienced the symptoms described above.

Even outside of meetings, audio notifications can be a source of distraction or stress. The constant pinging of chat messages, new alerts or reminders can feel relentless, and it takes some effort to adjust things so that the technology works for you, rather than against you.  Personally, I go in for switching off all notifications and my mobile is always on silent, as I prefer to engage with things when I choose to, rather than to have things pull me in as new messages or mentions arrive, but whatever strategy you use to manage, check in to ensure that it serves you, rather than you changing your ways in order to accommodate the behaviour of the tools you use.

Healthy habit: daily quiet time

If you are looking to improve your digital wellness with daily quiet, here are some tips to get started:

  • Finding your quiet time: There is usually a time of day or a point in the week when you crave a quiet moment the most. For me, that’s usually Thursday afternoon. For many people a couple of back to back meetings or a busy day in contact with others prompts a desire for a quiet moment. Find a time and protect 10-15 minutes. Schedule a meeting or a break. 
  • Finding quiet: Depending on where you are, this might involve going outside, going into a different room, or even using earplugs. Finding quiet places can be a challenge if you live or work in a busy environment. Wherever you go, make sure you are safe and undisturbed. 
  • Support in silence: If you prefer, use a meditation app or sound recording at a low level to tune into quiet moments. 
  • Notice the return of noise: When you return from your quiet time into a noisy environment, notice the impact that has on you. 
  • Make it a habit: how about setting a reminder to schedule a moment of quietude each day? Or you might prefer to pair your daily quiet time with something you already do, such as walking the dog, doing the dishes or exercise. Add a short, intentional moment of silence and stillness to an existing habit makes it easier to stick to. 

Share your habit: make this habit stick by sharing that you are having a quiet moment. If you use direct messages or chat at work, post a quick update like “Just stepping away for a quiet moment” or “Back online in 10 minutes. Taking a break”. 

Image credit: Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

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